Against Fashion: The Avant-Garde and Clothing
Clothing as Art 1850-1930
Radu Stern (MIT Press)
“One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.”
Sometimes we are so absorbed in our circumscribed worlds, dealing with daily questions of what, and who and how, that we are hard-pressed to take a step back and ask some good why’s. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of fashion, where who’s and what’s dominate. Why do we wear what we do and what would it be like, what change might it affect if we wore something different, maybe something radically different (and we don’t mean this on a micro- or me-level). Even the artists among us rarely look at clothing any more as an agent for change. But there was a time when this was not the case.
The sociological import and impact of fashion is deliciously addressed by artists, manifesto writers and cultural thinkers in a series of essays collected in Against Fashion, edited by Radu Stern. There are texts calling for reform in dress from a feminist perspective by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from an aesthete’s perspective by Oscar Wilde. But leave it to the Italian Futurists and their strident, brilliant manifestos
“One must absolutely proclaim the dictatorship of the artistic Genius in female fashion against the parliamentary interfering of unintelligent speculation and the routine.”
to call not only for revolution in design and materials (tinfoil, rubber, hemp, cardboard, and fish skin!) but to do it in the name of art, a new society, AND economy:
“The new fashions will be affordable to all the beautiful women, who are legion in Italy.”
The introductory overview chapters begin with fashion and modernity (Lipovetsky’s notion that fashion was not simply, “a sign of class ambition,” but changes in dress style linked to Modernity and the pursuit of the New) moving through various dress reform movements and more interestingly, proposals for a frequently utopian, art-infused sense of anti-fashion across Europe: aesthetic dress in England, the Wiener Werkstatte in Germany, Italian Futurism, and the Russian avant-garde. The impetus for reform varies, from nationalism (rejection of Parisian tyranny in dress) to practicality to social reform to a conceptualism only to be found in the mind of an artist. But the idea that artists should be invited into the conversation of what women (and men) wear is widespread.
The pictures are brilliant, with Wiener Werkstatte sketches, Giacomo Balla’s vibrant lemon-yellow, blue, and black “house dress,” Gustav Klimt in a dress of his own design, and gorgeous, dynamic geometric designs for Futurist suits and dresses.
The sense throughout is a thrilling elevation of fashion, not only as a vital pursuit for artists keen on interjecting art into the everyday, but as a tool for cultural and societal change. In an era in which the power of art in fashion is often novelty and the power of fashion itself is mainly reduced to economics and big names, it’s exciting to revisit times in which art and fashion collided and colluded in the attempt to Shake Things Up.