Dress is so intimately linked to human anatomy. It has the capacity to hide, manipulate and expose our ‘natural’ contours and our skin tone. Dress’s poetic relationship to human anatomy is what separates us from other mammals. It is a truism that our physical bodies have been on the line in the last year. We have been overly conscious of the status of our own healthy bodies as well as those we care about. And by virtue, the value of our dressed bodies have been impacted.
Contemporary American designer and trauma nurse Oluwole Olosunde obliquely addresses fashion’s intimate links with our primal form through his collections. His comfortable-looking streetwear designs quite literally strip the human body to its core. In an interview for The Business of Fashion, Olosunde highlights the similarities between his continued work as a trauma nurse and as a designer: he says in both roles the individual has to have an eye for detail, an understanding of human anatomy and human sensations, but most importantly have empathy. He also notes that both industries have been irreversibly shaken by the pandemic as both have spotlighted the values concerned with healthy bodies.
Olosunde was not the first to have the human body at the front of his design. In 1938, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali collaborated to create the Skeleton dress. Under dimmed lights and by focusing on only the front of the figure, the woman wearing this silk crepe dress would have seamlessly blended in with the crowd of women wearing similarly supple dresses. With the lights up and back turned, however, it would expose the true intention of the trapunto quilting technique. Unmistakably, the dress replicates the human skeleton and creates an almost second skin through the contradictory soft texture of the protruding elements.
Both artists tested the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable within their artistic discipline during a time of increasing anxiety. Schiaparelli’s career has been defined by these surrealist experiments of dress that humorously played with the visual language surrounding the female body and fashion dictates. Her fingernail gloves are another example of this. Dali was similarly concerned with the use of the female body to represent the essence of human anatomy as seen in Voluptuous Death. In a time of anxiety, fear, and economic hardship in Europe, the double image of the human body represents the inescapable and impossible situation of navigating the bridge between internal and external relations.
Conversely, the human body has also been overtly used in fashionable dress as a means to liberate. Mildred Orrick’s 1940 design was informed by a detailed study of the body’s propensity to move. Orrick’s leotard was created with the freedom of movement in mind. In 1943, Harper’s Bazaar praised the leotard: “[the leotard is] a new idea, leading towards the 21st century and the cosmic costumes of Flash Gordon’s Supergirl.” Bazaar was clearly aligning the leotard with the super potential of women in their newly liberated clothing. However, this statement was premature as Orrick’s leotard would not be a success. The ‘body suit’ in fashion would become popular much later, in the 1970s.
Male bodies have also come under examination when exploring dress as a supposed means of liberation in the 20th century. Eldridge de Paris, a former black panther member, invented the Penis Pants to represent the idea that men have been castrated through clothing. “Clothing is an extension of the fig leaf — it put our sex inside our bodies,” Cleaver told Newsweek in 1975, “My pants put sex back where it should be.” (I feel like things may have been easier for him if he had just designed a skirt…)
Reasserting the human body through fashion is the purest form of social commentary. During this time of continued uncertainty and anxiety around our bodies, the human body as a design element in dress helps us to navigate our human existence. By appropriating a visual rhetoric that many or all can understand, it encourages empathy which in turn establishes a community of people that can overcome societal structures, bringing them back to their primal form.
By Bethan Carrick