6 March 2013

Modern Dressing

Autumn/Winter 2013

Before above. After below.

Apologies if the gifs take a while to load!

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past."
- Karl Marx

What does it mean to be modern? To live in a modern manner? To dress in a modern fashion? The term modernity was first used in the mid-17th century by the clergyman and author George Hakewill to describe the condition of being in the present as opposed to part of some decaying past. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word modern first as simply being in existence at this time, secondarily as something relating to present or recent times, or indeed current or recent movements (in art, in culture, etc.). I would like to think of the idea of being modern, or dressing modern, away from its usage as a classification of some cultural or artistic era, but in reality I think the two are inextricably linked. To consider one without considering the other is to only ever have half a thought. 

Marshall Berman addressed the terms as such,
  • Modernisation applies to the processes of industrial, scientific, economic and political innovations.
  • Modernity applies to way that modernisation effects everyday life and changes the experiences of the individual.
  • Modernism applies to the avant-garde artistic movements that attempted to respond, or represent, those changes in experience.

However the answer is not so clear cut, for modernity is not a fixed idea open to simple definition - it is applied as a general term, and thus its boundaries are highly elastic. However what is clear in all areas that modernity is seen to encompass is that it is defined by self-scrutiny and reflexivity. This self-scrutiny, coupled with a constant questioning of the reality of perception, has the effect of destabilising certainty. So although it represents a hurtling forwards, that anxiety, or at least discomfort, is an inevitable byproduct. 

Fashion can be seen as a metaphor for modernity itself, for it is by its very definition modern, constantly responding to contemporary experience, and self-reflexive. Fashion builds on what went before, repeatedly plundering, questioning and reinterpreting the past for a new present. Whether the designer acts as archaeologist or tourist, they are able to uncover and piece together a number of disparate elements to create something that is hopefully modern.

Of course as much as fashion is rooted within a cycle, the great designers seek to work in parallel to fashion's temporality, for in doing so they increase their chances of being remembered by generations to come. Yves Saint Laurent's work was very much of the time, and yet his collections remain far more memorable than any of Karl Lagerfeld's in whichever period. For whilst the former sought to create something rooted in and yet beyond the present, the latter (has) only ever sought to create something for the moment.

Fashion's inherent irrationality actually allows for its role in modernity to exist, for the destruction of certainty inevitably gives rise to behaviours that are based on superstition and a belief in something ostensibly unshakable (and indeed Elizabeth Wilson rather fascinatingly argues that fashion 'provides a field for the expression of fetishistic and magical impulses and beliefs'). As fast as fashion moves towards the future, there is still ever a longing for the past, for tradition, and for a stability that is seen to have been lost.

Whilst this nostalgia can often be interpreted as postmodern pastiche, the reality is that for the majority of fashion, it is actually anything but. There are admittedly those designers who have operated well within the remit of postmodernity when dealing with the past (Martin Margiela most immediately comes to mind), however for the most parts we tend to see nostalgia that rather weakly attempts to masquerade as something more complex.

Fashion looks forwards, fashion looks backwards, however what really matters is how those elements are interpreted and applied. Veer too much in either direction and the result is costume (which is technically a failure in terms of fashion, however seeing the crowds at fashion week perhaps it is actually the most bankable success there is). If modernity is blighted with anxiety, however much it is obsessed with hurtling forwards, then perhaps what matters most for the modern dresser is a sense of security. Being able to dress in such a way as to be ready for any eventuality. And as technology advances this idea becomes an ever easier reality. But rather than the need for versatility resulting in ever more, such as those space vests with all the bells and whistles one saw in early science-fiction, it can actually result in less.

Think smart, think small, think less.

I believe I have posted this talk before, but it seems somewhat relevant.

The World Is Ours - Tokimonsta



  1. Hussein Chalayan's convertible dress is great! So surprising ! Person who wears this has to show the moment the dress changes to totally new dress!
    Also dress's material is interesting . Looks like damaged hair when you see in microscope.
    And wine color dress. Scarf pop up when model pull down the top part of dress. How do they do that? Anyway I enjoyed.

    Graham Hill's talk is really make sense. Ideal life. We should not have a tons of stuff that we have to rent a storage room out side.But still throw away stuff are very difficult.I am a person who is not good at organize but keep so many things:D
    I watched many people's talk in Ted .

  2. What an enjoyable read, Syed. Thank you.

  3. I really enjoyed this text, and the video.

    "Less stuff, more happiness" is a very good statement. In the past six months I've been editing all the excess stuff and It's very relieving. Feels like I have more air to breathe..

  4. i appreciate the elizabeth wilson reference here. fashion's self-consciousness about temporality is definitely a major point of intrigue worth of critique.

    as for the various moderns and modernities you outline, i agree that they produce an anxiety -- i tend to theorize modernity in terms of desire, in which modernity is about a delayed desire, producing a gap or lack, and this chasm is the source of perpetual anxiety.

    i wonder if one (i attempt this in my daily life to a degree of success at this point) can position oneself outside the modernity/modernization/modernism ideologies in terms of personal anxiety over the temporal.

    i find myself presently in a working condition of self-employment and so can ignore the demands of modern time (punching in, showing up on time, pay in terms of hours and days worked). i find that free of the time of labor (which marx certainly makes clear as the basis of capital accumulative in relation to linear time), i can reject it even more. i can choose not to "believe" in linear time, and with a different view of temporality i can structure my life and desires and remove anxieties such that i can go for much longer without accumulating/participating.

    no conclusion is in order here -- these are ideas i will probably spend a lifetime coming back to.

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