1. How did it all begin?
History tells us that people were always fascinated by manners and mores and what people wear and why the wear what they were. This fascination can be traced back to the Renaissance, if not before, if we consider (and we ought to) the artist and illustrator Villard de Honnecourt (1200 – 1257) who left a sketchbook (in the collection of the Bibliothéque nationale, Paris). The subject matter of his images varies from architectural plans, elevation and decorations, to human and animal figures. But Villard de Honnecourt appears to know a great deal about clothes and this is reflected in the accuracy with which they are depicted and one of his most endearing images has to be that of two wrestlers stripped to the waist engaged in combat. The right figure wears braies (drawers) tied up to the waist whilst the figure on the left wears bas de chausses (low hose).
From Villard de Honnecourt’s times to ours fashion illustration travelled a long way, incorporating new techniques such as fashion photography, inaugurated in 1911 when Paul Poiret commissioned photographer Edward Steichen to photograph his latest collection for publication purposes in the magazine Art et Decoration. And so, fashion photography was born! A century later, fashion has come of age and we se it in the work of Irving Penn, David LaChapelle, Jurgen Teller, Tim Walker, the brilliant Nick Knight, to name just a few. But where do we stand now in our twenty first century with regard to fashion illustration? In fact at no point were Jean Baudrillard’s notion of ‘virtual reality’ truer, because we live in a world removed from reality, a world of ‘virtual’ reality. In his essay, ‘The Procession of Simulacra’ first published as ‘Simulacra et Simulation’ (1981) he argues that ‘the dominance of signs, images and representations in the contemporary world is such that the real has been effectively obliterated’ and consequently ‘truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist’. If our existence really does indeed unravel in an alienated world, just what kind of illustrations would talk to us about this alienated world of ours?
The answer is simple and we can start from the historical and cultural context which created fashion illustration.
What we discover is that we are faced with a wealth of images of all kinds: illustrations, advertisements, documentary films and TV, photography (in most instances of the documentary and investigative kind, rather than fashion) and so, we no longer need to ponder what the images really tell us; we know exactly what they are telling us! In an exhibition organised by the V.&A. Museum, London in 2018 entitled: Fashioned from Nature the ‘Foreword’ in the catalogue was written by actor Emma Watson who mentions a dress on display made for her by Calvin Klein for the Met Gala in 2016 which was rather special because it was made entirely of recycled materials. Watson goes on to specify that ‘part of the gown was produced with sustainability in mind, from the use of Newlife…’
We may be forgiven for not knowing what ‘Newlife’ is but it turns out that it is a yarn made from post-consumer plastic bottles! The key message however is that the central concern of our times has to be ecology.
We conclude by referencing a photograph which representing models wearing eco-fashion clothes created by Indonesian designers Felicia Budi, Indita Karina and Lenny Austin, taken during a ‘Detox Catwalk’ organized by Greenpeace in a polluted paddy field in Rancaekek, Jawa (2015).
The categorical status of this image is difficult to fathom: we cannot call it a fashion photograph although it deals with the world of fashion but on this occasion in a critical rather than sycophantic way; we cannot call it a documentary photograph of the kind taken by photographers embedded in newsworthy locations, and we cannot call it investigative journalism. although that dimension exists and most certainly it is not an advertisement! Perhaps we can just call it a sign (the word used in the sense given it by Roland Barthes as the result of the conflation of the signifier (ere the polluted tow n of paddy field in Rancaekek) and the signified (which is what the anonymous photographer aimed to capture) and therefore we are looking at a photograph we can simply call a sign of our times.
Sanda Miller, London.