Sunday, 23 January 2011

AWARE: Art Fashion Identity

Our Friday theory lecture this week centered around the theme of consumption, a growing phenomena which promotes globalisation. Our modern day society can undoubtedly be labeled as a consumer society, with us today making as many phone calls as we did in the whole year of 1983. When reflecting back on the consumption of fashion and textiles, one notices that it is directly informed and influenced by global trends and events. A clear example of this comes in the form of Dior’s ‘New Look’, which emerged in the late 1940s. The opulent fabrics and glamorous forms are intrinsically linked to the fact that the war was ending. This affluent look acted as a statement against the era of austerity and suppression. The whole lecture got me questioning why it is that we are so driven to consume? Are we fuelled by our own selfish needs, are we pressured by society or is it vital to our lifestyle within our modern day culture?

The exhibition at the Royal Academy, AWARE: Art Fashion Identity gave me a broader appreciation of why we consume clothing and demonstrated that the motivations are numerous and can be extremely contrasting. Throughout history, clothing can be acknowledged as the maker of individuality and social identity. Walking down Oxford Street and observing crowds of people erratically buying leads me to believe that consumption is a drug and we are addicted. But as the exhibition points out, clothes are also consumed for practical, functional and protective means and can be considered as a vital way to communicate and express personal and collective identities. The exhibition is helpfully divided into 4 sections.

STORYTELLING- acknowledges clothing’s role in representing personal and cultural history.

BUILDING- the concept of clothing as a form of protection and as a portable environment.

BELONGING & CONFRONTING- questions its role as an indicator of nationality as well as displacement, political conflict and social confrontation.

PERFORMANCE- presenting fashion and the potential drama of clothing and indeed the lack of it!


*celebrate identity

*indicate allegiance (which consequently can make it subject to suppression and

*illustrate our way of life

*articulate our status and aspirations

*be a potent form of expression

A quote by Pierre Giquel resonates in my mind as a succinct summary of the exhibition-

“Garments don’t conceal but reveal a body, an identity”

Clothes are much more than garments you simply shove on first thing in the morning. To many they are a key way of celebrating identity illustrated by the brilliantly patterned and colourful Roma blanket dress celebrating the history and rituals of Roma people. Certain artists have used clothing to express deep emotional messages. Marie-Ange Guilleminot has used traditional methods and materials to recreate garments belonging to victims of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, even including the flaws of the originals. This allows you to join her on her emotional journey and imagine the personal suffering. Recreating the garments is perhaps her way of aiding the healing process of the city through putting the pieces back together. Susie Mac Murray’s Widow dress, made of leather pierced with thousands of dressmakers pins presents the juxtaposition of an aggressive form with a striking, beautiful appearance. The ideas behind the dress are based on female reaction to grief.

Susie Mac Murray
Widow, 2009

Clothing and habitat can be considered as two important symbols of individual and social identity. The garments displayed within this section are far more conceptual such as Mella Jaarsma’s wearable sculpture, which reflects characteristics of an area. I was particularly intrigued by the Nomadic Mosque, a wearable Mosque which allows an individual to have a portable place of worship. It certainly stretched the boundaries of how clothing can be used in a functional and convenient manner.

Mella Jaarsma
Shelter Me 1, 2005

Azra Akšamija
Nomadic Mosque, 2005

As far as using clothing as a means of human communication, Katerina Seda’s ‘For Every Dog a Different Master’ demonstrated a touching way of promoting social relationships. She sent 1,000 shirts to each house on a neighbouring new estate from each house on her estate of residence to build a sense of belonging and promote interaction and friendship between the two communities. This made me realize how clothing can be used as such a influential, manipulative tool.

Chic Point, 2003 makes a powerful political comment about the removal of clothing which highlights the strong relationship between clothes and identity or dignity. Influenced by the fact that Palestinian men are subject to unfair body searches at Israeli checkpoints, Sharif Waked’s fashion collection reveals unexpected sections of skin. Later in the exhibition, artists also investigate the significance of a lack or removal of clothing. Yoko Ono explores womens emancipation from constraints on their identity represented by clothing. She heralds the value of nakedness as an expression of identity in its purest form. However Marina Abramovic highlights the taboo surrounding nudity by standing nude at the entrance to a department store and recording each individual’s reaction. This made me question when our relationship with clothing began and at what stage in history did it become more that just a practicality?

Sharif Waked
Chic Point, 2003

Yoko Ono
Cut Piece, 1965

Clothes possess the ability to empower us. The circle of dresses, each made from the Chinese flag demonstrate this although some may consider the artists decision to deface the flag as controversial and perhaps even disrespectful.

Alicia Framis
100 Ways to Wear a Flag, 2007

Yamamoto’s panelled wooden dress would cripple and restrict the wearer and is reminiscent of the constraining corsets worn by women throughout history. Yamamoto has created the dress in a response to his dislike of fashion. Although I see the dress as a restrictive burden, the message he is trying to convey is that of the extreme strength of the female wearer. Through his work he hopes to regain respect for clothing and promote women’s independence. He is not alone in his quest to empower the female figure. Mc Queen’s ‘Red Lace Dress’ with it’s bold red colour and distinct face covering resonates the power and force of femininity. For me, fashion is definitely a key tool in boosting confidence. There is something about putting on a new jumper that gives me the ability to stand taller and feel significantly more self-assured. But why is this the case? How can a garment have such a compounding psychological effect?

Yohji Yamamoto
From the Yohji Yamamoto Femme Collection, Autumn/Winter 1991–92

The connotations of a uniform were also investigated by a few of the artists. I believe uniform can unite, give a sense of authority and signify status. It is more that that demanded by a job role e.g. a policeman’s uniform but also demanded by a religion or culture, e.g. the white robes of Gursky’s workers of the Kuwait Stock Exchange. Uniform can also be recognized as a destroyer of individuality which may be viewed as a positive or negative thing depending upon the situation. I remember complaining in primary school about having to wear my itchy bright green school jumper. The teacher convinced us all that if we all wore the itchy jumpers, nobody would stand out and nobody would be bullied. We would all look tidier and would all be happier. If only it were that simple! The video installation of the grouped policemen who gradually, one by one start to fidget and twitch signifies the emergence of individuality despite the unifying uniform. As the policemen begin to be seen as individuals, their collective authority and its associations of state and power is reduced.

Gillian Wearing
Sixty Second Silence, 1996

*Pick one piece and reflect on what it says about the production/ consumption or marketing of fashion?

In answering this question, I have difficulty in choosing just one piece as so many of the works had powerful, thought provoking messages. Many artists chose to comment on the relentless nature of fashion consumption and the unsustainable nature of the industry at present. Helen Storey’s dresses constructed from enzyme based, biodegradable materials are an apt example of this. The dresses have a delicate and fragile appearance and dissolve as they come in contact with water. She is driven by her desire to expose society’s ugly desire for a plentiful supply of throw-away clothing. La Maison Martin Margiela follows this train of thought. Working with microbiologists and the effects of bacteria, a seasonal fashion collection is shown gradually decaying as people continue their endless destructive quest to search for the next new, exciting product. Like the Trash Fashion exhibition at the Science Museum, this innovative project reminded me of the growing relationship and overlap between the worlds of art and science. Dai Rees’s leather carcass resembling constructions also gave a nod to the disappearance of traditional expertise and skill in today’s dominating fast fashion market. This message only became clear after reading about the work, however some pieces were far more obvious in their portrayal of a message. For example ‘A Laundry Field’ featuring repetitive video documentations of Mumbai textile workers was a clear metaphor for our constant demand for cheap clothing.

Helen Storey
Say Goodbye, 2010

Hussein Chalayan’s work – ‘Son’ of Sonzai Suru, did not have environmental connotations but instead was the artists comment on the fashion industry. The black, demon like figures grasping at the beautiful, flowing gown were inspired by traditional Japanese Bunraku theatre. The work reflects the manipulative nature of the fashion industry and that our perception of the value of fashion is cleverly controlled and managed by its presentation. The power is ultimately in the hands of the individuals who market these products to us the individual. They manipulate us, dictate to us and influence us, sometimes even subconsciously.

Hussein Chalayan
‘Son’ of Sonzai Suru, 2010

The exhibition got me thinking about wearable objects with significance other than their aesthetic appearance. Thinking of my own personal history and ancestry, the example of the Welsh knot immediately came to mind. Children were forbidden to speak Welsh within their classrooms at school and if they went against this they were forced to wear a heavy wooden hanging around their neck called the Welsh knot.

Other elements of the exhibition, which were of interest to me but unrelated to our task of getting to grips with consumerism were the following-

-African fabric-The bright colours and prints of the dresses of ‘Little Rich Girls, 2010’ fuelled my desire to do some more research into African clothing. There is something about these traditional fabrics, which exudes positive energy and enjoyment despite ultimately deriving from poverty stricken Third World countries.

Yinka Shonibare MBE
Little Rich Girls, 2010

-Photo documentation-The series of photographs recording the journey of a dress inspired by the traditional Byzantine Court through the Mediterranean was of particular interest. After our Rough Guide Project, I am intrigued by how the appearance and interpretation of an object is directly influenced by its surroundings. Think of the V&A and the gold plated coconut cup. The coconut discarded by the Eastern communities, but seen as a unique, rare object of beauty when placed in Western communities. I have always been a fan of photo documentation. I’m not sure why but I think putting things into some sort of visual order makes tasks or routines much clearer that would a simple written list. I have researched the photographic work of Sophie Calle briefly in the past but would like to look into this in more depth.

The Chromatic Diet, 1997. by Sophie Calle.

-The sculptural wigs in the form of iconic western buildings were interestingly created through a traditional African hairbraiding technique. Like the Ugandan straw braiding technique which I saw at the Royal College’s exhibition, it made me once again acknowledge the importance of utilising and learning traditional skills which are alarmingly at jeopardy of becoming extinct. Not only is it important culturally, but these techniques often demonstrate extreme skill and detail valued in our sea of cheaply made fast fashion.

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