Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fashion/Compassion - Ad/dressing the soul

Fashion is all about innovation.  The history of fashion is the history of change, and over time the cycle has accelerated.  Yearly changes have become seasonal and within each season are now three or four deliveries, bringing the impetus for wardrobe renewals to every few weeks.  Granted it is only the most fashion obsessed and financially secure of us who can hew to this accelerated clip, to actually purchase the merchandise and reinvent ourselves at this rate.  The rest of us with more reasonable pocketbook resources who are fascinated by the rag trade can follow the developments in magazines, blogs, television spots etc.  And of course as a man I am necessarily relegated to sideline vicariousness, appreciating and admiring the developments in women’s wear, which overwhelmingly dominate the market and the creative field.  For guys the width of a lapel, or the width of a trouser or the width of a tie are as seismic a shift as our wardrobe seems goes through.   Women get to explore a vastly broader range of color, shape, texture, fabric etc, just as they are freer to reexamine historical and cultural associations, revisit old styles to make them new again. And newness again is the order of the day, everyday.


It makes one wonder then what could possibly come next, what after the great philosophical accomplishments of the modern world, where art, the natural handmaiden to fashion, had developed into pure non-objectivity, to pure conceptualism, to historical/anti-historical post-modernism – where nothing had to actually look like anything else, where paintings became objects, where light became art, where absence became form and so on - what could possibly come next?  We have seen the obliteration of history and decoration through our best minimalists, Armani, Sander, Halston, we have seen reinterpreted historicism from Europe by Mssrs. Galliano and McQueen and we have seen pure visionary insurrection from Commes De Garcon, Hussein Chalayan, Martin Margiela etc.   The Germans have brought us pure utilitarianism, and we Americans have elevated sportswear to meet the unpretentious ideals that our society (once) held dear, just as from our streets has bubbled up anti-style – reactions to a market driven consumer based fashion –thrift shop couture, the “pretty ugly”, a studied disregard for everything.


So then what next? Well a trip to the costume institute at the Metropolitan Museum laid bare for me the next imperative.  Let it be said, I am a Met junkie.  As a native New Yorker perhaps my prejudices come forth but I believe it is the greatest museum in the world.  No other institution of its kind combines the breadth and depth of the entire world’s cultural output in the way that it does.  There Davinci sits comfortably with Donna Karan, Breughel with Bill Blass, suits of armor with Giorgio Armani.  The most recent exhibit at the museum’s Costume Institute, “blog.mode: addressing fashion” is clearly one of those transitional exhibitions between whatever blockbuster ended and whatever comes next.  The result is a wonderful assortment of pieces selected from the Institute’s permanent collection.  The word blog is tossed in to make it seem au courant as do the cluster of computer terminals in which visitors can record their reactions to the show.


The show is bookended by history.  Starting with early American and European gowns, replete with bustles and voluminous skirts, balloon sleeves, corset tops and Georgian décolletage.  It ends with exquisite McQueen and Galliano historical pieces as well.  They feel remarkably new as they unapologetically embrace history in order to explore it.


It’s a fashion endgame that nevertheless opens another door – a revolving one however?  The cycle could go on endlessly and I believe one can innovate endlessly within a form, that there is to Xeno's axiom, infinite space between things, always a half step to be taken and a half step of that step too.  So if history doesn’t matter, if dressing like Marie Antoinette can be as relevant today as it was three hundred years ago, if we can reference a roman sandal, or Greek draperies, an ipod, or even directly reference nature as in the work of… then what territory can we now explore?  The answer I think is to move beyond the sources of our inspiration.  We can make anything look like anything after all, and all things, nature, history and culture are at our disposal to interpret as we like. The time has come to expand the reach of fashion, or no, to expand its relevance beyond how we look and how we express the lives we live.  We must now look into our souls, into the seat of compassion, and dress ourselves accordingly.


The great promise of modernity was to liberate the human condition from the drudgery of manual labor, to conquer disease and hunger, to eradicate poverty and the economic disparities of class and to protect ourselves as much as we could against the caprice of nature.   Surely the material and technological accomplishments of this world have achieved quite a bit of this - even if it is not yet universally enjoyed the potential is nevertheless still there.  The fashion industry has already begun exploring new and innovative methods materials, laser cutting, fabric fusing, digital sintering among them.  It has turned to technology, the hero of the twentieth century, and of the current one as well, for answers to its persistent question – what next?  Stylistically we will have to see, next year’s genius is on the horizon, still in art school, still playing on his mother’s sewing machine in the basement, and we wait for him to stun us with another beautiful idea, another unexpected, inspired revelation. Technology aside however can we meet the challenges now of our newest philosophical developments, mainly our newfound concern for our planet and all its inhabitants?


I go back to the Met.  Perhaps one of the most impressive pieces in the show was a red gown by John Galliano.  It was a stunning sexy piece, placed high on a pedestal at the entrance to the show.  Constructed of a mosaic of crocodile skin on a lace framework.  What an accomplishment and what a terrific failure.  The fashion industry of late has begun to congratulate itself on its newfound compassion and concern for “wellness”.  Through its stewardship the consciousness of breast cancer has been raised to new heights, cosmetics companies are compelled to test and develop products in a “cruelty free” environment, organic materials and processes are now a mark of quality.  Yoga, meditation and other wellness modalities have also been elevated to high status and been translated to marketing approaches as well.  But what, we might ask, does that crocodile think of all this, or the bullfrog, the sable, the cow, the peccary, the stingray/shagreen, the lamb?


I need a new pair of black dress shoes but in all honesty I have been holding off.  Some years ago I stopped eating meat.  It wasn’t easy to do and to this day the smell of bacon is a bitter tease and the thought of a juicy rare steak sets my stomach grumbling.  Not all appetites should be indulged however and my own yoga practice has been an exercise in the show discovery and control of the mind.  But this is not another rant from an angry vegetarian.  In fact the yogi’s abstention from meat comes from the yogic concept of Ahimsa, or non-harming.  It basically is the precept of compassion.  So the impulse to not have to kill or cause an animal to suffer to eat or clothes ourselves is the same impulse to extend compassion to all people and things.  In short – splashing red paint on someone’s fur coat is not a nice thing to do.  For a vegetarian it is a hypocritical act, an Orwellian parlor game.  Another yogic imperative is to not judge.  Whatever karma I might accumulate from living free of meat does not negate the good karma a carnivorous neonatal intensive care nurse might have, or a hot dog loving fire fighter, or a McNugget chomping neurosurgeon.  None are better than others.

My teacher always said, “Try.”  Try to live a vegetarian life.  And the Buddha believed the only real sin was laziness – to think that all of this wasn’t worth it, that life, compassion, joy was not worth the effort.  Why then doesn’t the fashion industry try to do better?  Like I said, stylistically the field is wide open.  I’m a design and style addict as much as the next guy.  The next great idea spurs me on to discover my own, and to take great joy in the incredible human capacity for invention and the infinite expression of ourselves.  People knock the fashion world as superficial and capricious.  Yes it moves at a rapid rate but so do all our neurological impulse, ideas are born and die in an instant.  Fashion is like fireworks, and who hates fireworks?  There is no valid criticism for an honest idea and a little hard work.  Try, my teacher said.  If you fail, try again.


I still need dress shoes and as anyone can tell you for a man a good pair of shoes is a sartorial imperative, the figurative and literal foundation of the presentation of himself.  I don’t think I want my shoes to have once been part of a cow’s leg or back or shoulder.  I don’t think they need to be.


What a world we have created, what a triumph of human creativity and power and intelligence.  At this moment in the developed world there is no real need to participate in the suffering and death of millions of sentient beings to satisfy our hunger, or worse, our desire to look good.  Fashion moves at a rapid clip.  Humanity often at a snails pace.  I have faith though that it will happen and I am waiting here, barefoot.

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