Licentiate Column 14/07/11: But is is art?

Couture week has come and gone for the second time this year.  Held in the run up to Fashion Weeks, the couture shows are not just populated with editors and stylists, but loyal, extra-special customers.  These customers are special because they are rich.  Not just entry-level rich, but Daddy Warbucks rich.
Couture is what wealthy people aspire to buy.  While we lovingly paw the virtual rails of Net A Porter, wondering if next week’s paycheck will cover both the rent and t
he on-sale Proenza Schouler tee, the wealthy person is wondering how much equity they can release on the holiday home to cover the six figures it will take to snaffle a pure white Givenchy couture gown.
These gowns are special – there’s no debating that.  Some are totally unique, all take hundreds to thousands of hours of specialist construction, employing artisan seamstresses, beadmakers, plumassiers and fabric makers.  This fashion army is only employed after the silhouette is painstakingly drawn out by the designer, who is him or herself siphoning off a personal list of carefully chosen influences and distilling itself into a singular, original vision.  Juicy Couture it is not.
With that in mind, I posed a personal question on my facebook and twitter and facebook account.  What is couture?  Is it art? Is it craft?  Is it commerce or is it total, wasteful irrelevance?  I was both heartened and disappointed to see that everyone without exception thought that couture was a legitimate artform, with several declaring it both art and craft.
Heartened because everyone without exception believed in the importance and vital, transformative power of clothing.  Disappointed, because the was no wiggle room for debate.
The Wikipedia definition of art (it IS a legitimate research resource, okay?) is ‘the process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions and intellect’. If that is true, the
n haute couture clothing is definitely art.
Then again, under that criteria, a well-timed squeaky fart in a room full of prepubescent boys is also art, as it stimulates both the senses (smell being but one) and emotions (either annoyance, shame or deep amusement), if not the intellect.
Art is not so easy to define.  A fart is not art.
I studied Art History in college, and one of my old buddies believes that couture is de
finitely art.  It’s takes specialist skill to complete, it’s aspirational, i’s open only to the very wealthiest people, it’s the product of a person’s creative vision.
But, she argued, high street clothing could also evolve into art, because if Andy Warhol could do it with his mass produced screen prints, then why can’t Topshop. Create a covetable design, release a large (yet limited) release, then watch the crowds scramble over themselves to get a copy.  This brings to mind the recent Lanvin/H&M collaboration, where people queued for hours to get their hands on a small slice of relative exclusivity.
Jo Dingemans, a lecturer at the London College of Fashion, believes that fashion cannot be art but ‘high craft’, because it is impossible to wear a concept.  On the hanger, maybe it’s a work of art.  But on you, the meaning of the garment is changed; something that never happens with painting, sculpture, music, literature or film.
The true meaning of art is tricky and elusive; it can be subjective because it is incredibly personal.  Until an ironclad definition is found, then couture can be both art and craft, commerce or spiritual communing.  You’re wrong and you’re right.  Sometimes the middle is the best place to be.


The Mondrian Dress

It’s all about fashion in relation to art this week.  We’ve done Bernini and Rodarte, Madame Gres and sculpture.  I might as well round out the week with a little bit of YSL and Piet Mondrian.  No more art for a while then, I promise.*

A page from a Met catalogue (I think, correct me if I'm wrong)

Sylvie Fleury - Untitled (Mondrian Dress), 1993

The Mondrian dress, one on Yves Saint Laurent’s earlier triumphs (in 1965) has been imitated and disseminated since it’s inception.  Art has been turned into a dress, which is turned back into art (see Sylvie Fleury’s picture above).  Even Lady Gaga is in on the act, constructing an overwrought metaphor for fashion as one big Mondrian dress in her first column for V Magazine.  Read it here.**

Since buying a sewing machine, I’ve been looking and looking for a vintage YSL pattern by Simplicity, but it’s incredibly hard to find.  This woman made a dress out of a pillowcase and placemats, something I have to try very soon.

Failing that, a DIY project is definitely in the works.  Maybe I could paint a car…

From Nathan Manire on flickr

*probably not.  Well, maybe.

** Lady Gaga’s column needs a whole post of it’s own, though I’m torn between being really critical or really laudatory, which ultimately ends up being really, really confusing.  At the very least it’s the best celeb fashion column I’ve ever read, which is, unfortunately, not saying much.

rodarte couture 5

Fashion and Art: Rodarte Couture

Peach crinkle chiffon and taupe georgette pleated and tulle gown, and peach feathers with pleated gold belt and shoulder pieces.

Rodarte recently unveiled their first couture collection at Pitti Immagine in Florence.  The ten gowns were based on the frescoes painted by Fra Angelico in the monks cells in San Marco and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture of The Ecstacy of St Theresa.

Understandably, I’m having a huge art history fangirl moment.

Rodarte are sticklers when it comes to detail, so setting and placement are very important, but I also think that the setting and placement of their Renaissance influences are important when it comes to interpreting their pieces (and these dresses are as close to art as clothing can be, so they beg a bit of analysis).


Even though Fra Angelico’s murals were painted for monk’s cells, occupants of these cells included members of the Medici family, who were the most powerful family in Florence and noted patrons of the arts.  Cosimo de Medici would use the cells for some incredibly expensive alone time.


Bernini’s sculpture is one of the most controversial art pieces of the Renaissance, with what can be interpreted as extremely sexual overtones.  Take a look at Teresa’s face.  Is it intentional or just out modern smutty minds.  The sculpture is flanked by two balconies of realistically-rendered observers, who are very interested in the action going on down below.  In both artworks, there is an element of being watched and of patronage, the rich paying out for art.  That’s the connecting line between couture and art – both are intricately one-offs made to detailed specifications for rich clients

Here are some of the gowns.  I love the belts and breastplates – They’re SOOOOOO Bernini (said in the manner of Kim Kardashian).


Pale and bright pink silk georgette and chiffon pleated and draped gown with hand beaded Swarovski crystals and a gold pleated metal breast plate


Lime silk georgette and crinkle silk chiffon Pleated gown with hand molded Easter lilies, feathers, and Swarovski crystals, Aqua silk georgette and sequin release pleat ocean gown


Cantaloupe pleated Silk, draped silk georgette, and taffeta gown with gold ray belt


l-r, Lapis Silk Chiffon Release Pleat Gown with Electric Blue Sequins and Lavender Silk Gauze. Off White Silk Georgette Pleated Gown with Off White and Crimson Crinkle Silk Organza, Silk Chiffon, Lace, Satin and Crepe Waves, and Hand Molded Easter Lilies decorated with pearl and Swarovski Crystals. Dusty Blue Silk Georgette Release Pleat Column Gown with Pink Silk Satin, Dusty Blue Gauze, Pale Pink and Dusty Pink Feathers, and Swarovski Crystal Element


Gold lame, silk and hammered sequin gown with feathers, a gold headpiece and Swarovski crystals

Rodarte photos from Autumn de Wilde


Licentiate Column 16/06/11: What makes a style icon?

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There are certain phrases that get bandied about by fashion magazines, usually when a writer is bored or an editor is lacking in imagination.  These phrases include classic offenders like ‘the new black’ or ‘bang on trend’.  Here’s an example.  ‘Lazy journalism and sad, trotted-out cliches are the new black; in fact, one might say that this bloated, terminally sluggish way of writing is bang on trend.’
These are words that are overdone, outmoded and obsolete.  They’ve been published so many times they no longer make sense.  It’s not unlike repeating the word ‘spoon’ to yourself over and over until the word eventually loses all meaning.
Words like ‘fashionista’.  Words like ‘key pieces’ and ‘must haves’.  Words like ‘covetable’ or  (and I unashamedly shudder as this is typed) ‘funky’.  Words that jump completely from their actual dictionary meaning to garbled fashion Esperanto.
Let’s not forget the Big Momma of fashion cliches.  The perennial ‘style icon’.
I’ve been (rightfully) accused of using the word ‘icon’ far too often.  Every writer does.  It’s just far too easy to pick stylish people whose personal taste in clothing has outlasted the vicious six-monthly cycle of fashion and lump them in the category of immortal stylishness once they became difficult to categorise.
In the fashion publishing world ‘style icon’ means ‘I want her wardrobe.  She’s either old enough to have lots of vintage or thin enough to get lots of couture freebies’.
But that’s not what an icon is.  In it’s strictest definition, an icon is a religious work of art.  If an icon can mass millions of copycat followers who draw personal guidance from it’s every move, provoke international hysteria, veneration and an unhealthy public obsession with the sacred thing’s appearance, then Kate Moss is definitely a style icon.
An icon can also be used in the language of symbols.  An icon can be a person, place or thing that can represent something else of a greater significance.  Audrey Hepburn dressed in a Cecil Beaton monochrome costume for My Fair Lady = Style Icon.  Cate Blanchett in Givenchy Couture at the Oscars = Style Icon.  Kim Kardashian in a stretchy satin bandage dress at an  inredibly anonymous product launch with a gigantic American Football player on her arm = Style Icon (of a sort).
As an aside, I find it very interesting that a person is never a style icon, it’s the way that they’re represented.  It’s the clothing that makes the person an icon.  Maybe Polonius was right after all.
The problem is that, as the world gets smaller technologically, it gets more and more crowded.  Our ability (some might say suicidal need) to instantly share information means that more and more of these ‘icons’ are being shoved into a small space.  There just isn’t enough room to go around.
Not all style icons are created equal.  For every Marilyn Monroe there’s a thousand Paris Hiltons.  They really should be split into leagues in descending order of stylishness, like British football.    Do you think that Manchester United versus Yeovil Town would be a fair match?  No, me neither.
Instead of style icons, we should have style gods, style heroes, style deities, style inamoratas, style simulacrums, style mediocrities and style ‘marks for effort’.
The only trouble is who is going to go to all that effort and categorise all these clotheshorses.  Not me, that’s for sure.  Because I am a fashion journalist, and I am far too lazy.

Licentiate Column 09/06/11: Clothing as Memory

How do you remember people? Do you use mnemonics, or acronyms or mind mapping? Or are you one of those people who has an eye for the little details? Is it the face you remember, or the voice, or the perfume?
Memory is a funny thing. Anything can trigger a once-buried picture into either painful or joyous resurrection from the deepest, darkest regions of the hippocampus or temporal lobe.

In a hens-teeth email from my father (as in ‘as rare as..’) he wondered what images of him were built in the minds of close friends and family.

We had just been sent a picture of my grandparents when they were both very young. My grandfather is impossibly chiseled in white tie and tails. My grandmother is radiant in floor length chiffon, blissfully unaware of just how many children she’s going to have. It is Christmas Eve. She is sporting a brand new engagement ring. They are both very happy.

They are not the parents my father remembers. He remembers my grandfather with a perpetual cigarette in his right hand. I barely remember him, because he died when I was very small.

It’s the little details that you remember, the trivia that acts as infill and enriches the bigger pictures. You might remember a person’s filthy anecdotes, you might remember their grating verbal tics. All of it adds up to a memory. I remember a person’s clothes.

It might seem shallow to see the world through material things (in both the literal and figurative sense) but your memory glues itself to the aspects of a person to which you pay the most attention. It seems that I’ve been a clothes monomaniac since conception.

My father? Shirts. Floral shirts form Liberty, stripes by Paul Smith. My mother? Black Agnes b and rows of jersey wrap dresses hanging in their dry cleaning bags. My brother is tracksuit pants occasionally tucked into socks, my sisters are cocktail dresses and bright, Alexander Wang-ish vests, the collars slightly blemished by the odd dab of foundation. My mother’s mother is a pair of neatly ironed slacks in stone and olive.

It’s this way of thinking that leads me and many others to believe in the importance of vintage clothing. Every piece tells a story. It might mean nothing you you, but that tie belonged to a father, a brother. Even though they may have discarded it, it can still hold some powerful and distinctive memories for another person (if not a powerful and distinctive odour). That Penneys top may be super-cheap and on-trend, but is it really that special? Is it the stuff that memories are made of?

This isn’t a diatribe against cheap clothing and for designer goods, it’s a call to realise how important old clothes are. Because, when a loved one leaves you, what are you left with? There’s you. There is a full, yet empty wardrobe. And there are your memories.

Licentiate Column 07/04/11

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a talk given by one of Ireland’s foremost fashion editors. She spoke about her teenage years and the birth of a clothes obsession, raiding her granny’s wardrobe for vintage threads, taking the bus to London and razoring the Topshop tags off her purchases (a pre-EU measure to throw the customs man off the scent).

It sounds a lot like the gestation period of any fashion-fixated teen, except now we’re detagging tops from Woodbury Common, not Oxford Street. It seems as if nothing has changed. Is this a template that we all follow? Discover the joys of clothing at an early age, then let it develop naturally through occasional, light cross-border smuggling?

But, while the measures in which the individual grows to love clothes never changes, society goes through convulsive totterings, from one cultural extreme to another, and often because of the most unexpected catalysts.

In 1995, there was a heatwave. Not the Irish heatwaves that we’re used to, in which there’s three days of fine weather and everyone migrates to the beach purely out of fear that the nice weather will end before the planning permission for the first sandcastle comes through. A proper heatwave – with water rationing and yellow grass and a million lobster-skinned Hibernians hovering around the place with barely any clothes on, displaying tatty bra straps and previously unseen cleavage.

It was this heatwave, the fashion editor proposed, that was the driving force that knocked Ireland headfirst into modernity. Before then, we were prudish about showing our breasts, unaware of the technology of ceramic plates for hair-straighteners and unwilling to let our unique Irishness be subsumed into a European mould.

Before 1995, the bodycon dresses that we see in every town in Ireland on every Saturday night would have been the Church-intervening kind of scandalous. Afterwards, the typical pale-faced colleen was about as visible as a unicorn. That summer was the starting point for a baby boom and, some might argue, the real start of the Celtic Tiger phenomenon. We had our first taste of the good life; the heat, the cleavage, the acts that inevitably precede a baby boom. We didn’t want it to end.

Could a heatwave really be the starting point for Modern Ireland? Were these the bra-straps seen around the world? Well, yes.

It’s a perfect storm. A heatwave did change the way that we wear clothes, but it’s was a rare combination of cultural,economic and social factors that accelerated this change, going from zero to couture in less than a decade.

It was the start of a decade of excessive prosperity. It was the decade when the Catholic Church loosened it’s moralising grip on the country. Travel became cheaper. Women began to see what life was like on the other side. We wanted change. We wanted progress. We wanted freedom.

It was then that Dunnes started selling lacy bras. See what I mean? The perfect storm.

Licentiate Column 31/03/11: Reactionary Dressing

If my Junior Cert science knowledge serves me well (and it probably doesn’t), one of Isaac Newton’s laws of physics is, ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. While this applies in relation to centrifrugal forces, it’s also relevant to our everyday lives – and to think we were convinced that it would have no practical application once we left school.

Whatever your political preference, whether left, right or maddeningly, non-commitally dead-centre, we are all rebellious reactionaries. Reactionary dressers, that is.

Like most deep set neuroses, I believe that this starts in early childhood. A child is dressed by his or her parents. They are the dictator of the toddler closet, the holders of the keys to Gap Kids. You will wear those pink corduroy dungarees and you will have this pudding-bowl haircut. You have no choice in the matter.

From a very early age, a person gets a sense that there’s a way that you want to dress and a way that you have to dress, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Both of these things play off each other. The more rigid the uniform, the more expressive and off-the-wall the remainder of your wardrobe will be. This is where Newton comes into the equation. Here’s the science bit.

Friend A works in a chain sportwear shop on the high street. He is required to wear Brand X for work, but his distaste for X means that he now buys Brand Y for his days off. In fact, he buys much more Y than he did before he started at work. It’s a reaction to the dreaded brand X. Q.E.D.

Friend B is a impossibly polished medical consultant in a large private hospital. When someone sneezes in her presence, she thinks they’re making a medical point about Jimmy Choos. She get manicures twice and blowdries thrice weekly because of the sheer wilful need to look professional in front of her influential, much older, mostly male peers. On her off days she goes to Tesco in her pajamas.

In a wider scope, almost all countercultural movements of the twentieth century are reactions to the establishment. The hippie ethos was born out of disgust with the American government and stifling social norms, but the clothing was a calculated counter-attack to these norms. It shocked Johnny Crewcut out of his complacent haze and into a more, er, lycergic one – one that involved bell bottoms and a helluva lot of suede fringing.

For some reason, this is a phenomenon that has only come to maturity within the past hundred years. The Surrealists shocked the world in the earlier part of the century, but part of their shock value was that they looked incredibly respectable, in three-piece suits and soft homburgs. Even then, their clothing was a reaction – a deliberate effort to buck against what was expected of them, which was to outwardly express what deviants they were.

From shoes, to outfits, to social groups, from traditional national dress to battle uniform even to schisms in society at large, all reactions are governed by the actions that precede them. Once you start to notice these reactions, you life may start to take on a Da Vinci Code-esque significance as you count all the coincidences that pop up almost out of nowhere. For me though, there’s a straightforward explanation – it’s simple fashematics.

Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

>Archetype – original model: something that serves as the model or pattern for other things of the same type

Stereotype – oversimplified conception: an oversimplified standardized image of a person or group

There’s something about the tactile quality or paper and the sheeny gloss that makes looking at a picture in a magazine much more satisfying than staring at a screen.  I love Stern’s Fotografie series, which focuses on a different photographer each issue, and is mercifully spare with words, because my grasp of German is pretty dismal.

The next issue, out on June 7th, focuses on Karl Lagerfeld and Claudia Schiffer’s collaborations over the past 20 years and will include never seen before self portraits, polaroids and reminiscences that will probably have me breaking out my secondary school German-English dictionary and wondering what the hell der Dudelsack is.

There will be six different covers of Claudia, shot by Lagerfeld in a series of costumes (see them at the ASVOFF site here).  The price is pretty steep, but I’m looking forward to getting mine in the post.

But wait, what’s this?


Is it just me or is controversy over blackface in fashion editorials the new, er, black?

Hmm, something’s not quite right here but I can’t put my finger on it…

Granted, someone probably thought that the only fitting way to accessorise classic 80’s power shoulders was with an electrocuted expression and a convoluted Diana Ross tribute.

Maybe someone thought that this was delightfully satirical (though off the top of my head can’t think of a satirical connection between blackface, 80’s Chanel, Lagerfeld or Schiffer).

Maybe this is supposed to be incredibly post-modern and the intention is to somehow reappropriate blackface as a non-racist form of expression (though that’s virtually impossible due to the deeply entrenched racist vein of blackface and no such declaration of reappropriation has been made).

The other covers that I’ve seen are broad archetypes; Claudia the businesswoman, Claudia the 18th century aristo, Claudia the Muscle Mary.  In this case Claudia is the person and the clothing is the archetypal template she fits into.  However, by disguising the things that signify Claudia Schiffer (like her blonde hair or the colour of her skin) she stops being a person in costume and starts to portray a stereotype.  Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Photo – Stern Fotografie

I Heart De Geuzen

>There’s not really much that I can say about De Geuzen, because when I try to explain it I end up going in circles and confusing myself  The website itself is a bit like peeling an onion, but with much less crying. Every time I click into a section, there’s something within it to explore, then another thing, then another thing…  But I can say this much:

 – They are three women working together on a project basis and can be found at .
 – The Geuzen website is a smorgasbord of interesting, interactive bits and bobs that engage and encourage people to think about feminism, fashion, art and communication.
 – My favourite part of the website is the DIY section, where you can find instructions for such useful things as popcorn cones to your own temporary library.
 – My favourite item in the DIY section (see why I keep getting so confused?) is the paper dress.  This isn’t your average paper dress though (if there is such a thing as an average paper dress).  This is part of the De Geuzen Uniform Series.  According to De Geuzen;

“The Uniform Series is a developing line of identity apparel uniquely tailored for De Geuzen. Negotiating the border between guise and disguise the garments suit a plethora of identities and a multitude of occasions. Seen as a whole, the outfits constitute a set of Geuzen vows.

Made in collaboration with fashion designer Margreeth Olsthoorn, this uniform is constructed from a paper pattern. Accompanied by step by step sewing instructions, the pattern requires a knowledge of subtle engineering and basic handy craft. The uniforms come in three different styles (Model Femke, Model Renée, and Model Riek) and promote a ‘do-it-yourself’ work ethic.
Crisp and tailored, all three garments combine amazon armor aesthetics with origami know-how.”

This is the third effort in their Uniform Series.  Keep it white and it’s an austere, clean uniform.  Scribble over it with felt-tips however, and it’s a different proposition – an ability to subvert a uniform into a totally different thing altogether.


Maybe when I have the inclination and resources to do this DIY* I’ll take my cue from last year’s Grayson Perry collaboration with Liberty on their series of art fabrics. Maybe spice up a floral print with some dolls, gravestones machine guns, and damned-soul-ish face-type scribblings.

Grayson Perry for Liberty – images from Clothkits 

*Which is never, because I’m one of those people who makes all sorts of grand crafting plans but never ever gets around to sticking Tab A to Fold B.  It’s a curse.


>So last month, two things happened. Someone in my family died and I bought a book. These two things might not seem connected now, but it will make sense soon, I promise.

The book was ‘Isms… Understanding Fashion ‘ by Mairi MacKenzie. It’s a pocket-sized book with two-page spreads explaining every major fashion wave from the sixteenth century to present day. From Baroque to blogging, it’s all there in concise, clipped paragraphs. Precursors, related trends, even lists of where you can see costume archives of a particular trend are organised according to country at the end of every list.

But I’m jumping ahead. A month ago my grandmother passed and I found myself in my hometown with a duffel bag full of glittery dresses, army boots and coloured tights that I must have packed in a peyote trance. The crumpled clothes in the bag look like something a Care Bear would puke up after overindulging in too much sunshine and rainbows.   I went into town to try to look for something appropriate. I picked the first black dress I saw and went home. I didn’t want to make a statement, I didn’t  want anyone to admire my taste, I didn’t want anyone to look at me.

So, for the last month or so I haven’t really cared about anything fashion-y. Last week I bought a dress for my sister’s 21st birthday party to find that I was no longer a small size 10 (6 to you US readers) and that I couldn’t fit into my pre-picked party dress. That was what snapped me out of it. Until then I was wandering around feeling a bit sad, looking very sloppy and totally unsure of what to do.

There are dress guides for weddings, for dates, for job interviews. But no-one seems to set out a dress code for funerals anymore. It would be so much easier if all the hard stuff was done for us. All the worrying about whether you look respectful and proper (probably the only occasion that worries me in that way).  Mourning is so hard that worrying over a trivial thing like what to wear while doing so makes it all the harder. And if only there was a way of letting people know before they bound up to you in the street and breeze ‘How are you, any news?’, with the inevitable awkward, ‘Well, my Nan died there last week’. And then the terrible silence…

L-R Plate of a child’s mourning dress from an Ackermann’s catalogue c. 1809,  Middle class family in mourning dress, 1913 (analysis here ), Queen Mary in Mourning Dress, 1913.  Jordan take note – homegirl liked her bling.

This is where I tie in with ‘Isms..’. One of the fashion movements the book covers is called Ritualism – the strictly regimented system of mourning during the Victorian era. Women had to jump through a seemingly never-ending set of hoops to show that they were mourning properly and not to do so was a source of public shame. Books and women’s magazines pored through the subject much in the manner of Trinny and Susannah, with less emphasis on Spanx and droopy boobs. One of the American books I found, The Art of Dressing Well (1870) is viewable in full online and is full of bon mots concerning heavy mourning, half mourning and non-fat, sorry, ‘light’ mourning.

Think of it like a school uniform – universally hated, but still useful in deflecting the dilemma of what to wear in what could be an emotionally fraught situation.  I don’t think that we should go back to the days of mourning for women at the threat of losing their social respectability by any means (because that means so much in this day and age…).

I suppose it would just be nice to not have to tell people that you’re mourning, not to feel like a shallow idiot when you can’t decide what to wear, to have something to make you look ok and like you’re holding it together for the first couple of weeks when all you really want to do is wear pajamas all day and watch The Jeremy Kyle Show.