18 April 2012

The Beautiful Game

(Thanks to a lovely lady in CdG for the signed edition)

"We do not clothe the world, only the sports world"
(Old Umbro advertising slogan)

In the fulfilment of function design displays its truest beauty.  To consider design in purely visual terms will necessarily mean that one must set aside the function for which the object was designed.  Whilst function will no doubt be inherent in the design, it is only through fulfilment of intended function that one fully understands the unique elements of its design.  The object ought to be designed around the function, rather than a design latterly applied to a function.  It is why there is more beauty in a Braun calculator than there is in a plastic ruler that happens to have a calculator shoved onto it.  There is a beauty in design based around a specific set of functions, regardless of how complex that design must be to accomplish the intended task.  I suppose it is the reason that elements of industrial design so very often find their ways into the vogue of mass market - originally designed to fulfil a specific function, it is in their lack of ornamentation and disguising of function that one finds beauty.  They are not designed in an overly self-conscious manner, not designed to simply look good, they are designed as the solution to a task, and in that mission there is something simple but wonderful.

Whilst certain pieces of design do find themselves removed from context to serve a purely aesthetic role, take for example the typewriter these days, it is only by reaching iconic status through functional use that the object reaches that stage.  The typewriter was used for decades in order to type, its entire design is based around that function, and that function has a mythic status which it lends to the object (writing is synonymous with authors, poets, thinkers, etc.), thus once the function of the object is superseded (in this case by the computer), the object survives only through its iconic status, alternative function, or decontextualized aesthetic value.  In this case the typewriter has all three - iconic status is given to it through the mythic status of the writing process, as well as the fact that typewriters by in large had a very standardized design that has become embedded in culture through film, photography, etc.; alternative function is given to it by virtue of its new role as a decorative object (although more creative alternatives certainly exist, for example a barn door remade as a table); decontextualized aesthetic value is implicit in this case in the alternative function of the typewriter - it becomes an object of beauty regardless of whether the owner actually uses it for its original function.

If the typewriter as an object had never been used for typing, but had simply emerged as an object for decoration, would it still have the same impact and meaning?  Obviously not, so function becomes integral not only to its original design, but also the way in which its design is considered even after its function becomes obsolete.  It is the ghost of writing that gives the obsolete object a sense of beauty and timeless appeal.  The most beautiful piece of design after the ceasing of its function then becomes the design most evocation of that function.  The design which proclaims its original usefulness becomes more beautiful than that which obscures or denies it, particularly after the fact of its original function.  An odd contradiction to be sure, but I think it is something at the heart of human culture - the ghost of design hints at its history and evokes images of generations past using that object.  It is why one finds such everyday objects in museums, regardless of age alone, because these objects are a very tangible link to, and reminder of, the past.  It is not only the object, but the functional process that connects us, whether it be a typewriter for writing a letter, a chair for sitting, or a pair of pyjamas for sleeping in.

How then does clothing fit into this idea?  Fashion and dress do not exist without the body, so to discuss them without considering the relationship between body and garment is to only ever treat them as some abstract aesthetic object.  Regardless of how fantastical a garment may be in design, it will always be focused around the function of dressing the body.  The best designers are those who understand that dialogue, considering the garment from all perspectives, understanding how it will look from all angles on the body and whilst in movement.  Indeed the garment only ever comes alive once on the body, creating an intimate relationship between skin and fabric - it is the reason we can look at a garment no longer being worn by somebody and still feel a trace of them upon it (going back to the idea of the object creating a link to the past).  I wear a pair of jeans over the course of a number of years, they fade and distress according to my body, movement, and style of wearing.  Even when I take them off and they are strewn across the floor, they still bear traces of me having worn them, they have quite literally become a second skin.  It is perhaps the same for all objects we encounter in our lives and come to use.  The more we use them according to our own styles and functions, the more they come to bear witness of that process and of our existence - a worn handle, a frayed hem, a creased spine, a burnished base.

Dress needs to be seen against the body and in movement, for that is its natural state, especially when urban life means that we only ever view the majority in passing.  But we have all had those moments where we see a glimpse of someone walk past and their outfit speaks to us.  Against all probability we single out that one person in an all too fleeting moment, and more often than not that is the last we ever see of that person.  We seem to spend our lives chasing beauty, so why not create beauty for ourselves?  Indeed dressing for me sometimes becomes a quest to find that magical moment again, where we single out that one person in the corner of our eye, only to lose them in the crowd.  But what I find when I look back is not that my eye was drawn to them because their outfit was loud amongst the crowd, they were not outfits that shouted out for attention, rather I find myself entranced by a state of grace - body and fabric in perfect unison, or at least perfect for me in that moment.  You lose yourself in that moment, you follow them with your eyes, you see the person and you see their clothing.  If the clothing is loud to the point of overpowering the person the effect is lost.  However it is odd that the same can never be said in reverse, for the clothing merely reveals the beauty and grace of the person, it can never create it.

Fashion explores the relationship between body and dress, but far too often it seems to be sold under a pretext to force the garment before the person, making us see the clothes and not the person.  Fashion is not a democratic playing field, in that not every design will suit every body, or every colour suit every complexion, or every fabric suit every skin, or every design suit every function.  Indeed part of the work that the wearer must carry out is to explore, learn and understand what suits them and the functions they require of their clothing.  A design must never supplant your own intended function - you would not wear a tuxedo to paint a wall, just as you would not wear your paint covered jeans to a wedding, just as you should not wear a cut that does not work for your body.  At the heart of fashion design is the understanding of the relationship between body and dress - it is the primary function, before aesthetic and social functions, even though it is often not packaged as such by the fashion gatekeepers.  If you cannot wear it comfortably, if you cannot walk in it, if you cannot fulfil the functions you wish to carry out whilst wearing it, it is useless - wear something else instead.  Better to be dressed appropriately and comfortably, for then you are no longer conscious of that tight waist, or pinching toebox, or digging strap, and so that state of grace becomes all the more likely.  Of course once you find that state for yourself you can always explore garments designed in such a way to play against the body (Poell fans come to mind), but that is a topic for another day.

One of the most obvious examples of dress designed entirely around the relationship between body and fabric is that of performance clothing.  Technical sportswear serves a very specific function - clothing a body intending to twist and turn and run and jump and move.  It must be comfortable, it must be flexible, it must be designed in full knowledge and understanding of the way the body moves and works, to support as well as enhance the body in its function.  As such it is for me an entirely fascinating area of design, that of technology and performance meeting dress and, oft-times, fashion.  Collaborations between sports and fashion are hardly new, but I do not mean general sneaker collaborations or impractical luxe-sportswear.  I am thinking more about functional sportswear, designed around a very specific activity, fusing entirely utilitarian design with the approach of the fashion designer.  One would probably think first of the newest season of Gyakusou (a running wear collaboration between Jun Takahashi of Undercover and Nike), but there is another example that is for me far more interesting - the Archive Research Project between Aitor Throup and Umbro, pictured above.

The collaboration took place last year, but it remains for me one of the more exciting and promising collaborations in terms of design.  Studying the body and the movements required in football, Throup began from the interior of the garment to construct clothing in such a way to provide maximum performance and comfort for the athlete.  The actual garments themselves were based upon iconic Umbro designs, but their construction was entirely re-imagined and updated by Throup.  Indeed I included some scans of photographs showing the interior of the garments because it is where the focus on function really shows.  These are performance pieces, designed purely for the task at hand, in this case football, and in that simplicity there is a beauty.  I find it appropriate that the almost unbelievable attention to detail and research only reveals itself when the garments are turned inside out - they are there only for the wearer to see.  These pieces would look odd worn on the street, but they look perfect worn on the pitch, and in that is something important I think - fulfilment of function.  The function required of clothing in everyday life often has a far more subtle set of requirements, usually social rather than physical, however I think the same attention to detail is required in both instances.  And so I find myself looking for garments to fulfil the functions I require of them, and perhaps in that to find the truth of the garments themselves. 



  1. As an artist, I have to say that the drawings intrigue me the most! I've always been fascinated by art capturing a moment, momentum, motion...


  2. Fascinating. Liked that about the comparison of the typewriter. It was funny, I kept thinking..some has to come out with a T-shirt with a picture of a typewriter on it now..so we'll remember its importance.

    Great essay to this piece! Thanks for your comment too.

  3. I enjoyed your long essay .Reading your essay is always morning right after 2 teenagers left to school(8:00 AM).I like photos men are kicking.Are they jumping on trampoline? I think Umbro is not famous in U.S.A. You can't avoid Nike ,Adidas here but I didn't know Umbro until you post.But I love Umbro's design.More British image.

  4. I've been playing with this idea for some time. I have to give it a try.sunglasses sale online

  5. you have such a knack for describing the importance of fashion without being materialistic. YOU R AMAZING. and this collaberation is one of the coolest things i've seen in awhile. <3 hope all is well with your health

  6. Lovely blog.