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You have to suffer for Fashion
Almond, Kevin (2009) You have to suffer for Fashion. In: Public Lecture University Centre
Barnsley, July 2009, University Centre Barnsley. (Unpublished)
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http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/ You have to suffer for Fashion
‘You have to suffer fashion,’ has been a much used phrase throughout the history of fashion. Degrees of suffering and discomfort have varied and we have probably all endured agonies, in some way, when constructing our appearance, in order to face the world. This could range from a simple cut from shaving, to the discomfort and pain of folding tender flesh into a girdle! These are only two, of numerous possible examples.
Research Background and Objective:
This paper aims to investigate how the body has been distorted, to conform to the demands of fashion, through the cut and construction of fashionable clothing. Initially it will set out to investigate some of the technical methods that have been developed to enable designers to realise fashionable silhouettes. First hand research into the costume archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum and final year 2008 fashion student’s collections from the University of Huddersfield, will facilitate an examination of relevant fashion garments through observation and handling. It will also be interesting to consider how the technology employed in the identified garments can be updated and in particular made more comfortable to wear. This would be of particular interest to fashion students and designers when developing collections. As well as enhancing technical knowledge the investigation will naturally also begin to emphasise the wider moral and health questions that arise from altering the natural shape of our bodies.
The secondary sources are books, magazines and an undergraduate fashion student’s dissertation. The books are either biographies of relevant designers or are sociological investigations into the history and language of dress. The Vogue magazine article (October 2008) is a contemporary investigation into shape in fashion. The student dissertation was supervised by the author and is an investigation into body distortion in fashion. All secondary sources have been quoted to enhance relevant discussion within the paper.
The primary and secondary sources give historical and contemporary insight into how fashion designers have distorted the body and the wider moral and health debate it provokes. They also emphasise traditional and new technology developed to achieve shape. The work also benefits from an interview with an experienced pattern cutter, who accompanied the author to the Victoria and Albert Museum and provided an in-depth technical and historical commentary, as quoted.
Findings and discussions:
To begin with we should consider the whole notion of clothing the body. Clothing and fashion are two entirely separate entities. An investigation into the difference between clothing and fashion is a study itself, however put simply, we clothe our bodies to protect them from the elements, or we clothe them in a uniform to communicate authority or a corporate identity. We fashion our bodies in order to decorate them to conform to a fashionable ideal. How we dress our bodies, either through clothing or fashion presents an aesthetic message to the world that tells us initially who we are. As Alison Lurie says, ‘For thousands of years human beings have communicated with one another first in the language of dress.’ (Lurie, A 1982 p3) The examination of how our attire distorts the body falls into the two distinct areas, of clothing and fashion.
Throughout history, bodies have been distorted. There are still tribes in Asia that practice neck stretching and knee stretching, which is achieved by the wearing of neck and leg rings.
‘One piece with a counterweight at the spine widens over the collarbone. The other, a separate coil, is a cylinder that encases the neck.’ (Koda, 2001, p29).
This is clothing that adheres to a tribal conformity. Fetishists cover their bodies in rubber cat suits or are restricted by corsetry. This is clothing that promotes levels of sexual desire and satisfaction. As Valerie Steele believes;
‘The corset, like the shoe, was one of the first items of clothing to be treated as a fetish, and it remains one of the most important fetish fashions. But it is crucial to distinguish between ordinary fashionable corsetry, as practiced by most nineteenth century women and the very different minority practice of fetishist tight lacing.’ (Steele,1996, p58).
In the early 1860’s women wore huge crinolines, they were uncomfortable, impossible to sit down in and were lampooned by the satirists of the day, however this was fashion and it conformed to a trend. In about 1911 the hobble skirt made a short appearance, it was an ankle length, extremely tight skirt that made walking very difficult, women often tripped and suffered broken ankles, again this was fashion conforming to a fashionable trend.
The question arises as to why fashion is often dissatisfied with the natural shape of the human body. This again is a large area for research. Throughout periods of fashion history the natural body has been celebrated and revered. In other periods it has been reduced (through dieting), padded and corseted, to conform to the fashionable ideal. Social and moral questions obviously arise, particularly when the consumer resorts to extreme measures in order to achieve a silhouette. This has often resulted in bruising, anorexia, bulimia, drug addiction and depression.
To focus on fashion and in particular fashion in the twentieth century, an in depth investigation of its sequential changes produces many fascinating examples of body distortion. Many distortions of the body’s natural shape have concentrated on exaggerating specific parts, in particular, the waist, the shoulders and the bottom. Some fashion designers such as Comme Des Garcon’s, have chosen to build shape and distortion on less familiar areas of the body, in order to subvert our more conventional ideas about body shape and what is flattering. Challenging our pre conceived ideas about body shape, helps to establish new design ideas in consumer consciousness, which in turn can move the fashion industry forward with fresh products.
The following discussion is an examination of fashion garments produced by final year fashion design undergraduates in 2008 at University of Huddersfield. The garments selected focus upon varying degrees of exaggeration and distortion of the natural body shape. These garments are compared with an examination of similar historical fashion garments in the Victoria and Albert Museum archives. The discussion emphasises the design, cut and manufacture of the garments and the degrees of suffering and discomfort, that need to be endured when they are worn. The historical comparison provides a measure to discuss the students understanding of the professional manufacture techniques that need to be understood and mastered. It also justifies the design resonance for the distortion of the body shape and in so doing exemplifies why in some ways, we are prepared to suffer discomfort for fashion.
The first example is Jessica Lord’s recreation of the bell shaped jacket that was introduced in Christian Dior’s New Look collection in 1947 (pics 1,2). The Victoria and Albert Museum jacket is in grey wool and from the New Look collection. Jessica’s jacket is made from green cotton velvet. The pattern has shaped the jacket in at the waist, and then curved the shape out, to create the exaggerated silhouette over the hips. The silhouette is designed to flatter the natural curves of a woman’s body, but it is difficult to sit down in and feel comfortable. The jacket appears clumsy. The bell shape is sustained by ridgeline (a plastic strip that mimics traditional whale bone used in corsetry) channelled in to the lining; unfortunately the ridgeline is too flexible and collapses, unable to sustain the desired shape. A close examination of the Dior at the Victoria and Albert Museum (pics 3) reveals that his bell shaped jacket was tailored in a way that produced a more refined shape. The bell shape was achieved with a clever combination of canvassing and use of the steam iron.
‘At the waist point the tailor did a lot with the iron, shrinking and stretching over the hip pad to give the fabric shape.’ (Leslie Poole, 2008 ) The Dior jacket is also cut in a way that emphasises curvature. The bust looks very rounded because the bust dart has been positioned into the pocket, the jacket is also fitted with a narrow Almond sleeve, with a rounded shoulder. Both jackets obviously require heavy handed manufacture techniques which make them weighty and cumbersome garments to wear.
Suckvir Kainth’s shaped coat dress was a more successful rendering of the bell shape (pics 7,8,9). It used layers of tulle with a hooped hem (ridgeline in the hem). The garment was lighter than Jessica Lord’s jacket which helped sustain the shape. By contrast her hooped dress in jersey and organza was less successful (pic10). Again the ridgeline used to sustain the shape was too flexible and collapsed further experimentation with ridgeline or wires could have improved it.. Many designers have experimented with various wires and boning to sustain shape in garments. John Galliano for instance has used telephone wire in crinoline dresses. The Georgina Godley silk jersey dress at the V and A (pic 11), has used ridgeline in the hem. Students need to be encouraged to stray from the conventional in their sourcing of manufacture techniques when constructing their garments.
Corsets are a classic garment in the fashion industry. Traditionally an underwear garment designed to constrict the waist and flatten or uplift the breasts, it has more recently been popularised as a glamorous outerwear garment in particular by designers such as John Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood. The example examined in the V and A Museum is a Westwood corset from 1996, that was part of a wedding outfit for Jane Levi (pics 12, 13, 14). Made from heavy cotton, it has a stretch power net, side panel for greater elasticity. As Leslie Poole described;
‘All shaping in the bust is suppressed. Its very 1740 in derivation as the boning going across the breast keeps it flat and pushes it up.’ (Leslie Poole, 2008) Whilst the corset looks fabulous and sexy, it distorts the body into a curvaceous and breast enhancing shape through tight lacing and boning. The boning is necessary because the corset is strapless and needs this support to hold the garment up. The discomfort of the wearer can be controlled from minimum to extreme. Corsets can be laced up to a certain pain threshold. Once the muscles have relaxed they can then be tightened again, until the desired waist line is achieved. This level of body modification has been the subject of much health related debate for several centuries. Eline Canter Cremers-Van der Does explains;
‘Tight lacing offered another hazard if carried to extremes; the corset and especially the tapes could, if pulled tight, make a deep ridge, which might ultimately damage the liver.’ (Van der Does, 1980, p115).
She goes on to say that;
‘The corset pushed the liver partly upward, partly down ward; upward it pressed into the lungs, impeding breathing; downwards it pressed in to the abdomen making breathing practically impossible.’ (van der does, 1980, p116).
A final year student, Jamie Glover did her own personal investigation in to the discomfort involved in corsetry for her final year dissertation. Whilst on work placement at a bridal company she had a corset toile made up to fit her personal measurements exactly. The corset reduced her waist by around two inches and she identified her physical suffering in the following;
‘I did begin to feel uncomfortable, being pulled in only that small amount and had to sit down a couple of times, as wearing the corset began to take an effect. My natural body shape was exaggerated but also when wearing the corset, breathing normally becomes increasingly difficult, as you feel restricted as to how much you can breathe in or out. The posture of the body completely changes and makes you stand perfectly straight. While you are wearing a corset, normal every day movements like sitting down or bending over become difficult due to the metal busks that are down the centre front.’ ( J Glover, Dissertation, 2008).
Further examples of interesting utilisation of the corset from the class of 2008 are in Lisa Standing’s corset in taffeta which is heavily boned to defy all gravity (pics15, 16). In the zip dress, the sewing together of multiple zips and mounting them on to an under base give the rigidity required to help the dress stay up and hold its shape (pics 17, 18). The vertical lines of the dress also flatter the wearer although its heaviness makes it cumbersome to wear. Kathleen Osborne’s leather corset (pic 19), worn over a printed jersey dress looks brutal as it sharply underlines the bust and a central husk starkly holds the shape in place.