13 May 2011


Fall/Winter 2011

I have been thinking a lot about ankles as of late (ok, that sounds way more weird than it did in my head).  To be more precise, I have been thinking about that space between the hem and the shoe - what I like to think of as the sock space.  Although in this instance I would like to talk about the abstract space, as opposed to the reality, because therein lies the potential for a subtle yet powerful coding of sexuality.  It is a complex issue where womenswear is concerned, and I think that leads onto the issue in menswear, although obviously with different (perhaps even opposing?) ramifications.  That being said, I tend to find a skirt that reaches past the knees and a pair of flats to be quite the alluring combination, especially in movement.  Indeed it was perhaps one of the reasons I found the Marvielab IN'ES'TERNO collection so magical.

I am reminded of something Wim Wenders said on his director's commentary for Notebook On Cities And Clothes - he thanked Yohji for taking women off high heels, and redefining sexuality.  Yohji was promoting something subtle rather than overt.  Indeed in the light of the excesses of 1980s fashion, which has arguably be mirrored in the past decade, there is something to be said for a subtle display of sexuality.  Yohji says that his ideal of sexuality is not a woman in high heels and short dress, but rather a more mature and wholly independent woman, thin and greying, whom he tries to follow, yet she turns him away.  Of course it would be all too easy to view this attraction through psychoanalytic readings of his youth, or more importantly, his relationship with his mother in light of his father's death, but it is the revolutionary impact of such an ideal in the overt sexuality of 1980s fashion that is important to note. 

Dr. Yuniya Kawamura writes that Rei Kawakubo also redefined womenswear, in what has now been academically argued as a feminist statement (a label that has also been applied to Yohji), by creating fashion based around the intellect of women, rather than using their bodies as their primary asset.  Indeed her creation of clothing that created new shapes around the body, and at its most extreme, deformed the body (the lumps and bumps dresses of Spring/Summer 1997 come to mind), runs contrary to the body-conscious and often aggressive sexuality of certain designers, both then and now.  Kawakubo says that she designs for strong and independent women, and I find that quite charming.  Indeed Kawakubo's aesthetic is perhaps the opposing alternative to what is usually seen as the fashion for the strong woman these days - using overt sexuality to assert her femininity.  Yet that idea has always sat a little uneasily with me, because I feel that mystery is always more alluring.

'Despite the overblown and obvious kind of feminine sexuality that now dominates contemporary fashion, Kawakubo and Yamamoto continue to counter the ceaseless recycling of those traditional gendered images in their work and in their lives' - Patricia Mears (Who it must be noted argues that Yohji and Rei ought to be looked at individually, rather than as a single movement, as the Parisian press were all too keen to do when they first emerged.  A position I entirely agree with - Yohji is about how the clothes make you feel, Rei is about how the clothes make you look).

One does not tend to find the display of sexuality receiving the same importance where menswear is concerned.  Often (homosexual male) designers can treat the female body as a fetish object rather than actually designing for women, something which has been noted and debated to no end.  Menswear tends to be more functional and utilitarian.  Where sexuality is explored, it is subverted or played with - either confusing traditional gender roles, or promoting a sense of androgyny.  It is not something that needs to be asserted, rather something that can be secondary and something that can be bended.  Perhaps the distinction is down to traditional gender roles, and that rather old perception of women as sexual beings.  Although interestingly the argument comes to mind that women dress for other women rather than men, whereas men dress for women (something I do not entirely agree with), so perhaps the assertion of sexuality in fashion is entirely the wrong way around.

Thom Browne is one of a surprising number of designers who has featured skirts in his menswear shows, and although I plan to do a post on men in skirts in the near future, I think it is interesting to note in this discussion.  He uses skirts in a playful way, using long and narrow skirts to mimic the constraints of traditional tailoring - and indeed they are always featured in an otherwise suited formal look.  This is perhaps a play on gender rather than sexuality, however what I am interested in here is hemlines.  The looks feature long skirts - something one also notes in the majority of skirts offered elsewhere (once again, Yohji and Rei come to mind).  Indeed one notes that menswear designers rarely offer the skirt alone, it is paired over trousers, or with leggings.  Rarely is bare flesh seen.  Contrasted to the length of Browne's skirts are the length of his trousers, where he explores a variety of hem lengths, going far shorter than he risks where skirts are concerned.

I have been considering a pair of cropped trousers lately because I am rather taken by the idea of exploring that space between the hem and shoe.  It is an entirely different silhouette, both when static and in motion, to traditional menswear looks, and I really have not experimented with it to any great deal before.  I was initially drawn to the hydrangea print cropped trousers Ann featured in her Fall/Winter 2008 collection, however they are a hard piece to find in my size these days (because nobody wants to sell theirs!).  I was attracted to the formality of the cropped trousers Browne offered for his latest collection, a crop that was at times far higher than his traditional ankle-barring suits.  Indeed some of the trousers were actually based on traditional culottes, a garment originally meant to be pair with fine stockings, which were then worn with delicate and dainty shoes.  Once a sign of masculinity, such a pairing now plays around with sexuality and gender in a fascinating way.

The delicacy of Browne's fine stockings against the slimness of the cropped trousers and monk-strap shoes was really interesting to me.  In particular I was taken by the silhouette, as well as that sense of delicacy.  I think the idea of delicacy is often intimately related to displays of sexuality, because even with the most aggressive of sexual displays, it is flesh that is promoted.  Clothing functions to protect the body, and so with displays of flesh, or delicacy of clothing, one is inherently able to play around the idea of displaying sexuality, whether consciously or not.  Were this a styling choice that featured in a womenswear collection, I would no doubt read that subtlety of sexuality that I enjoy.  In menswear I read it differently (no doubt because of my gender and sexual orientation), however for that reason, I am fascinated with how it could be read by women.

I think sexuality is one of those odd things in fashion, because often, it requires someone of the opposing sex to really assess (I do not mean to exclude homosexuality by any means, however it is a far more complicated matter in that instance).  Fashion serves a social function, so perhaps it is not all that surprising that it often requires the assessment of an outside party.  Between the signs and symbols we believe we are expressing, and what others perceive to be the signs and symbols we are expressing, there is room for infinite interpretation.

(Special thanks to anybody who actually indulges me and reads this post in its entirety, you are why I continue to write).



  1. I remember reading something about where Yohji grew up there were prostitutes so the look of short skirts and high heels is "scary" to him. I think a lot of designers say they design for "strong independent woman" I mean what are they supposed to say? Often I think Thom Browne's total look can look a bit silly unless one has a very slim build, but then Nick Wooster wears it exceptional well.

  2. Thought I would copy and paste my comment to here...

    "Haha, and yip, Yohji and the scary prostitutes! I've been reading books on Yohji and Rei from feminist historians, so their perspective has rather taken hold lately. And yes lots of designers talk about strong women, but then I think of Ann, and she talks about vulnerability (more so in her menswear, but still).

    When Rei began, the press attacked her dresses saying no woman would ever want to wear her clothes. She says that coming from a home where her mother left her father, meant that she had this vision of strong women, and she was always rebelling. She says she is still rebelling, that is Comme des Garçons (compare her always unpredictable shows to Yohji who has mellowed). She even calls the label, including Junya and Tao (whose line closed :( ), the Comme des Garçons 'Army'.

    The press absolutely trashed her (and some still do). But her dresses require confidence, because they are more about the dress than the body in a way. I think conceptual design always requires more confidence than something overtly sexy, because you are relying on an idea rather than a tangible reality. Anybody can react to a revealing dress, you know where you stand with it, you can anticipate it. But obfuscate the body, and create something thought-provoking, and you can never be sure what response you will elicit. It is down to you to complete the meaning. She does that even in the way she designs, where she will walk into the room and give her team a word or an idea, and they have to create something to fulfil it."

  3. I really liked your last paragraph about all of this. Still, one must admit..fashion is for pretty people...not all of us feel that pretty in clothes. If you have the right weight, the right height...but I think designers over look a majority of the population..who does not fill that bill..you have to remember that.

    Some of us just enjoy creating something out of what we already have.

  4. it's all about the little details isn't it. informative post.

  5. I can't imagine your readers not reading all the way to the bottom of your posts Syed. Your posts are always so interesting and so well written.

    I think it's an interesting thing to focus on because I think I've always noticed the whole ankle thing too when someone sits down and their trousers ride up and reveal whatever socks they've decided on for the day. I suppose, it's those little details which are incredibly important to a designer.

  6. I can't believe I missed this post!! well I've read it now and I'm commenting even if its a bit late and no one will see it. Great post as usual Syed and I really really want to see one on men's skirts!!I will definitely be reading all the way for that one

  7. I love the ones with the buttons on the side. I might have to thrift some trousers and DIY them myself, maybe in brown. I've been compiling photographs as a way to "redefine" my style, and I've definitely started looking at more simple outfits with capris, billowy shirts, and oxfords. While I love dresses and skirts, those types of outfits are liberating. I love seeing guys wearing ankle trousers (or rolled-up ones) and cheeky socks, i definitely appreciate that over baggy jeans and ratty t-shirts.