The word ‘utopia’ refers to an imagined state of perfection, a hopeful future, the opposite of what could go wrong with the present world. First mentioned in a text with the same title by Thomas More in 1516, it describes an island where people have no need for fashion because everyone is involved in making their own clothes from the production of cloth, such as wool, flax and silk to the wearing of simple, undyed garments that only need replacing every couple of years. Only religious figures in More’s Utopia wear brightly coloured apparel, the result of different bird feathers sewn together. Gold and silver are in abundance so, rather than a sign of wealth, they are signs of sin, which means only prisoners and slaves are made to wear it around their necks and torsos. Similarly, gems can be sought anywhere so they are only worn by children who are expected to grow out of this infantile habit.
This month, London hosts its first Design Biennale at Somerset House and the theme is Utopia by Design to mark the 500th birthday of More’s original text. With 37 countries taking part, this is an interesting event with many examples of critical, inclusive, social and interrogative designs that raise questions about the status quo through imagining possible alternative futures, just as More did half a century ago. Yet, throughout the show, there is very little evidence of how we might imagine the role of dress and adornment differently as a result of alternative forms of design, production and consumption. Where it is most explicit is in the Indian exhibit where the walls are covered in embroidery hoops, filled with woven fabrics produced by textile weavers across the country that highlight how traditional techniques of producing cloth can create contemporary designs. The hoops are like picture frames, encapsulating the brightly coloured threads like portraits upon which our gaze falls. According to the India Design Forum, responsible for the curation of the exhibit, these circular fabric artworks suggest multiple utopias.
But, overall, textiles feature within the event as a surface for other forms of design. In the Pakistani exhibit, fabric banners appear for the sake of decoration while in the Italian exhibit, the symbol of a white flag is gradually removed as it makes way for more important objects such as furniture, products and graphics. South Africa’s exhibit is arguably the most tactile, with its animal shaped pods suspended from the ceiling made entirely from leather and wool sewn together. It is hard to resist the urge to stroke these anthropomorphic creations, to stop yourself from trying to sit inside them. Annoyingly, there are signs that forbid this, which only makes you want to touch them more. Other than that, I had only the orange t-shirt worn by all the participating staff to consider in terms of utopian dress models.
In terms of dress and what we might all be wearing in a perfect world, there is nothing to be found at the Biennale. Somerset House would probably argue that they have already covered fashion with their exhibition Fashion Utopias earlier this year, in February. The brief event certainly fulfilled an international remit, highlighting emerging fashion designers from 25 countries but the contributions appeared to focus on the finished garment or accessory with no suggestion of how the things we dress up in everyday might be created and consumed differently if we were looking to imagine a more perfect world. Also, the event was only open to the public for five days in total, making it very difficult for many to see the presentations. This was most likely because the event was planned to coincide with London Fashion Week. I understand that it makes for a better, more profitable programme to have fashion separated out from other design showcases, and for anything dress related to be linked up with the fashion industry. The same can be said of the Design Biennale, which both precedes and overlaps with London Design Week.
Yet, I can’t help being disappointed by the omission of clothing and adornment in a more general design exhibition, given that any hopeful future, any imagined perfect state will invariably have us clothed. We will always encounter the designed world through what we decide to wear everyday, even when we claim we care nothing for dress and fashion. Moreover, some of the concerns expressed about the future in the London Design Biennale such as water shortages, the nature of communicative technologies such as wi-fi and virtual reality as well as human migration due to conflict and environmental disasters will all inevitably impact upon the way in which we can dress and adorn ourselves each day. Interestingly, there is one reference to this within the event’s talks programme, which is a discussion on the sustainability of contemporary textile production methods. Unfortunately, that’s it.