18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 8 – Alexandra Palmer – Fashion

If the medium is the message, what message is fashion? As regular readers of either this blog or McLuhan know, “the side effects are the real effects.” In this context, the question that must be asked is, when we look beyond the clothes themselves, what hidden ground does fashion, and particularly haute couture, reveal?

Fashion exhibits in art museums allow designers to remake their histories. This, of course, is one of the messages of museum-as-medium. As the ground belongs jointly to the curator, and the public and community in whose context both the museum and the particular exhibit exists, the museum exhibit of fashion becomes a meta-probe into the changes of society. The fashion itself in its own time reveals much about the society of the day; fashion recast by curator in the context of a museum sets up a time relationship between the earlier, and present, days. In this way, even fashion of a time becomes “Ahistorical.”

Dr. Palmer frames the question like this: What do museum exhibits tell us about fashion? Because of the limitation in display formats, and the facts that the exhibit is static, (whereas the fashion in its day was not), and the original materials are not stable, fashion exhibits at once tell old histories, while producing new ones. In this way, fashion in the context of a museum recreate society’s understandings of both past and present.

After World War I, museum visitors have knowledge of modernity. Their opinions of what they see in the exhibits are reflexive, meaning that meaning is always measured relative to one’s own experience. For many visitors, the fashion exhibit retrieves the shopping experience, with visitors vicariously “trying on” and “wearing” the various pieces on display. The task of the curator, then, becomes on of reframing exhibits to interpret the objects in the context of a deliberately chosen cultural framework that then conveys a new meaning. This new meaning is one that is relevant to the public, becoming the statement of the curator. As McLuhan tells us, the artist begins with the desired effects and then creates the cause; this is no different than the process of the curator who, in the process of reinterpreting the earlier culture, creates meaning and message (that is, effect) for the current culture.

Dr. Palmer showed a magazine spread in which double-page spreads of fashion displays cited 18th century paintings, with movie actors playing the major parts in the paintings, and the models wearing couture from various design houses. In a marvellously McLuhanesque montage, the fashion magazine photo-spreads retrieve the old masters from museum displays’ reconstructions of the paintings, using contemporary celebrities of both the silver screen (reversal of the painting) and the runway. The paintings come to life as they are embodied in the models and the fashion, then frozen in display and photo, once again becoming art among the glossy pages of the fashion magazine.

The fashion designer, now displaying couture away from the runways, becomes artist, and with that, comes the drive to probe the cultural ground in which fashion – and particularly couture, normally exists.

Belgian designer, Martin Margiela, is a prime example. He uses unorthodox venues, such as poor neighbourhoods, for his shows and photo-spreads, and materials derived from worn clothes and Salvation Army cast-offs, to challenge (probe) the fashion industry. In doing so, he probes conventional notions of beauty, fit, and size, challenging the mantra of, “you can never be too rich or too thin.” In another example, the process of creating fashion is interrogated, with fused-seam prêt-a-porter on giant rolls of fabric, requiring only to be draped over the model and cut, or not, to suit the designer. The exhibit is reminiscent of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with long ribbons of brightly coloured fabric, terminating in a live model. Or, in a most daring probe of the inherent process of disintegration and decay to which all fashion is vulnerable, Margiela impregnated clothing with bacteria and yeasts so that the physical decay of fashion becomes the figure, rather than the ground, of the museum exhibit, bringing in aspects of reversal. Indeed, the displays were outside the museum, viewed by visitors through windows.

Fashion designers are uniquely attuned to the zeitgeist, and therefore fulfil an important probative, and predictive, value for society. Because they are required to develop new creations that are presumably never-before seen every six months, and because they must address, at some point, real purchasers, fashion designers are among the epitome of McLuhan’s description of artist: “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.”

During the SARS crisis, the anonymity created by the then-ubiquitous surgical mask fuelled the fear that anyone could be a disease carrier, thereby adding to the mass hysteria. Fashion designers effected a reversal that recreated the individual in the face of the crisis through the SARS “fashion mask.”

Perhaps more telling was the dominant fashion trend of the first part of 2001, in which camouflage and military themes and materials became pervasive among couture houses and runways throughout the world. “Terrorist chic,” as it was known at the time seemed to reflect a militaristic zeitgeist, leading up to the tragic events of September of that year. After the attack on the World Trade Center, fashion’s response was patriotic, showing motifs based on the U.S. flag. Designers who were the toast-of-the-town prior to September, 2001, showing couture based on traditional Muslim garb were instantly shunned afterwards. Noting that “terrorists can also wear business suits,” fashion once again highlights that the American public is well-conditioned to focus on figure – what is obviously noticed – as opposed to ground. As a footnote to these observations, it is interesting to recall that precisely the same U.S. flag motif that became a patriotic response in 2001 was worn in the Vietnam era as a protest against U.S. militaristic intentions in Indo-China.

When fashion becomes art, the clothing themselves become less important, taking on the more interesting role as probe into our times.

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