Flattening Fashion

One of my favorite blogs ColourLovers brought to my attention a new cookbook. I have no idea the quality of the recipes in Homemade is Best, but what interested me was that each recipe has a double-page spread of photos of the ingredients, piles neatly arranged in graphic formation. It might make more sense when you learn that Ikea– brand of (often impossible) assemble-it-yourself furniture projects– published it. Take a gander:

In the review Margot Harrington wrote, “Sure, I still want a fat slice of the cake, but now I have so much more appreciation for what goes into it. Makes it seems so much more simple to make, no?” It immediately reminded me of minimalistic and architectural fashion, much of which emphasizes simplicity of pattern. I thought I might be making that now-familiar leap from Everything Random to Fashion (because that’s what I do), and then it turned out that was exactly what had inspired the Ikea project (I won’t let it go to my head):

Ikea on Homemade Is Best “We let ourselves be inspired by high fashion and japanese minimalism. The idea of the book became to tone down the actual cake and put the ingredients in focus. The recipes are presented as graphic still-life portraits on a warm and colourful stage. And when you turn the page you see the fantastic result.

Probably best known these days for her lemongrass coat-and-dress ensemble worn by Michelle Obama Inauguration day, Isabel Toledo’s designs are highly informed by origami, and a similarly Japanese penchant for loose and drapey forms rather than American body-hugging fashions. Toledo’s designs seem to originate with flat patterns of simple geometric shapes and they become draped clothes only later in the process. For this reason, her works are often more interesting to me when seen flat, as FIT did in last year’s “Isabel Toledo, Fashion From the Inside Out” exhibition, revealing the simplicity of pattern and complexity of resulting form on body.

The “Packing Dress” is simply two circles of fabric sewn together with leg, arm, and head holes. Because the pattern is so unstructured, it can be worn front or back, as seen below:

Packing Dress, Spring/Summer 98

The Packing Dress reminds me of Martin Margiela’s more aggressive circular jacket which is far more structured when made of leather, perhaps a bit harder for the average person to wear on the street, but it’s no less delightful:

circle jacket, Spring/Summer 09

Oftentimes the final results of Toledo’s garments on human forms bely the clarity of their pattern shapes; when draped on bodies they bulk up, drape and pucker in complex and interesting ways. Toledo’s Tube Jacket looks completely different on a form:

Tube jacket, Spring/Summer 95

… than when folded flat; the origami influence becomes clear, non?

Looking at Toledo’s dresses, it’s easy to forget that designing garments is not just drawing pretty pictures of pretty frocks– there is a hellofalotta math involved. Making a garment that follows the human form generally requires many odd-shaped pieces to be connected like a puzzle. Consider the fabulous skill involved in being able to visualize a 3-dimensional structure and break it down into 2-dimensional pieces– and vice versa. These days, it’s easy to think, “yes, people who choose that career have a special talent,” but up until the mid-19th century, all women (middle and lower class, anyway) clothed their own households. Many women in the first centuries of American colonization actually raised their own sheep to spin yarn, to weave fabric, to cut and sew clothes for themselves. I’m a crafty person and I’m exhausted just thinking about this process. Visualizing patterns for clothes was not a luxury, it was a necessity.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it took about 14 hours to make a man’s dress shirt and at least 10 for a simple dress. A middle-class housewife spent several days a month making and mending her family’s clothes even with the help of a hired seamstress. And Victorian fashions were distinctly not minimalist, as 20th and 21st century fashions can be. You can see in the group portrait below how voluminous the hoop skirts and sleeves of the mid-19th century were,

portrait in a garden by Franz Antoine, 1850s-60s

and you can even see that two of the women are knitting, and the third has a sewing box in her lap– because clothing their families was a constant female duty, even when “relaxing” in a garden (her expression seems to reveal her feelings about her situation!):

knitting detail

The unending resources and effort expended just to clothe a family is why the Industrial Revolution was, well, revolutionary. A major advancement of the 19th century was the modern sewing machine, invented by Elias Howe (1819-67) in 1845. Ellen Curtis Demorest (1824-98) invented the paper flat dress pattern in the late 1850s to further ease the burden (or at least the guesswork) out of assembling clothes. She and her feminist husband published their own magazine with their paper dress patterns, distributed door-to-door so small-town Americans could emulate French and English fashions more easily, enabling any mediocre seamstress to create and duplicate au currant styles in a variety of sizes without having to possess the truly extraordinary skill of resizing by sight and instinct. I mean, could you figure out how to manipulate this pattern to fit yourself?

Yet another beautiful aspect of Toledo’s designs is that they are extremely low waste. In the pattern above, all the visible blue will be discarded when the pattern is cut. A huge amount of landfill garbage is comprised of textiles, much of which is the scraps leftover from intricate curvy patterns. 12.37 million tons of textiles ended up as Municipal Solid Waste in 2008 in America alone. An important component of the eco-fashion movement is addressing this excess, much of which could be eliminated with designs that work with pared-down shapes, and/or utilizing a piece of fabric from edge-to-edge (as kimonos and other ancient garments were designed to do):

kimono pattern

Though I don’t love everything Toledo has designed, I do respect her commitment to creative design that is ecologically responsible in its simplicity.

Further Reading:

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1 Comment

  • Sarah November 23, 2010 07.26 pm

    Really great post, Tove. There are so many great designers who use unique cutting and pattern-making techniques – I recently mounted a Maria Cornejo circle vest for our Design USA exhibit which was an oval of jersey with three holes (one for the head and two for the arms). The offset placement of the holes made it drape beautifully and allowed it to be worn several different ways. (We also showed Toledo in that exhibit, along with Yeohlee Teng). Other newer designers include Caroline Priebe of Uluru (who Fra and I put into our Ethics and Aesthetics exhibit) and of course my friend Timo Rissanen, whose zero-waste studies were just written up in the NYT! He traces zero-waste techniques far back into history (ever read Dorothy Burnham’s “Cut my Cote”?) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/fashion/15waste.html

     

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