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Antifashion: The Left Hand of Fashion

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Fashion trends change depending on the increasing pace of history and consumerism in society; as well as economic, political and moral difficulties (Jean-Paul Aron as cited in Nicklaus, 2012). Despite commercial trends being observable phenomena through a myriad of online sources that showcase runway looks; Young (2016) highlights an opposing force by analyzing counter-cultures and their evolutions. This suggests the fashion wheel turns due to a complex set of reactions to stimuli, primarily challenging and paradoxical in nature, that are brought on by an ever-evolving culture. On the other hand, Polhemus (2011) talks about anti-fashion. He labels it as a form of adornment that strives for continuity and atemporality. This essay aims to delve into the history and relationship between anti-fashion, counter-culture, and the fashion industry, as well as to explore the psychological link between them.

To first understand the relationship between these opposing terms, the role of fashion as a cognitive phenomenon comes into question. This work considers clothes’ function as that of ornament (Flügel, 1969; Polhemus, 2011). Afterwards, it will explore selected trends in time, and examine their positivistic relationship to human emotion and perception, as defined by the negotiation of selfhood and their role on hedonic and eudeimonic well being (Pine, 2014; Masuch & Hefferon, 2014). Finally, this essay also appraises the processes of consonance through dissonance according to Festinger’s Theory (1957) when exploring the contradicting perceptions the subject matter provokes on individuals in social groups.

Yohji Yamamoto defines anti-fashion as the deliberate ignoring of fashion trends. He declares that

“Fashion is fashion. It’s like air. So we breathe the air; so naturally, we are influenced or polluted. Fashion goes changing every three or four years. But in that meaning, I am not a fashion designer. I don’t chase the trend” (Yamamoto as cited in Nicklaus, 2012).

Atelier Sesenta y Cuatro draped back blazer toile.

Considering this definition, it may be posited that while fashion relies on the hedonic responses of consumers in appealing the novelty of fashion trends, anti-fashion relies on the eudeimonic response and creation of self that will nurture the individual. This would transcend the need to strictly follow the fashion system. This account could be supported by Polhemus (2011) who says, in his original 1978 text, that anti-fashion is about identity, continuity, and stability whereas fashion dictates change and novelty. Yamamoto’s quote, however, offers an insight into the need to resolve a dissonance in the influence that fashion will have on his own anti-fashion aesthetic. To further illustrate, an analysis into historical accounts of fashion and counter-culture may permit a deeper insight.

Brown & Smithsonian Institution (2012) showcases a stylistic phenomenon within the young survivors of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie after the French Revolution. Women wore long, white, flowing, and almost transparent dresses (inspired on ancient Greek and Roman sculptures); and were seen along with men that wore dark hued frocks with minimal decoration. These people were called the Marveilleuses and the Incroyables, and their look broke away from the heavily adorned and saturated norm that was expected by the upper class less than 5 years prior in the French court of Louis XVI. They are identified by Young (2016) as an opposing reaction to the Reign of Terror that took place in Paris. She highlights men’s use of high scarves, and women’s wearing of small red ribbons around their necks as symbols of their survival, and remembrance of the victims of the guillotine. This style shift evidences a perception of what transpired during the revolution and its effects. Dissonance, in this case, presents itself as the danger to life presented during the Reign of Terror, and consonance was achieved by a change in dress and behaviour. Also interesting about this case is that a style that was born by the creation of selfhood, which would characterize this as anti-fashion considering Masuch & Hefferon (2014), served as a reactionary agent of change, thus becoming fashion considering Polhemus (2011).

The Marveilleuses and Incroyables (left) mock the Fashions of a shocked couple from Aristocratic France ca. 1800

Other examples of this “contradiction” exist. Both Young and Brown & Smithsonian Institution credit the look that is most commonly associated with flappers to Chanel’s 1918 creation of jersey dresses in Biarritz. The fabric was associated mainly with underwear production, and due to its low cost, Chanel is said to have created these pieces and to have worn them herself in an act of self-expression. This style opposed the luxurious cottons, silks, and brocards associated at the time with the high society that Chanel catered to, and were seen as an act of rebellion. But in 1925, she championed and inspired the garçonne look (Young, 2016; Brown & Smithsonian Institution, 2012) therefore establishing a guideline that served other women in their need for association by the creation of sameness. Taking into consideration the theory of Masuch and Hefferon (2014), she effectively set a standard for others in their process of negotiating selfhood. In this case, anti-fashion had become counter-culture.

The 1920’s led way to various unsettling occurrences: The Crash of Wall Street in 1929, the rise of fascism in the 1930’s, the establishment of the USSR in 1922, and the Second World War at the end of the 1930’s led to a variety of human reactions. Young (2016) explores the German youth’s rebellion against the Nazi regime in the form of swing dancing. This counter-culture saw young people being inspired on the black swing dancers of the United States of America like Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, and other Harlem Renaissance artists. This phenomenon saw one country’s anti-fashion inspired on another’s. Decontextualization allowed for a borderless rebellion. Where teenagers were expected to do the foxtrot, young white Americans, British, and Germans found the expression of their collective selves in the dress and music of black and Jewish composers.

In 1947, Christian Dior unveiled his “New Look” (Brown & Smithsonian Institution, 2012). At a time where people were still used to the rationing that was imposed during the Second World War, Dior’s copious use of fabric and revival of the corset, not seen since the end of the Belle Époque, served as a change that helped the market deal with the left-over dissonance of the war. Polhemus (2011) credits this as an important turning point in Fashion; however, he notes the importance of temporal context in his foreword to the 2011 edition:

“What went on on the ‘street’ […] was most certainly of no interest to a fashion industry which knew full well that it alone (and Paris alone) had the monopoly on taste and good style.” (Polhemus, 2011, p. 7).

Indeed what happened on the streets of London after the Second World War had a global impact. Letts (2012) explored youth culture in a series of short documentaries. Teddys, Mods, Rockers, Skinheads, and other sub-cultures that have each merited chapters in Caroline Young’s book, existed in a moment in time where they could be inspired by international and local affairs while at the same time inspiring other cultures due to the mass consumption of televisions. As an example, “mods”, so called for their affinity to “modern jazz”, were inspired by the importation of media from Europe and the United States of America into the UK. Italian films, French philosophy, and the idea of American Ivy League schools produced in Britain a look of tailored, crisp, forward-looking people. This style was eventually adapted by the Beetles in their beginnings in Liverpool, and was then catapulted around the world.

By this time, television was accelerating the rate at which history was recorded and consumed. Art was reflecting this shift as well. In his Youtube channel "The Nerdwriter", Puschack (2015) meditates on the relationship between the Modernism of the early XX Century and the Post-Modernism that arose to refute it. Where one is focused on making order out of the chaos and opportunity borne of modernity; the latter was set to question the established authority. This attitude was reflected around the world by the Hippy movement (Young, 2016) that was characterized by a penchant for recycled clothing, and political activism that were reflected around the world in the protests of 1968. This global movement can be seen as an illustration of the changes in communication technologies that permit the sharing of knowledge and opinion, and that contribute to the idea of a collective consciousness.

Despite the turmoil of the 1960’s, new possibilities loomed on the horizon. Youtuber Lindsay Ellis (2018) cites the moon landing in 1969 to be the catalyst for the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Herman & Herman (2006) explain the evolution in the themes explored by the genre from technological to humanistic. This is not to say that advanced technology plays no part in these works. Asimov’s “The Foundation Trilogy” explores “Psychohistory”: a science that aids a technologically advanced society to deal with a decadent culture that was meant to plunge into a millennia-long Dark Age by predicting humanity’s future through the study of the behaviour of the past. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” explores gender dynamics and proposes a differing view of the perception of self by narrating the story of a male “Terran” (earthling) emissary that visits a planet populated by sexless people. In the same vein, the “Star Trek” franchise evidences humanity’s desire for political collaboration outside Earth.

The 1980’s saw the rise of ready-to-wear as the dominant business model for fashion (Nicklaus, 2012, Golden Eighties). Designers like Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, and Jean-Paul Gaultier took different humanistic themes present in science fiction to interpret in their creations. Mugler worked with body modifications and “super people”, and Gaultier with cross-dressing and ironies. While they proposed a radical new approach to clothing production, advertisement, and consumption, they were quick to become part of the central fashion industry. In tandem, however, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto proposed a “radical pauper style” that was quick to be labelled anti-fashion due to it’s unsaturated colours, unfinished edges, and irregular proportions (Nicklaus, 2012, Antifashion). Azzedine Alaïa was praised at the Fashion Oscars in Paris in 1985, yet his approach to creating unique and timeless pieces (The Design Museum, 2018), fall into Polhemus’s definition of anti-fashion. At the turn of the millennium, with the democratization of personal computers and the Internet (Nicklaus, 2012, Antifashion), the rate of the exchange of information, music, and style speeds up; and the line between counter-culture, fashion, and anti-fashion blurs, resulting in conflicting styles like emos and hipsters (Young, 2016, pp. 195 & 211).

“Atemporality” is an idea that implies information travels and is shared instantaneously, and history ceases to be linear, but rather composed of incohesive and persuasive narratives (Sterling, 2009; Puschak, 2015; Faulconer & Williams, 1985). Puschak refers to the behaviour and perception changes brought on by the Internet as a major contributor in this paradigm. Despite the confusion that can be caused by this shift in scheme of perception, he posits that the chaos can be used as an opportunity for individuals to intervene in their own present reality; arguably taking Masuch & Hefferon’s theory on the negotiation of selfhood to a new level, implying the creation of one’s own anti-fashion. This idea is reflected by the work of various designers that have capitalized on the consumer’s need for a personal narrative.

Businesses of Fashion and McKinsey and Company (2018) have labelled personalization and customization to be a major trend to tackle costumer’s needs for authenticity and individuality. This highlights a new, yet old approach in the negotiation of selfhood through clothing, where tailors or designers specialized in custom-made apparel can step into the market. Hussein Chalayan’s morphing designs are also called to mind when thinking of personalization fused with wearable technology (Nicklaus, 2012). Gender has also come into question again (BOF, & McKinsey and Company, 2016). Hines (2018) explores gender as a fluid construct of the self, detachable from biological sex. Canadian designer, Rad Hourani was the first to show unisex Haute Couture in Paris in 2013 (Stark, 2014). This provides a level of consonance to the dilemma of gender as nature or nurture by exploring the middle ground, which was already showcased in what is considered the most important stage in fashion (Corner, 2016).

Flügel (1969) categorized clothes as fitting into either fixed or modish types. Polhemus, (2011) labelled these as anti-fashion and fashion respectively in his 1978 work to later understand anti-fashion as “style”. Nicklaus (2012) examines the relationship between world events in the turn of the millennium, and the perception of the consumer, and the creation of the designers. Young (2016) delves into the history of counter-cultures in the XX century to recount the reaction of youths to goings-on and evolving values. As time, and our relationship with it changes, people will adapt. As culture mutates, it seems safe to assume both fashion and anti-fashion will follow suit. These changes may be unpredictable, but will arise none the less. As dissonance in fashion is introduced through new information, consonance through anti-fashion will be sought after, and reabsorbed by fashion, and then again.


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