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

Dissertation Discussion: Aude

What is your title?

Spectacular bodies: Paul Poiret and the display of Haute Couture (still working on it).

What prompted you to choose this subject?

I was struck by the ‘grand narratives’ that seemed to be applied to Paul Poiret’s work and life – his rise to stardom in the 1910s as the ‘king of fashion’, or as he was characterized at times Poiret ‘The Modernist,’ and his downfall in the postwar years as the couturier who would (ironically) ‘reject’ modernism. My work is an attempt at nuancing some of the assumptions that surround the couturier, notably in the years following the First World War, by looking at his involvement in the costuming of music-halls, his use of actresses in advertisements, and the relationships of power between these performers, their audience, the couture clientele and the (bourgeois) couturier.

Most inspiring research find so far?

Poiret’s acting role in Colette’s La Vagabonde (alongside Colette herself) shown at the Théâtre de l’Avenue in 1927. The fact that La Vagabonde has a sort of redemptive tone in its attempt to legitimize the hard-working actresses of the music-halls is particularly interesting in light of Poiret’s own difficulties in combining the sort of excess his persona and clothing were seen to produce and the bourgeois values of the Third Republic.

Favourite place to work?

I spent three days in Paris in the various buildings of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for research on Poiret. The Richelieu site was a highlight, and I have to admit that consulting microfilms there made me feel that bit more professional.

The 1923 February cover of Les Modes with Mistinguett as its cover star. The gown is misattributed to Paul Poiret (the magazine apologizes in the next issue)

The 1923 February cover of Les Modes with Mistinguett as its cover star. The gown is misattributed to Paul Poiret (the magazine apologizes in the next issue)

 

Barbette

01

02

03

Decades before gender studies questioned the stability of existing notions of sex and identity, Barbette – born Vander Clyde – transcended ‘male’ and ‘female’ to embody beauty as a performance beyond binary definitions.  In the 1920s, he evolved a circus act that defied expectations. Born in Texas, and living in Paris, he was an aerialist, gliding above the audience’s heads on a trapeze, but with an extra element of theatricality  – he wore drag, which he then removed as the finale of the spectacle – challenging spectators to question what they had perceived and to rethink their perceptions.

His body, and the way he spectacularised it through costume, re-created him as a modernist artwork. Jean Cocteau was enthralled, and commissioned Man Ray to photograph him in 1926, as well as composing a literary homage to him in his essay Le Numéro Barbette of the same year.  In December 1930, pioneering magazine Vu published a photo-essay that showed his complete metamorphosis.  I found this copy in a brocante market in Nice – and was immediately enthralled by the story and the intimate images.  These detailed his masculine attire as he walked through the city streets, and then his gradual transformation as he applied makeup, wig, padding and gown to become Barbette – a name chosen for its very ambiguity.

04

05

He used his own gender dissonance to seduce his audience – his movements and gestures, were feminine, and yet simultaneously masculine – his body muscled and athletic. His act was equally fluid – graceful yet a feat of strength.

He acknowledged Shakespeare’s use of male actors for female roles as inspiration and spoke of the ‘strange beauty’ both they and he embodied. He queered expectations and showed how ineffectual binary gender ideals are – mere cultural props that he redeployed to produce an enticing ‘inbetweeness.’

06

His avant-garde performances were a contradictory triumph of transcendence, and it is important to contextualise this within the vibrant world of interwar cabaret and performance in major cities. Barbette’s modernism was at one with contemporary challenges to definitions of art and beauty, and went further with his defiantly indefinable sense of selfhood.

07

Although wider interwar society was not in step with his forward looking queerness, he is an important figure and role model. Indeed, he was instrumental in one of the best known pop cultural instances of cross-dressing – in later life he coached Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their roles in Some Like It Hot (1959).

Sources:

http://asitoughttobe.com/2011/06/02/the-surreal-sex-of-beauty-jean-cocteau-and-man-ray%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cle-numero-barbette%E2%80%9D/