Confronting the Over Worked Body: A Look at Contemporary Fashion
‘The Overworked Body: An Anthology of 2000s Dress’ is an exhibition drawn from one first presented by Cecil Beaton in 1971 - the very first time that modern fashion was placed in the context of a museum as a work of art - now revitalized by independent fashion curator Matthew Linde in an attempt to define a contemporary fashion that is overworked and overloaded.
50 contemporary designers were brought together turning the exhibit, in Linde’s own words, into “an anthology of critical and periphery voices;” its significance drawn not only from the ground breaking action of its predecessor in elevating perceptions of fashion from clothing to art, but from its particular combination of radical design, designer’s first collaborations with multinationals and applauded undergraduate collections from the acclaimed Antwerp Academy and Central Saint Martins in order to highlight the peculiarities of post-2000’s fashion.
In other words, besides cataloguing contemporary stylistic codes of the avant garde, the exhibition presents a deeper understanding of modern woes. As always, dress acts likes a map into our anxieties, beliefs and ideologies, reflecting deep rooted sociocultural nuances in our current environment.
The title says it all: “overworked” is the adjective of choice to describe modern fashion and styling, where clothing is deconstructed, turned upside down, inside out, mixed with harsh opposites and contrasting styles and colors, and crowned with multiple layers of cross cultural and cross historical references. In no time in history has fashion been so complicated and overloaded, making any attempts at decoding all the more interesting, even if tortuously complex.
Threeasfour Spring 18, Via Vogue.com
Fashion generally acts as a linear timeline of reactions, yet the stylistic jump to the new millennia was characterized by a distinctive break from logic through its democratization. Fashion has come to mean literally anything and everything your eye takes a fancy to, blending high and low fashion codes à la Warhol through the obvious influence of high street fast fashions and the importance placed on individualism and self expression. The introduction of fabrics and accessories utterly new to clothing such as using upholstery materials to make dresses and using airplane seating straps as waist belts make sense in a world with an emphasis on standing out from the crowd by whatever means necessary.
Unfortunately, this does not take the form of design innovation more than it does of design forgery and “retro” revisitations, combining and recombining elements from various, previously disconnected sources in order to create an appreciable pastiche; appreciable for its perceived, albeit short lived newness.
Fashion designers today seem to be plagued with a confused nostalgia, forever looking back at various historical periods, cultures and movements: 90’s stylishly anti-fashion grunge attitudes, excesses and color combinations of the 80’s, 70’s grimy street culture, funk and underground scenes, 30’s glamour and more. But that’s not all that’s added to the mix – contemporary style is gorged with exotic culture appropriations, cross-social class cues, uniforms of every and any kind, and inter-industrial hybrids, all revisited and usurped in order to create a collage that is ‘unquestionably you’.
Gucci Fall 2016 Via Vogue.com
It seems only natural that in a world increasingly dominated by communication via image versus that via text, the image we project as individuals takes center stage – and right on queue, we see the dramatic rise of image creation and management industries, the glorification of the photographer, and the silent intrusion of basic image curating skills in practically every job description in tertiary industries.
We see our anxieties to stand out capitalized on in sales and marketing techniques, advocating ‘making a statement’ with photographic stands at events and increasingly personalized and rarified goods in limited edition short supplies. In a context like this, the designer, and the individual’s choice of designer, both of who ultimately create the look become deified personas imbued with unparalleled prestige.
The modern world has experienced an outburst of interesting phenomena, as well as varied lifestyle and ideological changes in a relatively small amount of time that have undeniably reflected themselves onto how we dress, beginning with the immensely transformative factors of globalization and the internet. Increased connectivity and reach on a global scale present every corner of the world with a never ending encyclopedia of styles and fashions, from various cultures and regions to the latest fashions and design innovations, originally distributed in the form of physically transported gravures, now permanently recorded online.
The freedom to live, work and learn across borders both on and offline fostered a cross-culturalism so embedded in our philosophy of life that we don’t even notice, as well as, more significantly for fashion, a universal tendency towards a fluid global citizenship, allowing people to adopt an 'unfixed identity,' able to mutate at will in line with changes in trends, mood, and exciting visuals or ideas. From the perspective of a modern day individual, the world presents limitless possibilities – so why stop at one? Such indecisiveness is a fundamental characteristic of the overworked body.
We could even take it literally: the overworked outer body perhaps a physical manifestation of the overworked mind. The expectations put on the diversity of our undertakings and extent of our productivity appear in stark contrast with those expected in the same time span not even half a century ago. Not only due to freedoms in lifestyle that make it so that potential opportunity lurks everywhere, haunting us when they remain untapped as our mind cries out for the satiated sense of self worth that comes with a sense of actualization, but also perhaps in part due to the state of the current job market, forcing an increasing number of people to take up multiple revenue sources to get by, creating an army of micro specialized workers juggling various part time, one off jobs. Forbes estimates the percentage of individuals turning to freelancing will rise to 50% of the American workforce by the year 2020.
To Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, the rise in personal freedoms associated with the turn of the century came with dramatic increases in suicides and depression which he surmised to be due to the heavy burden of making your own life choices, with the threat of self-attributable failure looming behind every decision taken. One hundred years on, and not only have our personal freedoms been significantly extended, but we are now bombarded with a continuous, never ending tangle of information on a daily basis, turning even the simplest of decisions into immensely stressful and anxiety-inducing acts.
Discount Universe literally gets it Via Vogue.com
Yet, these underlying environmental factors do not undermine the drastic influence on our overloaded exteriors and modes of consumption that have directly followed the introduction of the fast fashion industry model. The norm of cheap, mass produced and highly accessible clothing has infiltrated the industry and almost obliterated the values associated with the previous industry model on which most of our favorite designer brand’s heritage is based. Clothing is in overproduction and oversupply, requiring a steady stream of high impact advertising innovations to incite individuals to always remain in a state of overconsumption. The time span in which garments become obsolete and are cast off has dwindled in the face of an aggressive branding and marketing support system ready to legitimize volatile trend setting, creating a culture where to be miles beyond what is necessary is to be just enough.
The dual influences of cutting corners for speed and detaching aesthetics from their original contexts in order to use them as fodder to give blank new products the appearance of novelty have deeply affected design. We even find it ingrained in the process by which we innovate, no longer taking to mean disruptive novelty but more a quirky new add-on. Current innovation practices taught in university now dwell deeper and deeper into the concept of cross-industry, where to innovate in one field means appropriating concepts, ideas and aesthetics from other, formerly completely disparate industries. This has accelerated into a time where fashion no longer means working in the field of clothing, textiles and tailoring, but includes working in and around architecture, art, culture, entertainment, theatre and politics. Linde’s curation of the exhibit reflects this in its attempt to convey fashion’s current carnivalesque nature through its borrowing of cues from the fields of theatre and entertainment. It is almost as if we are looking at a completely connected chain of Venn diagrams encompassing all possible industries, with the overlapping spaces steadily increasing in size, only fueling the idea that design innovation is achieved with the reconstructed meshing together of more ideas than one outfit can handle; a far cry from your standard little black dress. With little to no substance behind them, such pastiches are quick to fade into the dustbins of history.
In particular, the impacts of art and architecture have allowed fashion to reinvent itself as conceptual art, taking the form of loud installation type designs more akin to sculptures than to clothing made for the human body to live in. In the exhibition, graduate collections by Hideki Seo from the Royal Academy of Arts Antwerp and Central Saint Martin’s Annalisa Dunn both illustrate the importance of this point.
Seo created pieces that allow the wearer to become a living sculpture, stating that ‘sometimes cloth is more interesting than body,’ while Dunn reminisces on a time pre-graduation, where students’ freedom to experiment translated into not worrying about the wearability of the clothing they created. She recalls not selling to a large American department store because of the roughness of the textiles she had used, deemed unsuitable for soft human skin.
In both cases, the question as to why the customer wasn’t a factor in the design process springs to mind, especially when we consider that both designers graduated with a fashion degree, not as contemporary artists or sculptors - even if the two have always been related - making the exclusion of the human body an almost cardinal sin. The fact that the use to which the clothing is put has become almost opposite, if not downright detrimental, to conceptions of interesting and adventurous design is nonsensical, especially when we consider that one of the most important rules in design is function – so what is the function of introducing and normalizing unwearable clothing in the fashion supply chain?
Such a logic can only follow if we begin with the assumption that fashion is art and belongs in a museum, harking back to that ideological shift that came with Dada around 1916 and then again with Pop Art in the 60’s, that dressed ordinary objects in every day life as artistic masterpieces deserving of elitist pomposity. Maintaining fashion as art is a crucial point in understanding a contemporary fashion that can at times tend more to art than to fashion, serving to condone designers and consumers that indulge in eccentric, creative pastiches for a total look that can appear overdone, as well as to legitimize the higher status that comes with it. That is not to say that the outputs of such collaborations are not downright grandiose, requiring many of the technical skills we are so preoccupied with bringing back and preserving - but it does illustrate how caricaturesque the love affair between art and fashion has become.
Ultimately, if we whittle it down, fashion’s confused overload may simply depict an overall lack of direction. Digitization and technology's steady intrusion into daily life are reconstructing entire facets of reality into new, unrecognizable worlds that continually morph at break neck speed, feeding anxieties about the future and our place in it. It is no wonder then, that we are seeing a growing culture of nostalgia, revitalizing an entire industry of vintage garments, furniture and technology. What's interesting is that although this global phenomenon of counter modernity may seem inextricably tied to our current moment in time, it isn't at all new. We are simply mirroring the first decade and a half of the 20th century, where an accelerated modernity due to industrial and technological revolutions counterintuitively ingrained people into the past, to clothing and lifestyles that weren't at all functional for the new modernized world in which they were living. As much as we love to talk about progress, perhaps humanity simply doesn't adjust well to sweeping change, burying itself in the familiar comforts of the past whenever life seems to be moving too quickly, and as one of the primary carriers of identity, our clothing is simply there to reflect all of it, our deep rooted anxieties, fears, desires, and emotional turmoil.
Fashion has long been noted as a form of escapism; periods of war and economic downturns generally producing some of the loudest, most eccentric and colorful collections to grace catalogues and runways. In this sense, fashion finds its place alongside art as life's socially inclusive antidepressant. In the same way that Edwardian garments reflected pervasive anxieties rooted in their decade, the over-styling and over-working of contemporary fashion pieces is just a reflection of the current state of the human condition.