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

Denis Diderot, ‘Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps, contenant vingt-quatre planches,’ extract of Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (c.1771)

1st plate plate 3

Summary

“Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” (tailor and corset maker) is part of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, assembled by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783). This ambitious and scandalous project, that comprised twenty-eight volumes by specialists in the sciences, arts and crafts, was published between 1751 and 1772. “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps” was it fact largely extracted from François-Antoine de Garsault’s article “L’art du tailleur” in the Description des Arts et Métiers (1769). The presentation of free knowledge to a large public, with its emphasis on observation, reason and analysis, was a feature of the wider Enlightenment project. Yet such freedom and scientific empiricism disputed the authority of Church and State leaders in Ancien Régime France. The Encyclopédie was thus published clandestinely after its royal privilege was revoked in 1759. Eighteenth-century France, torn between different modes of government and systems of knowledge, was undergoing a period of uncertainty. The notion that order and meaning could arise from somewhere other than the will of God triggered a chaos of sorts, which the Encyclopédie’s systematic ordering and classification of knowledge could remedy. The “Tailleur d’habits et tailleur de corps,” which resembles a manual, attests to this. It attempted to shed light on the tailor corporation, a remnant of the Medieval guild system, during a period that witnessed changes in business practices and advances in textile production. It is also revealing of fashion, politics and thinking in the immediate years leading to the revolution.

plate 4 plate 5

Response

“Tailleur d’habits” discussed the trade pictorially through twenty-four plates of engravings by the architect Jacques-Raymond Lucotte, which Berard copied onto copperplate. The first plate showed the interior of a tailor’s workshop, “where several workers are employed”: it portrayed an animated group of men who “stitch and assemble the fabrics […] take measurements, and […] cut.” The eye is led to the view outside a window, and the reader thus connects the scene to the wider city. The following plates deconstructed the scene and presented its elements: tools for all levels of production, current fashions, such as the waistcoat and abbot’s mantle, patterns, stitches, and ways of cutting drapery. Only the last four plates, which described the corset maker, concerned women consumers.

At the time of the Encyclopédie’s publication, literacy was increasing and the printed word, in the form of books, pamphlets and newspapers, flourished. The Encyclopédie resembled journals such as Courrier de la Mode (1768-1770) and La Gallerie des modes (1778-87), in that both types of publications acted as repositories of information. It also anticipated the encyclopaedic study of dress by early historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Recently rebound, the book’s new exterior belies its age. Touching the old, soft paper within, however, transports readers to another time. They connect to the many individuals that might have handled it in the past, immortalised in pencil and ink markings in the margins. As they absorb the text, they take part in a project that involved many – from engravers and writers, to publishers and booksellers.

plate 9 plate 22