Seemingly Immaterial: Crafting Appearances Through Clothes

by Michelle Labrague

Fashion is material and immaterial—represented by physical garments, it is also ephemeral, temporary, even prone to swallowing itself whole. Its etymology hints at this ambiguity. From the Middle English, fashion means to shape, from the latin, facere to do and make. Yet we take the craft of fashion for granted. Gone in a heartbeat, the fashion moment is fleeting, sometimes lasting an evening, sometimes as short as the length of a runway show. It’s ghostly, disintegrating as soon as it appears. In the age of accelerated fashion, fashionable garments are easy to acquire. However, for most of human history, this easy access was not the case. We used to make our garments by hand, in our homes, beginning with the textiles themselves—spinning and carding raw cottons and woolens and then weaving these threads into cloth. We taught our sons and daughters to cut patterns and tailor garments. In the Middle Ages, women often had a single garment, flexible enough in shape to last through pregnancy into old age. We mended and re-cut our clothes and because cloth was precious, we handed them down. Today we rarely participate in the actual craft, outsourcing the labor involved to far-flung countries.

                             Garment with mold culture                              Studio Martin Margiela, 1997

                             Garment with mold culture
                             Studio Martin Margiela, 1997

A relative of the word facere, fascies means face and appearance, from which we get the term superficial. Fashion deals in appearances, and so critics see it as artificial, overlooking the many interpretative levels on which it operates. In our modern context, the fashion image sees its genesis on the runway or in photographs and then ripples out to the public, shaping the appearance of the human body, a quotidian, and yet dramatic impact. This process of manipulation at once hides, disguises as well as reveals.  In this way, the makers of clothes, make us. Scottish satirist and historian Thomas Carlyle reflected archly on this transfiguration in Sartur Resartus in 1815, “…the vestural Tissue, namely, of woollen or other cloth; which Man's Soul wears as its outmost wrappage and overall; wherein his whole other Tissues are included and screened, his whole Faculties work, his whole Self lives, moves, and has its being?” 

The act of dressing is an everyday one. We live through our clothes, dressing ourselves in preparation for a sequence of events, crafting our identities through the interaction of our bodies with material artifacts. At times this activity is banal, throwing on a t-shirt and jeans to walk the dog or buy groceries. Often our day-to-day activities require multiple changes of clothes as we transition from one environment to another. Some of us shift from work clothes - perhaps a suit- to athletic wear to evening dress, making both functional and aesthetic choices along the way. Do we also shed and adopt personas as we go?  Celebrities are masters of disguise; Lady Gaga and Madonna have built spectacular careers in significant part by fine-tuning their public appearances through fashion. This chameleonic mode has unnerved some enough to criticize fashion, to regard it as fickle and capricious, rather than a thoughtful, mature art form.

I’ve always liked the now old-fashioned expression, “ your slip is showing”. Back when respectable women wore slips as a matter of course, we employed the term to describe an embarrassing slippage between the public and private, a moment of candor some might consider unseemly, an offhand remark you yourself later regretted. In such situations, the hidden is revealed and a metaphorical slip peeks out from beneath the hem. But women no longer wear slips regularly now. Consequently, this expression seems archaic. Has something essential been lost in translation? Has a titillatingly fertile substrate for conversation gone dry?

La Maison Martin Margiela: (9/4/1615)    1997-06-12 to 1997-08-17    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

La Maison Martin Margiela: (9/4/1615) 
1997-06-12 to 1997-08-17
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Pull a single thread and it all unravels so quickly. The work of Belgian designer Martin Margiela, who carefully cultivated a persona through his own absence, comes to mind. Since his start in 1988, Margiela has never given an interview, been photographed or appeared to take the customary designer’s bow at the end of a show. He demands that all communication be conducted via fax only. As the presentation of his Spring 2009 collection, a twenty-year anniversary show, came to a close, Margiela’s staff took the communal company bow in his stead, clad in the label’s minimalist white lab coats. In the age of the celebrity-designer, his Godot-like persona has led some to comment that Margiela himself does not exist--The Independent’s Susannah Frankel characterized him as “a figment of the fashion industry’s imagination.” 

Appropriately, his finely crafted couture garments play with presence and absence, visibility and invisibility. His signature aesthetic makes use of exposed seams that draw attention to a garment’s pattern and construction. These visible seams turn a garment, “inside out,” wherein the interior becomes the exterior. For his Autumn/Winter 1997 collection, Margiela made use of coarse linen, crafting it to resemble a tailor’s mannequin.  As the inside becomes the outside, the craft of making clothes, so alien to many of us now, is visible on the surface. Shapes, from shrunken to oversized, dramatize proportion, sometimes abstracting the body, sometimes accentuating individual physical characteristics of the models. Margiela expands on this theme on the runway itself, presenting his works on models whose faces have been obscured with masks or wigs, obscuring identity and creating anonymity. 

Mold Cultures, La Maison Martin Margiela: (9/4/1615)  1997-06-12 to 1997-08-17 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Mold Cultures, La Maison Martin Margiela: (9/4/1615) 
1997-06-12 to 1997-08-17
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Margiela’s preoccupation with absence points to the darker underpinnings of fashion. In 1997, Margiela worked with a microbiologist to grow mold on garments from previous collections, erecting these literally living dresses at the Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam. As the molds flourished, the texture and color of the garments changed. Ultimately, they disintegrated.  By the end of the installation, the clothing was in tatters, having barely survived the rigors of an organic life form. Fashion scholar Caroline Evans has linked these garments to the 19th century ragpicker, a shadowy counterpart to the genteel woman of fashion. The ragpicker worked at the lower end of the fashion market, dealing in once fashionable and now secondhand goods—in effect trading in the refuse and castoffs of the fashion market. For Evans, Margiela’s references are powerful, evincing melancholy and dereliction as “the reverse of capitalist excess.” Evans is not the only one to draw these parallels. In his Dialogue between fashion and death (1824) Giacomo Leopardi personified the two as sisters, in which the constant change of fashion is akin to the ongoing march toward death itself. Says fashion to death, “I am saying that it is it is our common nature and custom to keep renovating the world.” To which death replies, ”Then I believe that indeed you are my sister and if you want me to, I will hold it more certain than death itself—without your having to prove it with a parish birth certificate.”

As the work of Margiela demonstrates, fashion is artificial-- crafted by human skill, keyed to aesthetics and appearances. Yet this artifice is fundamental to its power, to its ability to create and recreate, its ability to tap into some of the most fundamental of human preoccupations: death, mourning, celebration, commerce, ugliness and beauty. Fashion has that rare ability to speak in tongues, sometimes all at once. 


Sources Cited:

Susannah Frankel, “Martin Margiela: Fashion’s Invisible Superster,” July 16, 2008.

Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle Modernity and Deathliness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Giacomo Leopardi, Operette Morali: Essays and Dialogues, Translated by Giovanni Ceccetti.  Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982, 70