Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Power: Formality and Discomfort

    It is a curious thing, and it is one that transcends all cultural boundaries.  Historically the acquisition and holding of power causes an accretion to occur that leads to heightened formality, and eventually to immobility, or at very least a good deal of discomfort. We see this in all aspects of the journey of power.  The gathering of sway to oneself increases the number of people in the mix.  This results in more space being required to maintain authority.  Structures to house those in power become larger. As the number of people involved grows, the complexity of the process of dealing with all of them also grows.  And as this long process moves along, structures take on ritual meaning.  Underlings gather power too.  Their positions, and their duties become calcified, ritualized in their own way.
    Attire relating to the taking on of power goes on an identical trip.
    At the beginning of the transit, the person desiring or given power, is dressed in a way that does not distinguish them significantly from their peers. Their garments are commensurate with their wealth and station. There is no visible hint to what will occur.  From the moment that power is realized, taken on in earnest, the apparel changes.  First it is simpler, neater, and more well made.
    As the process gains momentum, the level of formality grows.  It becomes necessary to make visible statements to support the power gained.  Then the slow and steady increase in the number, volume, decoration, and elaboration of the garments begins.
    Think for a moment about the members of the classical Japanese court who layered robe after robe on top of each other to indicate rank and wealth, to the point where nearly any activity required assistance.
    Or perhaps a look at the French court before the revolution, where clothing for women especially had reached a level of sheer volume so great that the doors of Versailles had to be widened to accommodate them.  Special furnishings were devised that permitted more than one lady to sit down on the same couch.
    Even a look at the Roman elite gives us a glimpse of this process in operation.  The highest level people bore elaborately draped stoles that were yards and yards long, even though the climate doesn't require it heavy clothing very often.  And these lengths of cloth had to be draped by servants who were trained in the art of arranging them.
    And to these huge garments an endless panoply of decorations were attached.  Masses of jewels, costly embroideries, and acres of hand worked laces have contributed to the final outcome of near immobility that comes of the rise to power. 
     In the 1800s, society began to shift its attention away from the royalty, to those with wealth, regardless of how it was acquired.  As a result, the process of accretion moved from those with temporal power to those with financial power.  What happened next was the strict enforcement of social class by those who had money, by the creation of a vast, incomprehensible list of regulations covering every aspect of apparel.   That set of rules stood in place nearly a whole century before mechanization, the rise of feminism, and socialism began to chip away at those precepts.
    Is this concept of increasing levels of complexity and ritual that leads to immobility entirely dead? No.  It is merely transformed.
    How it operates now is described best by what those who work in the entertainment industry must endure.  Every appearance is carefully considered.  Racks and racks of things lent from designers of dresses, pants, skirts, blouses, shoes, bags and jewelry must be considered with the utmost care since multiple millions of people will not only observe the result, but comment on it.  And all of those considerations are made more complex because of agreements between the designer and the stylist who constructs that figurehead's image for the public.
    It's a far cry from what used to occur. Before the 20th century and the dawn of mass communication, errors of dress by those in positions of power were essentially invisible to the majority of the populace.  Monarchs, and others in positions of power dressed as they liked without reference to others. They created fashion, not adhered to it.  The reverse is now the case.  Famous folk do not create fashion, they support whatever is being presented, because profit is a more important source of power than royalty, or brilliance.
    Though in the current iteration literal immobility does not occur, another kind of immobility does. In order to hold power, whether that power be of brains, talent, politics, of sheer wealth, the image created is of prime importance. Supporting the image ties the holder of power into a tight knot.  Leaving aside the image is treacherous.  Keeping power means cleaving unto oneself a fantastical image of the self.  It means never being seen in the same thing twice, (if you are a woman).  It means denying yourself much variation of dress, (if you are a man).  How would we feel about a President who showed up at a major event in khakis and a rumpled tweed coat?
    We traded a physical discomfort for a psychological one.  We bargained away physical immobility for a less visible, but no less profound kind of constraint.
    There are exceptions of course.  It is especially true within the tech industry that a kind of fierce refusal to play the visible power game is common.   That said it is still the case for the vast majority of those who seek power, or have it conferred upon them, that their progress towards influence ends up hampering them both physically and psychologically. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

One Shot: English Court Costume 1810-1825

    Among the collection of garments at Kent State University in Ohio is this remarkable pair of articles.
    This is a court costume from between 1810 and 1825, of English manufacture.  The gown is of while silk moire' faille, and the style of it is contemporary to about 1815.  The waistline had just begun to drop back towards it's normal position, and the skirt was just starting to do the expansion of volume that would reach it's greatest in the 1860s.  The sleeves of the dress, unlike many of its time are fairly simple in structure.  This design decision to simplify the construction allows the extravagant embroideries on the gown to do all the major work, and create the predominating sensibility of luxury and refinement.
    The decorative work is done in gold strip and purl, with pearls and amethyst tinted paste stones.  The majority of the work has been padded, some of it is in extreme relief.  The patterns are of flowers, leaves, and vines, with borders of repeating abstract forms.
    The detachable, shoulder mounted train is of deep green silk velvet, and its entire outer edge has a broad border of repeating floral bouquets that increase in size as they reach the far end of the train.  The work here is entirely of gold strip and purl, with no other elements to disturb the connection between the green and the gold.
    Of course, the survival of a pair of garments of this sort is mostly due to their fabulous costliness, and the fact that they may have only been used a few times, so wear and tear would be minimal.  As well, among titled families it was commonplace to retain such garments as family keepsakes, carefully tended, and kept away from children's playrooms, which is where a lot of older clothes ended up.
   It remains for us as an example of very high craft, and of the long, but narrow list of requirements for correct appearance at a royal court.  

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Scatter #96

  We are coming up fast onto my 100th Scatter post.
  The world is full of wonders. 
  So many things to share, so little time to do so.  So let's get cracking, shall we?
    It's been quite a while since I weighed in on the man skirt thing.  This example caught my attention because It made me think of another way that skirts for men could gain more acceptability in the Western world.  This long skirt, due to its material and pattern recalls elegant silk pajamas.  perhaps introducing skirts as lounge wear alternatives for men might be a good way to go to ease them into menswear in a way that would be less discomfiting to most guys.  Worn in the privacy of the home, they could get used to the idea.  And something tells me this would feel great.   Also, the model. You're welcome.
    The interaction between the frankly fake fur of this coat and the luxurious Indian styled embroidery work is wonderful.  To my mind it creates an interesting tension.  There is all that beautiful, time intensive hand work enclosing fur that is an obvious product of technology.  I often see things like this where the merging of manufacture and craft create something that helps us relate ancient artistry to the world in which we now live.
    Three things made me want to share this man's suit from 1780.  One is that glorious shade of green.  Not much survives from that time that is such an intense green.  Green dyes were often quite unstable and would fade quickly, particularly in cottons and silks.  This suit is made of wool, which tends to hold dye more effectively.  Another reason is that it's such a wonderful example of what a middle class man would have worn.  It's well made, and discretely trimmed, but simple.  The final reason is that it shows the unique cut of sleeves that disappeared in the 1800s.  Men's two piece sleeves are now cut with the outer piece large enough that the seams are shifted to the inside surface.  In the prior centuries sleeves for both women and men were cut so that the seam was running straight down the center front of the sleeve.  The sleeve also was much more strongly arced than is normal now.
    Speaking of sleeves, check this out.  This detail image is of a wedding dress sleeve from 1835.  The attention to small details is amazing.  The narrow cuff has a tiny heading of two rows of satin covered cord.  The tailored bow is finished with bias satin edging and the outer surface of the sleeve is covered by an elaborate basket woven motif created out of more satin covered cording.  Making all those yards of covered cord would have taken a whole day, and another to pin it all in place and sew it down with discrete stitches underneath. There is a certain unevenness to the way this is constructed which implies that this was a garment made by loving hands at home; possibly even the bride to be herself during the months before her wedding.
    Say hello to Maharajah Singhji Bahadur, the Maharao Raja of Alwar.  I post this image because one of the things that seems always to be the case is that the more formal a set of garments becomes, the less comfortable it is.  The maharajah's tunic is cut to be skin tight, and the sleeves are cut high and close, making movement more problematic.  His collar is quite tight as well, and then covered with the enormous necklace.  His hair and beard are carefully coiffed, pomaded and pinned into perfect symmetry, and his hat is perched at such an angle it could only stay there with help from combs or pins.  But, if you are meaning to convey that you are a person to be reckoned with, then this is how it is done.  What finally sells this sort of statement to a viewer is seeing that it's various discomforts are of no consequence to the wearer.
    You all know that I mostly take a very positive approach to what I'm about here, and how I comment on what I show you.  This is one of those times when that's going to be hard to pull off  Frankly the only thing I can say that is remotely positive is that the way the exposed area zigzags across the hipline is an unusual visual trick.  I can see that an attempt is being made here to create something that looks as though the entire structure of the garment would collapse if the cording was unlaced. I honestly don't think it really works.  There, I said it.
     I would never wear this no matter how much I like it, which I do.  What I like about it that an established shape and garment, the sweat shirt, had been re-imagined as a sleek and powerful looking article by breaking the basic pattern pieces and reassembling the same shape with a bold design.  The light gray vee shapes lift the attention up to the shoulder line and the face.  And the stiffness of the material makes the design look even more boldly commanding.  Why would I not wear it?  It's neoprene. Too sweat inducing.
    We clever humans are always thinking of ways to take simple things and make them more complicated.  This is one such instance.  Called a Gimmel ring this tripartite piece stays firmly together until the bezel that holds the ruby enameled cushion and the diamond are twisted, allowing the structure to unlock so that the hidden message can be seen. These sorts of rings were very popular in Europe during and after the Renaissance and were frequently used as betrothal rings.  This one is from between 1600 and 1650, and the legends are in German.  The first translates as "My beginning and my end."  The second legend is from the wedding service which suggests this was used as a wedding ring, "What God has joined together should no man put asunder."
    Cultural intersection has been going on for as long as we have.  This is a more subtle example.  These shoes from 1880 were made for export from Turkey for the rest of the European market.  Employing their traditional gold work embroidery styles they created shoes like these to appeal to wealthy English, French Italian and American ladies.  The velvet shoes are nearly entirely covered with wonderfully worked embellishments of flowers and birds.  Glorious.
    Few examples remain of menswear from the early part of the 1700s.  This is one of them.  Made of a grayish green wool, this English coat is from between 1720 and 1729. It was the time of huge periwigs, petticoat breeches, shirts with vast gathered sleeves, and masses of superfluous ribbon tabs.  The sleeves are broad to accommodate the volume of the shirt beneath.  The coat skirts are at the widest point they will ever reach, to make room for the breeches which were essentially over-scaled shorts that ended with bunches of ribbon loops.  This coat, with its wide revers and rows of brandenburgs on the front and cuffs would have been day wear for a gentleman of means, or best dress for a well off tradesman.
     I do so love when Attire and surrealism join hands, especially when it's done is a way that is subtle enough to pass notice unless you're really looking.  This at first sight appears merely to be a pair of giant legged, baggy pants.  It's only when you look more critically that you can see that they are cleverly designed to appear to be slapped onto the front of the model's body.  I would be interested to see the back structure to understand how this was done.
    I do love it when a museum decided to display extant items fully accessorized so that we can get a truer picture of their use and the ultimate apparel statement.  This is a particularly great example of that.  The dress is from between 1765 and 1770 and was made in the UK.  The manikin seems caught in a moment of decision. What story would you say is taking place?  Is she a character in it, or an observer?

And that, my friends is all for this week's Scatter.  Have a great weekend!


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Kings of Drag


    We have become well aware through the increasing presence of drag in our social media, of it's potential for commentary, humor, and satire.  But it's not just the boys who get to play in this particular sandbox.  The tradition in theater and literature of women in men's costume is an ancient one.  We have maintained a long understanding of women wearing male attire. In literature it is often in order to escape some difficulty, or to evade discovery while doing something that would be otherwise unacceptable for women.  The same is true for theater, though in opera it is sometimes the case that a role requires a particular type of voice that is much more likely to be a woman's than a man's, so a "trouser role" is not always meant as a particular comment, merely the best way to get to the right sound qualities.  So we accept "trouser roles" as a normative, even though we would not accept, till recently, a man dressed in women's clothing, in theater or literature as anything other than comedic, or pathetic.  Mercifully these attitudes are beginning to change.
    With that in mind let's take a look at the drag kings.  The apparel choices of drag kings are no less a potent social commentary, nor are they any less a powerful method for expressing an aspect of personality that doesn't get much space than their cousins in drag.  The most significant part of it away from the satiric, is the adoption, even for a short time, of the potentials and privileges of the male community.
    Dressing as a man allows the wearer to symbolically, and in many cases truly access the advantages accorded to men in this patriarchal culture.  It could be seen as a form of aspiration, this mimicry.  But it is far more than just that.  When we continue to live in a world where women are not treated as fully equal in every respect, then the power denied becomes more glamorous, more compelling.  Part of the inevitable subtext that communicates, wrongly it must be said, is the inner desire to become male.  But one of the real points is simply to have the same rights and freedoms as men enjoy.
    Of course male drag has also always had a connection to identifying as lesbian, just as female drag connects to male homosexuality.  But neither is an exclusive. The human expressive range is very wide indeed, and there are many hetero-normative identified women who enjoy drag. That said, the connection does exist, and has for as long as we have divided clothing into two camps.
    There is a simpler reason as well, one not nearly as fraught with inner tensions.  It's just plain fun.  Ask anyone who has ever done drag, female or male.  It's fun to transform yourself into something else for a time.  Just like we tease our friends about their foibles, drag permits us to poke fun at others, but in a sly way that is easier to confront.
    Living and working in the Castro district in San Francisco, I often see women whose apparel is expressive of the drag king.  And that is a great thing.  What I hope for eventually is that we will comprehend that these self imposed restrictions do not support or advance us, they hold us back.  So bravo to the Drag Kings who, (whatever their personal reasons), push the conversation forward, and help break down boundaries that keep us from self understanding. 

Monday, March 21, 2016


    I have written much about the significant shifts that are happening in our culture with regard to human sexuality, body image, and social roles.  This series of images for the Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2016 campaign are a perfect case in point about what these shifts look like, and how much they are being promoted to us by the media with increasing frequency.
    Photographed by David Sims for the campaign, he has chosen to use a broad range of people of differing shapes, ages and ethnicities.  It's true that the majority are still runway model thin, but the inclusion of even a few people who do not have model bodies or are not 20 years old, blended into the mix of varied skin tones is significant.  It speaks loudly about the way that the current young generation sees themselves, their friends, and the world about them.
    Most of these young folks know people from all over the world, through social media.  They are getting used to, rapidly, the idea of differing cultures interfacing with each other. They are also constantly being exposed to people with a huge range of self definition regarding their sexuality.  Along with that, women and men are creating new roles for themselves in society, as the push continues for equality of the sexes in the marketplace, and as men in particular attempt, (in part at least), to shed some of the worst aspects of their inculturated behaviors.
    It is no doubt deliberate that Mr Jacobs chose to give this collection a spin that is decidedly patriotic.  Perhaps he is making the comment that this is in fact what the United States looks like, rather than the whites only image that has prevailed entirely too long.  Since I can't ask him myself what his intent was, I will choose to go with that idea.  It certainly works along those lines whether the intent was there or not.
    What is also significant in this series of images is the designs themselves, which draw their influences not only from classically American garments like jeans, but incorporate motifs, silhouettes, and patterns gleaned from across the globe.  It becomes a visual melting pot, which only supports the notion I presented that this is a deliberate comment on the reality of who comprises the population of the USA.
    We can choose to see this exclusively as a marketing tool, which it of course is, but only in part. It has a deeper meaning and impact. This series of images, and many other like them that are appearing with greater frequency all the time, are a visual confirmation of the aspirations we hold for ourselves, and the world that we are becoming.  This group of pictures is doing considerably more than just selling expensive clothes.  There are many layers or message to be gleaned for these, even though all the combination of garments for each model have been chosen for them, not by them.  Understanding that part, we can still learn from these visions.

The models are:
Sky Ferreira, Matty Bovan, Veronika Vilim, Emily Ratajkowski, Sora Choi, Jake Levy, Shelby Hayes, Karly Loyce, Jamie Bochert, Christina Ricci, Andrea Rosen, Drew Droege, Hookerlegs, Natalie Westling, Grace Bol, Tyg Davidson, Jenny Beth Thomas, Ruby McCollister, Riley Montana, Juliette Lewis, Alek Wek, Mattia Pardini, Kiki Willems, Beth Ditto, Kristin Ogata, Moses Gurman, Oliver Burslem, Mari Agory, Sam York, Eliot Sumner, Lucie Von Alten, Issa Lish, Lexi Boling, Marjan Jonkman, Marcelo Gutierrez, Cierra Skyke, Julia Nobis, James Whiteside, Milk, Bella Hadid, Guinevere Van Seenus, Noel, Anna, and Pat Cleveland.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Scatter #95

   Morning all!  I know you had to go without your weekly romp through my cluttered head, but I'm back on track, so here goes!

    Scale is a major force in how we perceive someone else. Large people and things get our attention more easily, and suggest to us that the strength of the statement made is greater than average, so greater heed must be paid.  Of course, in matters of scale great caution must be used, because there is a vanishingly thin line before the bold remark and a visual joke.  This effort from Vivienne Westwood treads that thin line quite well.  The volume of the cape is balanced by the size of both the collar, and the decorative clasp.  I manages to veer away from the clownish, and maintains an elegance that is partly due to it's being otherwise unornamented.
    One of the things that keeps getting expressed in modern design is a sense of confusion, of helplessness.  There is a sense of futility and lack of direction that manifests in a good deal of the avant garde design that happens now.  It's my opinion that this is a mechanism by which we are able to comment on our feelings about the society in which we live. This detail image of a Hood by Air design is a perfect example.  It is a collection of thoughts that end up making no sense. It is trying to be sexy, yet it is curiously sexless. It wants to convey danger, but relays a kind of silliness.  It has elements that have no function whatever, but are not effectively decorative.  So the final message is a series of disjointed shouts that cannot be understood.  As a visual metaphor about our relationship to our current culture, this is spot on.
    While this ensemble from Manish Arora could be in the same category as the Hood by Air one, it is not.  Though we are being bombarded with multiple kinds of messages through the patterns, colors, and textures on display here, the resulting Attire paragraph is a coherent one.  The palette of colors is in harmony because enough of the hues are repeated on enough of the elements to connect them visually. The circular motif is also reproduced in various places, assisting us in seeing this as cohesive.  So, this bit of conversation becomes partly about managing, and balancing the intense number of influences that push us and pull us.
    Patterns can both help define shape, and also mask it.  In the case of this suit of clothes, it conceals, rather than reveals.  The model here becomes a mass of pattern with a head.  The proportions of the body are only glancingly referenced with the solid color lapels.  Since covering the body is such a primal aspect of Attire this variation on that idea is understandable.  And the way that the pattern both moves over the body underneath, and moves through space as we observe it contributes to the totality of the message we get from it.  In fact, that becomes the singular focus.
    This charming object is a boudoir cap from the early 20th century, close to the end of it's use as a daily Attire word.  Their primary function, apart from warmth, was to keep milady's hair out of her way during sleep, and while dressing.  It was also a manner of personal expression, since most often they were the lady's own hand work.
    Choosing to deck yourself out in one color, texture, and finish is both a simple way to create a strong impression, and a difficult thing to pull off well.  The power of the seen paragraph about the wearer comes close to being a shout, so it must be handled carefully because it veers into costume territory quickly.  This Juun J ensemble is stark, slightly menacing, and also a mite creepy.  Even though the top is voluminous, the addition of the long gloves seals the person away from us.  In a real world application, I'd love to see how this shirt and pants would read without the gloves.  The kinkier aspect of it would fade considerably, I believe.
    It is hard for me sometimes to see something like this and stay neutral.  But I'm gonna give it a heroic try.  The major talking point is of course the sheer skirt with the cut out in front.  It looks as though the opening can be altered somewhat by the cords with cord stops that hang from both sides.  Also, the position of the sheer material on the sleeves, creates a cohesion that is pleasing.  Even expanding the size of this image, it's tough to see exactly what is happening with the structure of the top.  It looks to be deliberately irregular, which also references the shirred effect at the skirt opening.  It would be easy to disapprove of this design based on societal expectations, but I say, if a woman wants to, why not?
    Because it's just darned gorgeous, is why.  I continue to be gobsmacked at the level of artistry that went into these court suits from the 1700s.  The number of person hours, and the number of sets of hands involved to make such clothing was great.  The embroidery alone probably required several skilled women, and a good deal of time. Then the tailor's shop would have put three or four fellows onto this project.  The result of all that effort is a piece of sublime artistry that would still require nearly the same amount of time to accomplish today.
    Earlier in the week I did a post about the Spencer jacket. This one should have been in that post, but I misfiled it.  It is a remarkable piece of handcraft. Made of beige silk, it has been expertly worked with triple vandyked sleeve caps, that are edged with self bias cord.  The jacket fronts have an abundance of bias cord sewn on in a palm frond pattern that accentuates the breadth of the shoulder line and diminishes the waist.  Then there is the neckline with its double vandyked frame around a rolled collar.  It's interesting to note that this Spencer, unlike most of its sisters, does not button closed, but was clearly meant to be worn open.  That small difference would mark it absolutely as a spring or summer garment.
    The boys of the runway are now being dressed in gear that is every bit as body conscious as the girls.  As an aspect of our changing culture, I think it's only fair that men have to deal with this finally.  The down side is that it is making men as fidgety about their bodies as women often have been.  So this leveling of the playing field that is happening is certainly coming with hidden costs, as we try to find a new way of thinking about ourselves.  Men are tormenting themselves about their appearance, and suffering in similar ways to the ways women have about this same issue. Sure, things are still skewed far to one side with regard to acceptable body image in our culture, but finally, the conversation has begun.  Whether we finally get to a place where individual body shape is no longer a subject of ridicule remains to be seen. I'm just grateful that we have at last realized it's a problem.
    There were repeated dress reform movements since the middle of the 1800s.  They kept coming back till the 1960s.  After the 1960s, there were enough available options, and enough changes in how people dressed that most of the worst problems could be avoided.  Corsets, overly hot underclothes, tight, stiff collars and the like all became relegated to the sidelines.  They could still be used by those who preferred them, but it was no longer an absolute.  This gown is a reform garment from 1908, when corseting was still a requirement, and the amount of underclothes considered normal amounted to multiple layers.  The movement wanted to both address the comfort issue, but also wanted to change how we decorated our clothes sine it was often the case the women's clothing was so overburdened with furbelows that clothes were almost impossible to launder, and store.  Plus, the fragility of the decorations hampered movement.  It's interesting that this gown predicts the silhouette that would become popular in just a few years.  Tighten the cut under the bust, and this becomes a fashionable dress from 1912.
     It just wouldn't be a Scatter post without a piece of bling to brighten your day.  This amazing piece is the design work of Marc Newson for Boucheron.  It was done in 2009 and required 2000 diamonds and sapphires, and an amazing 1500 hours to complete.  The fractal inspired, one of a kind piece is named Julia, after Gaston Julia, the mathematician who discovered the formula for graphing fractals.  Science, inspiring, craft, resulting in art.

Well, that's going to do it for this week's Scatter.  So scatter yourselves to the world and have some fun!