If ever there were a precarious moment when the foundations of the great houses of fashion should tremble this is it. Labels rely on three elements when crafting fashion, and one is about to become obsolete. Aesthetic, innovation, and scarcity rule the industry. Designers are skilled artists working within the medium of silhouette and texture. Their clothes tease out elements of rich subcultures, offering visual satire of our most sacred assumptions: gender, religion, desire.
“Ghastly!” we hiss. Then a little softer “does it come in black?”
Subdivision Cuff by NervousSystem $55 via Shapeways
Twenty-first century innovation has spawned revolutionary thought in manufacturing textiles. New technologies like AirDye utilize heat to transfer dye from paper to textiles, saving as much as 75 gallons of water per pound of fabric. Conventional dying, which many industry leaders outsorce to developing countries, produces up to 72 different chemicals, 30 of which do not break down and can cause significant groundwater issues. Inde label I Am Not A Virgin pairs unprocessed “virgin” cotton with synthetic fibers from reclaimed plastic bottles and lunch trays to make their jeans.
Having breifly established the relative continuity of aesthetic evolution and innovation, the lights turn to scarcity. After all, haute couture, basically boils down to a exclusive creation only available to the select few with the connections and the money to obtain it. I can name other industries that rely on scarcity to drive up prices, but the comparison most suitable is the music industry. That’s right, Alexander McQueen, prepare to meet your Napster.
The future of 3-d printing means anyone with access to 3-d software and a printer will be able to recreate haute couture’s wearable sculptures. They’ll be cheap(er), easy to modify, and perfectly specified to the wearer’s form. And for many designers, they’ll also be the end of outsorcing labor under deplorable conditions.
I’m saving an in-depth look at intellectual property where the fashion industry is concerned for another post: however, I do want to highlight a very important change that 3-d printing is bringing about. Even if budding designers don’t have access to 3-d printers, which are still relatively expensive, the technology is becoming more accessible every day. For example, Shapeways allows users to create or upload a design and they’ll send you the finished product. Similar to Etsy, Shapeways’ users are encouraged to set up stores and sell their products directly on the site. Shapeways means that anyone can break into the fashion industry regardless of their textile pedigree. And with the new crowd come engineers, gamers, and hacktivists. Tremble, Fifth Avenue.
I ran the Firefly Run, a nighttime 5k where people dress up in illuminated clothes to run the race. Some people (like me) simply wore glow-in-the dark accessories, but others went all out in full LED costume!
Seeing all of those illuminated outfits at varying stages of design and style got me thinking. At what point does illuminated clothing go from gimmick to costume to fashion?
Illuminated fashion is a high-tech style genre that has been around for years, but has yet to take hold in the mainstream, probably because it’s mostly seen as impractical, and tends to fall into the “fashion of fashion’s sake” category. And, just as with many other styles, it is very easy to get wrong.
Project Runway did an Illuminated Fashion challenge this season, and while the clothes ended up looking cool the illuminations served no function. I think FashioningTech’s post is spot on when it says that all of the designers missed the mark, and were stuck in a stereotypical mindframe. This is how most of the world sees “illuminated fashion,” and it is difficult to change paradigms and mind-frames.
Illuminated Bridesmaid Dresses from Modern Family
Illuminated fashion can be seen as an extreme or gimmicky, but can actually be found fairly easily and can look good in formal fashions. For example, the bridesmaids and flower girl dresses in the wedding recently featured on Modern Family. In fact, you can actually custom order an illuminated wedding dress or a variety of other illuminated garments from Enlighted. Aside from the wedding dress, which I think turned out beautifully, although I would not have chosen yellow, Enlighted’s designs tend to fall more into the costume category, in my opinion. Part of the reason behind that, is probably their client-base, who seems to be Vegas-type shows, but I honestly think part of it is that Enlighted has been in the business for 14 years, and although on one hand, that is a good thing, meaning they have lots of experience, on the other hand, I think it is easy to get stuck in a style rut, and get stuck with one type of look.
Retailer H&M has received some decidedly negative scrutiny recently for using computer generated models on their website. As reported on mashable.com the retailer came under fire for superimposing real models heads onto computer generated bodies to showcase a range of collections on it’s retail site. To the unsuspecting viewer nothing is amiss, however if one looks closely it becomes evident that all of the models have perfectly identical body types. Key word being: “perfect.” The retailer has incurred the ire of many who view the casting of virtual models as setting an unrealistic standard for women to live up to.
This H&M boondoggle puts me in mind of the 2002 film Simone. Simone tells the story of a beleaguered film producer, played superbly with frazzled panache by Al Pacino, who, fed up with the antics of spoiled Hollywood starlets, creates a computer generated actress who proves to be a little too good at her job – and in short order takes over his entire life. The story is a funny, albeit slightly disturbing, modern day, emerging media Frankenstein – and a cautionary tale for brands. However, we’ll touch on that later. Here’s a clip:
H&M asserts that the fake models make it easier for their customers to focus on the clothes rather than on the models wearing the clothes. Per H&M spokesperson Hacan Andersson, “The result is strange to look at, but the message is clear: buy our clothes, not our models.”
Though the retailer’s strategy was particularly ill advised I’m not sure I read any deliberately dubious intentions. Frankly it strikes me as a rather sophomoric attempt at cost cutting. I am concerned however, with the side effects of this practice. Does the use of fake models set up an unrealistic expectation of perfection among women? Or does it legitimize an expectation that already exists? Contemporary human fashion models most often do not present a realistic representation of the average female body. Not even close. However the employment of computer generated models, whereby an advertiser can literally code whatever model body measurements they like, literally says to ordinary humans, model or otherwise, “You’re not good enough.” I find this particularly troubling and more than a little misogynistic.
More H&M Computer Generated Models
Indeed, what does this say for the company’s regard for women, it’s primary customer base? Not only is the company legitimizing an unrealistic aesthetic, they are literally dehumanizing half of the world’s population. Placing a real model’s disembodied head onto a fake, computer generated body, a body that is exactly identical to several other fake bodies sporting real heads, is just…offensive. Terribly so.
Additionally, I find the practice of designing all women’s bodies identical immensely troublesome in itself. If the idealized collective male fantasy is a world where women are literally interchangeable then we as a society are in trouble indeed. Real women’s bodies aren’t identical. Even supermodels figures have variations. While I do suppose it would make it easier on clothing manufacturers if they only had to make clothing in one size, the idea of a world populated with bodily identical women is frankly disturbing.
It is time for retailers and advertisers to realize that the images that they disseminate are more far more than just advertisements for goods. Indeed they are cultural artifacts in the truest sense of the term. Contemporary advertisements are inevitably informed with the aesthetic sensibility of the context within which they appear. As much as they promote they also reflect. Perhaps unwittingly, they reflect cultural norms, mores, desires and expectations. They are imbued with meaning far beyond the intentions of the photographer or the commissioning brand. Accordingly they wield a tremendous power that extends far beyond just selling attire. Indeed I contend that images unconsciously promote the idealized self. Now it should be a little more evident why the employment of idealized computer generated, nay computer manipulated, models is a spectaularly bad idea.
Of course I am not suggesting that the masses of the ad viewing public are mindless drones literally powerless to defend our virgin eyes from the whims and caprice of evil brands. Far from it, in fact. The brands, though often misguided, aren’t evil, and the layer of cultural encoding that results from advertisements is complex and nuanced. No one can state with certainty that any advertisement has a direct effect on consumer behavior. It is the cumulative and collective effects, effects that indeed have nothing to do with short term consumer behavior, or merchandise sales, that I am referring to here. The negative effects of cultural artifacts like the H&M fake model images are far more subtle – and ubiquitious – for both for the viewer and the producer. They make it ok to objectify women, they promote a literally unattainable (unless one day we really will all live in the Matrix) aesthetic ideal, and they legitimize and promulgate the Stepford fantasy…just to name a few.
Poor H&M. It seems the retailer has unwittingly created their own little army of long legged digital Frankensteins. While their computer generated models showed off their merchandise beautifully, and cheaply, they also did a superb job of showcasing a contemporary ethos bent on misogyny. Good job, girls! Well done! Like the aforementioned movie producer in the film Simone, the brand may find it in their best interest to destroy their creation before they are able to wreak more havoc. However if that film taught us anything it’s that digital cultural artifacts have a way of taking on lives of their own.
The title of this book is in no way misleading. It is, in fact, a very short introduction to the history of fashion. Arnold takes the reader on a helicopter ride through fashion’s past, present, and future, hovering far above specific instances to locate very broad patterns. Some of these include the rise of the designer, the intersections between art and fashion, the development of the fashion industry, the impact of globalization, etc.
For the most part, this book did exactly what it was designed to do. It painted the history of fashion in very broad strokes so that we were able to identify areas in which we would like to dig deeper. For each chapter, Arnold lists possible sources for further reading. Some that seem particularly interesting to our project are:
The journal Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture.
Paul Jobling, Fashion Spreads: Word and Image in Fashion Photography since 1980
Annie Phizacklea, Unpacking the Fashion Industry: Gender, Racism, and Class in Production.
Rebecca Arnold, Fashion, Desire, and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century.
Hazel Clark and Eugenia Paulicelli, eds. The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization.
Though the book could only ever deal with any issue on a superficial level, I was able to tease out a few items of interest to the intersection of fashion and emerging media. Continue reading »