Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fashion Plates: Artfulness, Rectitude & Position

    Though the idea of an image that delineates fashionable attire far predates the 1700s, it was not until that century that fashion imagery began to emerge as a consistent, and important way of presenting Attire changes to the world.  Naturally, at the time, such imagery was available only to those with significant financial means.  What happened in the 1700s, with the ever increasing use of the printing press, and the emergence of the daily newspaper, and regular publication magazines, was that images of fashion could be disseminated to a much broader audience.
    What happened then was as interesting as it was unique.
     The first fashion images, wood cuts, or steel plate engravings, gave no thought whatever to utility, or to social conformity.  They were, at first, simply fantastical images of idealized female and male glory, through apparel.  They were meant to convey the apex of style to which others could aspire.  That, at least, remains unchanged, though the images are now digital, not laboriously crafted by hand.  And they were aimed entirely at the top of the market, those who had both the leisure, and the coin, to do whatever came into their heads.

I should veer off a moment to explain the notion of a fashion plate.  The idea comes from there needing to be a printing plate from which the image could be reproduced.  The wood block, or the steel engraving plate would be created by a skilled artisan, taking many hours of time, so magazines and newspapers could only afford to have a few.  Over time the idea of a fashion plate by definition, has come to include persons who are so au courant with the prevailing mode that they are virtually printed images of style, brought to life.  So at the end it means both a printed, reproduced image, and a real live person who embodies the current style.
    The revolutions that occurred shortly before and after the flip of the centuries from 17 to 18 made sure something else happened with regard to fashion imagery.  It acquired a sense of rectitude, based on an increased sense of republicanism and order, and it promoted, albeit subtextually, a role as arbiter of not only style, but of comportment and morals.  This same idea continues today, though we might decry some of the abandoned and dissolute morality that expresses in style imagery now.
     During the 1800s, however, the role, in especial of women in fashion imagery, was constrained to an extremely narrow range of ideas.  Motherhood, friendship, beauty at the service of men, fragility, piety and meekness.  Whatever pictures you discover of the 1800s that are fashion images, they are a kind of desperately subtle propaganda. It was the aim of the myriad of ladies periodicals to keep everyone abreast of not only what to wear, but how to behave.  The several meticulously rendered plates in something like the the Godey's Ladies Book, showed women all in correct dress, acting correctly.
    I focus on women's fashion imagery here because men's fashion images routinely displayed men not interacting in any way at all.  If more than one man was in the image, they rarely had little relation to the other figures, and could be entire strangers.  I suspect this was as much in service of how men were expected to behave, as the women's pictures were.  Women, when grouped together, were always arrayed as though they understood and knew each other, that they had a relation outside of the image presented.
    What I find intriguing here is that this same practice of moving the morals and ideals of behavior forward, along with the clothing, has continued right up to today. Our most contemporary style imagery often gives us just as many cues about what is expected, as these staid looking engravings.
Have we come very far?  In some ways we have. Certainly we are a good deal more free about sex, and about the reality of women's equality in the world.  Yet we still look to these images to give us clues about how to be.  What is interesting is that those images veer further and further from achievable reality all the time.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Man Skirts

    It has been interesting to me to track the rise of the man skirt.  For decades avant garde designers tried with no success whatever to forward the idea of skirts for men.  This was largely due to their utterly misreading how to go about it, along with the culture simply not being ready for it.  Social changes with regard to sexual identification, and a loosening of attitudes about gender roles have opened the door for man skirts to start making an appearance.
    First, it was with kilt wearing fellas, like myself, who, through companies like Utilikilts braved the streets and broke a few barriers.  Then designers all over started showing kilted looks, and now, full on skirted looks that take every variation of well known women's skirts and re-imagine them have been hitting runways.
    Are they making real world inroads yet?  Well, I can tell you that in San Francisco, I do see men in skirts now and again, and they might get a raised eyebrow depending on the neighborhood they are in, but not much else of note.  So in more progressive areas like here, they are showing up, and the fact that designers continue to present them with greater frequency means that they aren't going away any time soon.
     What has made a huge difference in their successful presentation is that most designers have learned that they have to make them look hot and sexy.  So those who do present them tend to use models who are more studly looking rather than more effete looking young lads. That said, they are now branching out into types of skirts that employ materials traditionally reserved for women, like tulle, and bias cut satins.

    So, what I muse about is how long this process is going to take.  Will there be a tipping point reached where they will suddenly become normative?  Or will there be some person, or situation which will trigger it?  Some famous fella?  Some unknown who just happens to hit the right place a the right time?  Who knows?  But it certainly seems like it's on its way to us.
After that happens we will have to find something else to experiment with.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Scatter #104

    Good grief it's only a month before Summer begins!   How is this possible?  Can it be that I've had my head buried in the Attire world that nearly half a year has gone?  No, just feeling that time moves faster thing that hits us as we get to a certain point.
    Okay, that utterly pointless ramble is out of the way. On to Scattertime!
    So, here we have this wildly space age chick.  The styling here is intense, but I admire the polish brought to it.  There is a sense of unity with the color choices that keeps this already complex melange of items from being completely incomprehensible.  The piece that intrigues me most is the odd sleeve harness thing. It's difficult to tell from this image whether it is integral to the rest of the top, or if it is a separate accessory item.  In any case, it's an interesting combination of lines and textures.  And, vinyl shorts over pants?  No, just no.
    I am the King of the Runway, says he.  Bow low before me, mortals.  This is not fashion. This is theater on steroids.  Some designers find it valuable to present a few things in their collection that have no utility beyond shock and awe.  As crazy as this ensemble is, it is a masterful piece of craftsmanship and contains ideas buried within it that could be applied in real terms, if they were scaled back and separated from all the rest that is going on.  The ballooning sleeves of the coat could be applied in the real world with the right proportion.  And even the spiky feathers, which I suspect are burnt ostrich, could, if used sparingly, and in smaller scale, be a workable decorative element.
    It's a wonderful thing that we have such detailed records of apparel in the 1500s, since nearly nothing exists in reality to show us what was what.  This is a detail from a Nicholas Hilliard portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.  Looking at the painting in its entirety you see a mass of splendor, but because so much is going on, the multitude of details fade into the back.  Hilliard was meticulous in his rendering of the tiniest things, so we see that, along with the immense jewelry there is English blackwork embroidery, gold lace, hand painted floral patterned textile, and pearls in profusion.  What comes to mind for me is that each of these details had to be done entirely by hand, from the fragile lace of her ruff collar to the making of the gold lace to the painting of the fabric, all had to be done by patient hands.  A garment of this quality and elaboration would have taken dozens of people to create, and months of time.
    Next in the line up, an example of the glory of battle, or rather how we attempted to glorify it, while trying to keep from getting killed.  This is a pair of shin guards, from around 100 BCE.  Made of iron they must weigh a good deal, but it's the level of decoration that fascinates.  These are far more than items of utility. It seems that even in the midst of conflict our need to gussy up and present the best possible version of us is in action.  Of course, a pair of shin guards like these were not worn by the common soldiers, but by officers. Still, those officers had to get in there and mix it up, so these very likely saw war up close and exceedingly personal.
    Experiments are important, vital, actually to the continued evolution of the Attire language. This effort from Maticevski Resort is working with an old idea, pleating, but blowing it up huge, and only pleating part of the breadth of the garment so that the material falls in loose folds.  I'm not sure that this is entirely successful.  But to be honest I find the vast necklace so distracting it's hard to edit it out in my mind. The reason I'm not sure it succeeds is that the result looks a bit too random.  But not the intentional randomness that is an essential design ploy.  It's clear that it is meant to appear as though it had simply occurred that way.  I don't think that it does.
    Here's another confusing combination.  This is from the most recent Gucci Cruise collection.  The shorts don't particularly bother me, aside from the somewhat unfortunate pattern placement that puts two flowers right over the model's crotch. Cut the textile a trifle differently and I have no issues.  The shirt, too, is something that I mostly get.  What bugs is the airborne snake, which if you look at the whole collection, is a thematic element.  It does not look like it belongs there.  And of course the over-sized deerstalker cap, which naturally everyone going on a cruise is going to want.  Just color me perplexed as to why a design house would choose deliberately to make their models look a little batty.
    The boudoir cap is another little something that is no longer an Attire word we use. For centuries it served two main utilities. One was simple warmth in unheated homes. The other was keeping the hairdress of the prior day fairly well intact. And the third was to keep the long hair out of the way during sleep.  Apart from the warmth issue the other two could still be worthy reasons for using something like this, but once a word has really gone from the lexicon, it rarely makes a full return.  This boudoir cap is from about 1914.  And it obviously is brand new since milady would have crushed those ribbons during sleep otherwise.
    In men's fashion illustration these days the level of remove from reality is growing to be just as high as it is for women's  The amount of image adjustment here is impressive, and well done.  What we get is an image of a perfected human, with pore-less skin that gleams.  This is also a good example of how differently men are being imagined for editorial shoots than they have been in the past.  We are allowed to see a softer sexuality, and a pensiveness that was absent from earlier menswear imagery.  Nao Serati Fall/Winter 2016.
    This detail image of a woman's jacket from 1905 is dizzying in it's complexity. Sadly, I've been unable so far to unearth an image of the whole garment.  What intrigues me here is that, in 1905 this level of elaboration was normal for expensive clothing, but within a decade this amount of decorative detail will be gone, and it won't return completely.  On top of the complexity of the cut, which is quite high, there are so many things going on that it is hard to know where to look first.  Wool broadcloth, cotton lace dyed to coordinate, tabs, ruchings, rosettes, brocade trim, passementerie and ribbon all in combination. And this isn't even the whole garment.  My heart goes out to the poor benighted soul who had to keep this thing clean and in good repair.
    Since we are speaking of jackets, this is a Russian livery jacket for a coachman from the late 1800s.  Though the bullion embroidered seal on the sleeve may be the Russian royal seal, I can't be sure, since the image isn't clean enough.  I will defer to my faithful reader Stephen who has a passion for all things Russian to confirm this.   What I find interesting overall about livery is that it frequently aped military garb, and otherwise usually looked pretty much like fancy dress, as it often was deliberately out of step with the times. This had two advantages for the employer of someone wearing livery. It trumpeted to anyone seeing them that their bosses had oodles of cash to throw around.  And it kept the dividing line between servant and master sharply defined.
    When I saw this image it made me think of the incredible clash of influences that assault us each hour of the day, due to our immensely increased access to information.  We have grown used to, in a remarkably short span of time, to wild juxtapositions of apparel decisions that in previous times would have instantly marked the person as insane.  Of course this image has been consciously created to point out these cultural dissonances. Yet we are constantly exposed to such disparate elements coming together.  It can be both exhilarating, and exhausting to try and make sense of it all, visually. Not wonder so many people live behind dark glasses with their headphones on.
As a final entry this week, another of those kinds of clothing that live between strong design eras.  This embroidered Caracao jacket and matching skirt is from the interim period of 1730 to 50 when we were just about to watch skirts expand rapidly again.  It's also another example of how, between periods of extreme shape, there is a tipping point where for a moment the silhouette comes into complete balance and all elements harmonize.  And take a good long look at the final image, which shows the skirt laid flat so you can really enjoy the amazing embroidery work.  We are so lucky that this managed to survive in its original state.

    Thanks again, for stopping by to share in my weekly serving of random wonders.  Have an amazing weekend!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Source Points

    "I've always felt that it's not just matching the color of someone's complexion or someone's hair, but it's how to convey who they really are, or want to be."  Evangeline Elliot,  "The House of Elliot"  BBC.  She may have been a fictitious character in a dramatic BBC series, but the truth of her words lives outside of the fiction of the storyline.  If there is a truth that is at the centerpoint of any successful designer's life and work it is this simple axiom.  It is fine and good to design wondrous fantasies, but the end product must be something that an actual human can and will put on their body and proudly, confidently wear.  Otherwise, what has the designer done but make a series of glorious dreams that no one can or would access?
    What, at the end of things is the roll of the designer?  Is it their roll to give us only and exactly what we want?  Is it their responsibility to get us to think in new ways, to dream of other manners of being?  Is it their charge to chivvy us along, step by step into other ways of imagining ourselves?  Or, is it really only to allow us to dream?  The answer is, naturally. all of these things at once.  Every person who chooses the path of apparel designer must select one of these as their guiding thought.  And we see, each season, each collection of work, the results of these thoughts.  From the outlandish, but brilliant efforts of Avant Garde designers like Iris van Herpen, Thom Browne, and Sibling, to more reliably accessible designers like Carolina Herrera, Zuhair Murad, and Elle Saab, to the extraordinary and glorious dreams of Guo Pei, we are presented every year, each time, with new and different ways to imagine ourselves.  Is this entirely a good thing?  Perhaps so. Perhaps not.
    We are, each and every one of us, in constant state of flux. We change, whether we wish it or not, every single day. So, is it right that our apparel should instantly reflect that change?  Or is it more the province of Attire to express the essential, rather than the ephemeral?
    Let's think on this a moment.  Conveying our instant thoughts has it's advantages. We can give the viewer our most current status, and as such relay to them the most superficial, (in a good way) of our mind sets.  All very well. This has much to recommend it. It gives the person seeing us a glimpse of who they are seeing right now, this instant.  And for those who pass us on the street that may be the fine thing.  They see us now, not as we have been, or will be.  For them, who may never see us again, a single shot of now, may be the very thing.
    The other method of presentation takes more time, and involves more consideration than the other.  If we are going to express our essential self to the larger world we must do two things.  We must first have a clear picture of ourselves in our own heads. And secondly we must be willing to take the time to find out how that best relays itself in terms of Attire to the populace as a whole.  I do not mean that careful laborious thought must be ladled onto every clothing choice, but only that we choose things that are garments that are not merely fashionable or new, but are Attire words that we can speak with authority as part of us.
    We have, all of us, made sartorial choices based on current style that we have later regretted.  Why?  Because we allow ourselves to be gulled by advertising and social pressure into choices that are not right for us.  To be honest, a huge percentage of the apparel industries sales are generated by precisely this misapprehension.  So, with that in mind I am here to suggest this. Before we purchase that next new thing, stop. Consider. Is it speaking fully to you, or are you bowing to pressure from outside?  if you are, slow yourself down and really look deeply at what you are about.  Don't allow stylishness to rule your choices, over what is right for you.
    We all have the choice to tell the world who we are, and we can only do so if we choose to use the tools we have to hand effectively. Attire is a massively effective tool, used correctly.

Monday, May 16, 2016


    I've lost track of how often I've mentioned the need we have to transform ourselves.  In particular how we feel a need to take onto us some of the characteristics of the natural world, most commonly its animals, in order to symbolically gain their attributes.  What I've never talked about before is that this same process moves outward from us as well as moves inward toward us.  Our understanding and use of Attire as a semiotic tongue is far from confined to the limits of our own bodies.

    We are not content to allow the natural world to remain alien to us. Again, with respect to the animal kingdom, we seem drawn to the idea that we must clothe them, sometimes literally, in our own aspect.  We have drawn, painted, and sometimes sculpted animals of all sorts, wearing fully realized human apparel, often of a historical sort.  And quite often too, they are shown engaged in activities that they would not, and could not pursue.  The infamous dogs playing poker painting comes to mind.  Are we trying to express in a different way our personal connection to the animal kingdom, since we are a part of it?  Are we acknowledging on some level that we remain beasts ourselves, behind the gloss of civilization we adopt?
    What I find fascinating in the context of the Attire language is that we use clothing to do these things, to create these connections between ourselves, and the other mobile creatures of this world.
   We often send these ideas outward from us in a real time physical way when we are pet owners.  When we dress up our dog, or put a bow around the neck of the cat we are claiming ownership more visibly.  We also both elevate them, and demean them in so doing.  We elevate them to a status closer to human, by tricking them out in apparel words we know.  Their lack of choice in the matter is, however possibly diminishing to them. 
    We are trying to create a greater understanding of them, by making them more like us.  We are anthropomorphizing them in a visible way.  The more an animal is relatable in a visual sense, the more we feel connected, and comfortable.  And such things can also be an adjunct to our display of personal wealth, when we accoutre our pets in expensive clothes and accessories that they do not need at all.

    Of course most pet owners do not do such things, yet the desire to layer on a simulacrum of humanity persists. We seem obsessed with the notion of everything in the world being related back to us, our humanocentric view, if I may.
    Finally, by creating images of animals that behave and dress as we do, we gain in our minds a modicum of control over them, or at least we think we do.  So Attire does not just clothe us, and express thoughts for humans to exchange between themselves, it clothes by extension, the remainder of the motive world, so that we can better understand it, and how it relates to us.