Culture //

Are clothes still modern?

The relevance of high fashion today.

Art: Ranuka Tandan

The original ‘Cinderella,’ as detailed by the Brothers Grimm, is a tale of frustration and competition. One where, in being incapable of fitting her foot into the illustrious glass slipper, the eldest of the ugly step sisters is ordered by her mother to cut off her toe, swallow the pain, and shove her massacred foot into the slipper to commence her joyous limp into the sunset with the prince.

Such imagery appears near analogous to the historical perception of fashion shows, which showcase the finest wares of an industry prized for the mutilation of not simply a toe, but the concept of what is physically beautiful and desirable as a whole. But although there is a tendency to associate modern fashion with the Cinderella story of aesthetic perfection, embodied by figures like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, modern fashion is not exclusively the work of fairy-tale. For woven into the fabric of celebrity models, logos and brands, is another world of haute couture to which less attention is paid. It is timely to reveal the world of haute couture that possesses a more explicit social and political consciousness, for clothes have the capacity to tell us more about the humanity of the future than any prophet, philosopher or scholar ever could.

The sense that clothing is the conduit to understanding the human self is the theme to which Bernard Rudofsky’s 1947 essay ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ most relentlessly returns. Bearing a detailed historical consciousness, Rudofsky assesses the evolution of fashion into the manifestation of that which is “always artificial, often absurd, and sometimes harmful.” Criticising the existence of pointless pockets in men’s jackets, and outright damning the adage ‘beauty is pain’ through a critique of platform heels, he hewes down fashion to its most simple and practical. Subsequently, ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ has become a progressive manifesto that reconciles clothes with their original purpose; to package the body in such a manner that is functional and resourceful. His context (marked by the notable invention of the zipper) is undoubtedly a far-cry from our own. Nonetheless, the regenerative concept of ‘modernity’ that informs his critique, becomes apparent, as today, the harmful ‘Cinderella’ statement pieces are democratised; traded for the everyman aesthetic made popular by the high-street.

At the heart of this movement, is the veneration of the incoming season of ‘hots and nots’: New York Fashion Week. An eminent fashion banquet, spanning across the last week of February and the first week of March, where the rich and famous flock to feast on the latest trends in haute couture. As the first major celebration of fashion in the new decade, the 2020 gala set a trend that Rudofsky would undoubtedly greet with a sense of glee, manifested by a transition towards social, and literal, comfort.

In the depths of a shadowy basement, a runway is lined with grass. It’s borders framed by a collection of plump sourdough loaves, fruit and vegetables, all from local grocers and bakers. The setting, a product of the melding of high fashion and farmers’ market, was the scene of Collina Strada’s realist vision of the fashion of the future. A solitary woman opened the show; static, reciting facts about green matter and climate change rhythmically, like verses of poetry. A cascade of models followed; pregnant, trans, varying in height, age and cultural heritage, gliding across the runway in a wash of draping tie-dye earth tones and greens, shapeless, yet flattering. The propping up of feet on artificial heels was traded for the familiar lace-up sneaker, perfect manicures replaced by unpainted toenails in spongy slides; the VOSS water bottle pitilessly outclassed by a bedazzled, re-usable, metal alternative.

In the age of fast fashion, Collina Strada detailed the inseparable bond between clothes and the everyday, making the sentiments of global climate change protests so fashionable that they could be featured in the pages of Vogue. Her staging, as much a statement as the clothes themselves, a timely reminder that the decisions that we make about our bodies, what we put on or in them, have direct effects upon the world around us. Harking back to Rudofsky, we are not only emerging from a world of uncomfortable fashion, but a world of uncomfortable acknowledgements of wrongs, from which we must start anew. The agenda of comfort woven into the pieces of Collina Strada speak not simply to the veneration of the mum jean or flat shoe, as wonderful as both those things are, but rather a sense of optimistic comfort in forward thinking, and a willingness to change now for the future.

With a similar consciousness in mind, Gabriella Hearst replaced decorations made of plexiglass and plastic with large bales of shredded, recycled papers- a visual metaphor for the recycling of the old ides of fashion to produce new spectacles that are equally as marvellous, but fractionally as harmful to the planet. Pegged against this background, however, was another story – that of the androgynous power woman.

Women wearing suits is not a new concept. The famed Coco Chanel made waves during the first World War for eschewing corsets and dressing women in suits, the jazz age saw women wearing pants and shorts to participate in sports like horse riding and tennis, and in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first woman to wear suit pants to an official function. But rather than a shocking comment on the blurring of gender barriers, the popularity of the female suit across the 2019 and 2020 fashion seasons signifies a shift wherein a suit, like the humble t-shirt and jeans, is now a fashion staple in not only men’s wardrobes, but women’s as well.

Gabriella Hearst outwardly embraced this fashion evolution. Her pieces – a combination of traditional suits, and large, male-style trench coats – were fashioned from recycled cashmere yarn, Turkish kilim remnants, and regentrified pieces from past collections. These conscious choices signalling that trends are not fleeting, but rather constantly evolving; as a fad, or statement piece of the past, is reimagined to become a staple of the present.

But the power woman finds her home in the line-up of Tory Burch, who from the genesis of her brand in 2004, has been adamant about empowering women in business, as a highly successful one herself. Balancing masculine lines with feminine flourishes, pastel colours and floral prints, the collection was revealed alongside the sultry jazz tones of Alice Smith singing the iconic 1960s anthem ‘You Don’t Own Me.’ With Edwardian-style blouses juxtaposed against slouchy, flat ‘hippy-style’ boots, Burch smoothly fused two worlds that would otherwise not collide; the traditional, conservative aesthetic and the uninhibited ease of the flower-child-freedom-fighter.

Like Collina Strada, her setting, scattered with ceramic sculptures of nude female bodies adorned in flowers designed by female artist Francesca DiMattio, played a central role in conveying her vision; that at the centre of fashion is the story of a singular entity- the body. Her runway told a story of liberation and development, where through the modesty of clothing, the legend of the woman underneath became more clear. Thus, when Rudofsky proposed that the fundamental role of clothes was to ‘package the body,’ he did not mean it in the sense that in clothing we are hiding ourselves from the rest of the world. On the contrary, the evolutionary nature of clothes reflects a constantly evolving narrative, that reproduces the needs, wants, and dreams of those that wear them.

When back in 1947, Bernard Rudofsky asked ‘are clothes modern?’, he asked a question of the imagination, enlightenment and energy of collective humanity. A question centred around the coverings that we wear every day, and the stories that they tell. The runways of New York Fashion Week are a very public chapter of that story; one that many of us watch like a fever dream; a utopian vision where money is limitless and women are no shorter than 5 ft 9. But whilst haute couture is not high street, and the products themselves still remain mostly inaccessible to those that aren’t seated around the runway, the message remains the same. If from the chapter of New York Fashion Week, we can find new ways of speaking about old ways of being, then we can finally see that fashion, from runway to high street, is not just modern – it is transcendent.

The modern Cinderella doesn’t wear a ball gown, she wears a pantsuit.

She doesn’t wear glass slippers, she wears sneakers.

And when the clock strikes midnight, and the haute couture fades, she wears the problems of a world watching on from the farmers’ market outside the runway.