Modernism and Fashion

I’ve recently been thinking about the idea of Modernism as self-reflexivity. As art critic Clement Greenberg heralded the work of the Abstract Expressionists, he claimed that the importance of their work was due to a sort of Modernist self-critique, a search for purity in art – which in this case boiled down to highlighting the flatness of paint on canvas.

This Kantian notion of critique pervaded the work of the painters such as Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis as they sought to re-imagine the process of applying to paint to canvas.

In light of these concerns, I’ve been wondering about the exact moment of Modernism in fashion? Has it even happened yet? Following from the Abstract Expressionists who used the very medium of paint to critique and redefine painting itself, when, or how, does fashion use the very fabric of clothing to critique itself? I’m inclined to think these issues of sustainability that continue to flutter around the fashion endeavor these days are calling for this sort of critique. Maybe it is time for a re-definition, but can it occur from within fashion? If so, how?

I think about early examples of deconstruction in fashion, when designers began to display seams on the outside and unfinished, raw edges, perhaps commenting on the very process of design and manufacture of clothing.

What other ways can fashion begin to use tools specific to the industry to draw attention to the most important and most essential elements of clothing and design?

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  • Mellissa July 09, 2010 11.55 am

    Martin Margiela immediately comes to mind with some of his creations–including the dress that he designed to emulate the form figure on which many garments are draped and altered…

    And of course Elsa Schiaparelli with her love for, and revolutionary use of zippers in fashion– along with her collaborations with the surrealists. Speaking of Schiaparelli, I just recently saw the Brooklyn Museum show, “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection”, and was thrilled to see so many of her pieces on display. It was so wonderful to see the Brooklyn Museum utilizing their amazing costume collection, and extremely interesting to compare the show alongside the Met’s “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” exhibition. For anyone who has the opportunity to do so, I highly recommend seeing these two shows while they are still up. The Brooklyn Museum in particular, did a really great job!

  • Bertrand September 19, 2013 05.44 am

    Despite regular attempts to elevate fashion to the status of art, historically it seems to belong more clearly to the category of design – whereas Greenberg’s reading of modernism is interesting although representative (as any reading!) of the time and place he produced it (namely: coldwar US) his reading is quite specific to the ‘autonomous artwork’ : art, since the XIXth century, unlike design, has staked claims to self-referentiality and autonomy, which design might have flirted with time and again, but largely avoided.
    In the field of design/architecture, Greenberg’s ‘practical reflexivity,’ that link flatness to abstraction, is mirrored by the notion of ‘truth to materials,’ a XIXth century concept hugely influential on modernist architecture for example, arguing for the appropriate use of building material, against the concealment of structure, and to extent against ornamentation. This prefigures in many ways the functionalist ethos that will drive modernism, both design and art, in the next five decades.
    With this in mind, I would argue as far as I am concerned, that to a large extent fashion is incompatible with modernism: fashion has probably always been infused with ornamentation, but has history unfolded it’s claims to function have largely receded to the point that nowadays fashion’s function is virtually purely semiotic.
    So to have a modernist fashion we would either need to extend the notion of function to the world meaning, which many would argue, is precisely what happened with post-modernism, or have fashion ‘retreat from meaning’ (great masculine renunciation style) to embrace functionality and uniformity in meaning.
    As a matter of fact a number of modernist avant-garde toyed with such an idea, from Rodchenko’s jumpsuit to the bauhaus uniforms, via Thayaht’s tuta. It never took off, but the idea has kept on haunting designers to this present day!


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