Are Clothes Modern? Or How to Read A Diagram

One of the many marvellous things about research is that you don’t just find out what you wanted to know, you discover what you didn’t know you needed to know. So when I embarked on reading for an article I was writing on pockets for Cos I rediscovered the wonders of Bernard Rudofsky’s 1947 book on the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ As well as discussion of the efficacy of clothes historically and globally, the author reflects on what he deems to be good and bad examples of current attire – Claire McCardell scores well for clever design combined with utility, expressing clean, modern ideals, while others fare less well …

Amongst the many treasures to be found in the book, my favourite is the series of plates representing what Rudofsky claimed was the degeneration of functionality in contemporary clothes.  These are not fashion illustrations, but rather diagrams that are a brilliant and very modernist, rational view of menswear at the time. In each, the futile excess of 1940s tailoring is expressed in colourful, reduced plans of the relationship between a specific aspect of dress and the wearer’s body.

In one we see an outline of a man, his attitude clearly indicated by his upturned nose. Although we are given nothing more than his silhouette, the surface of his body is covered with bright dots each indicating one of the 70 or so buttons he carries ‘needlessly’ on his body each day.  Rendered in rainbow hues to denote which garment these belong to – from ‘drawers’ to overcoat and gloves – the image, along with Rudofsky’s clearly exasperated tone, give the impression that men positively rattled with superfluous buttons, when, as is pointed out, a few well placed zips could replace all this unnecessary detail.

A similar diagram shows that two dozen pockets are also at play in the same space.  These are again shown as bright, geometrical forms clustered across the figure. And let’s not forget ‘The Seven Veils of the Stomach’ – the layers of clothes piled onto a man’s body each morning and shown in a diagram that resembles the cross section of a tree.

In the exhibition the first two diagrams were shown on glass, with an illustration of a fully clothed man behind them, to enable visitors to see how each related to the clothed body. While these are amusing, they highlight the ways dress can evolve way beyond our needs and potentially lead to discomfort for wearers. This includes tailoring, which is so often seen as the more sensible of gendered clothing types.  While they may ignore aesthetic imperatives, what these clear, beautifully designed diagrams do is make us stop and think – about the layers of our clothing, and yes, whether what we carry on our bodies really is modern.

You can download a PDF of the book and read more about MoMA’s 1945 exhibition here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3159

MoMA is revisiting this theme for a forthcoming exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? Find information here:

https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1638

Comme des Garçons Homme Plus

Comme des Garçons Homme Plus’ recent show explored masculinities – through fabric, cut and adornment. The collection played with recurrent elements in Kawakubo’s work – ways to reconfigure familiar garments – trench coat, tailored suit, motorbike jacket – and by so doing make us look again at what we thought we knew, what has become invisible because of its continual presence. Textiles are equally mutable for Comme des Garçons – shirt fabrics and lining materials crept onto the exterior of the body, forming jackets that, while traditionally tailored, broke boundaries between inside and out. Waistcoats fused to the outside of jackets, and, most notably, garments were articulated like armour – asserting the two sides of the collection’s heart – soft and hard, war and peace – masculinity queered and remade.

1 Comme des Garcone Homme Plus, A:W 2016, photograph Yannis Vlamos

Comme des Garcone Homme Plus, A:W 2016, photograph Yannis Vlamos

At first this was done quietly – a tiny sprig of bright flowers on the first jacket – a hint of colourful nature on inky black. Quickly this spread and grew – elaborate headdresses blossomed and caressed the models’ heads, framing their faces, seemingly entangled with their hair. Some outfits were all black – armoured with eyelets and buckles that split bodies into parts like machines. These divisions were echoed in more traditional suiting fabrics that incorporated flowered fabrics – a nod to 18th century elite dress and masculine ideals, which revelled in lush embroideries and colours and praised sentiment and emotion.

 

Comme des Garçons brought together multiple images of men with flowers – Oscar Wilde’s green carnation, Vietnam soldiers with blooms tucked into their helmets, hippies’ floral crowns, Morrisey’s gladioli. Art historical references also abound – perhaps most notably Caravaggio’s Bacchus of 1595, with his decadent vine leaf headdress. In each case foliage and flowers disrupt stable masculine ideals and suggest complexity – slippage between masculine and feminine, sexual ambiguity.

2 Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595 : Comme des Garcones Homme Plus, A:W 2016, photograph Yannis Vlamos

Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595 / Comme des Garcones Homme Plus, A/

The show’s finale saw models carrying huge bouquets of vibrant flowers, dressed in their black warrior suits – but these were melancholy heroes – trapped in a small space, continually trying to avoid crashing into each other. Clothes, accessories, styling and performance were all carefully calibrated to unsettle. The designs were beautiful, as were Julien D’ys’s hair and headdress combinations, but they were made to question not to appease.

3 Oscar Wilde : Morrissey

Oscar Wilde : Morrissey