Sunday, November 18, 2012

words on paper

Here is an article I wrote that was published not long ago in Seizure magazine. Hope y'all like it.

The Lovely Ugliness of Fashion By Anusha Rutnam 

A woman pays a visit to the shop of a famous milliner and asks him to create for her a one-of-a-kind hat, something unlike anything her contemporaries would have seen before. The hat- maker pulls from a drawer a length of red ribbon. Before the woman's eyes he begins to weave, knot and tease this single piece of red ribbon into a most splendid creation, a hat of perfect loveliness. 
The woman exclaims at the beauty and ingenuity of the hat, gleeful that it will soon be hers. 
'How much do I owe you?' she asks. 
'$10,000' the master milliner replies evenly. 
The lady gasps, 'What? But it's just a piece of ribbon!' 
The milliner gently unweaves, unknots and pulls at the hat in his hands until only the piece of ribbon remains. 
'The ribbon,' he tells her, 'you can have for nothing.'

There is a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca in which the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, tortures her new mistress, the second Mrs de Winter, with a guided tour of the wardrobe belonging to her late predecessor.

Softly handling a lace negligée Mrs Danvers asks, ‘Did you ever see anything so delicate?… Look, you can see my hand through it.’  

Still from Rebecca (1940), Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

And we die a little for the tweedy second wife of the household because it is a most exquisite thing, made, Mrs Danvers helpfully points out, ‘…especially for her by the nuns in the Convent of St Clare.’

What piece of clothing could be more loaded with meaning than that negligée? Made by women who will never touch a man, once worn by a beautiful woman, now deceased, and virtually embalmed by her most faithful servant.

I think of Rebecca’s negligée as I stand, utterly over- whelmed, in Jakarta’s grossly oversized Tanah Abang Blok A Market. There are more bras in this market than there are breasts in the world. They are stuffed in clear, thick plastic sacks, the sacks stacked high. One gets the impression of standing in front of end- less walls of bulging cartoon eyes. And they are cheap, bought by the kilo and in slabs by Indonesians who will later sell them one by one to other Indonesians. I hadn’t seen another tourist for miles.

Bandeaus and balconettes, semis and demis, long- line and soft-cup, padded and pushy, all the usual suspects are here. In fact, except for the occasional Calvin Klong, it’s the same stuff sold in the department stores at home. And yet I am revolted. It is difficult to pinpoint why these individually inoffensive bras inspire such distaste. One almost feels sorry for them. I have long suspected that few objects have so tumultuous a lot in life as the fashionable garment.

Even without confronting the unpleasant realities of mass production in the clothing industry one can see that clothes have an uncanny ability to traverse the space between the lovely and the hideous. Most commonly it is a slow journey, the trudge of a style of garment that is designed, bought and worn by the Right People, subsequently favoured by a lot of people and ultimately adopted by the Wrong People.

In 1937 the historian James Laver attempted to track this process, breaking down the life cycle of a fashionable style of clothing into a neat timeline. The current fashion, he suggested, is perceived as smart but ten years ago it would have been called indecent. In one year it will be dowdy, in ten, hideous and in fifty years it will be considered quaint. New methods of production ensure that this cycle always spins faster and faster. The curved needle of the Blind-Hemming machine apes with incredible ease an arduous couture technique, wherein each stitch of the handheld needle picks up only a single warp thread of the fabric.

In a more glib fashion than Laver but in similar vein, Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted observation, ‘fashion... is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months’, still stands, give or take a few months. (As a proponent of the ghastly styles of the Aesthetic Dress movement, Wilde could certainly speak with authority on ugliness.) 

How much is Jane Doe cognisant of the process? Consider a woman who buys an accordion pleated skirt. 
BCBG Estel Skirt, 2012

The garment exists in the lineage of Mariano Fortuny, an early 20th century Spanish designer whose superb technique of hand pleating was shrouded in secrecy and died with him. 

The Delphos Dress, by Mariano Fortuny, circa 1920, picture from The Cutting Class

Whether the buyer of the skirt has heard of Fortuny is neither here nor there. The pleats in her skirt were set by huge hot machines, and the machines worked fast. Surely she must know that though she desires the skirt now, adores it perhaps, there will come a time in the not too distant future in which she will not. The skirt won’t be torn, the pleats will still be sharp but at some point she will find that the skirt no longer seems beautiful.

Sometimes the shift is more dramatic. The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution saw previously fashionable garments become a liability, marking their wearers as possible enemies of the state. The hat in particular was viewed as symbolic of aristocratic frivolity and perhaps with good reason given the tastes of the Second Estate. During happier days in the court of King Louis XVI one princess was seen to have fashioned her wig around a birdcage in which live butterflies fluttered. The threat of losing one’s head no doubt acted as a compelling inducement to cease adorning it so fabulously.

There are some clothes that succeed in transcending Laver’s cycle. One person’s emotional or affective attachment can mean that a garment is drawn out of that trudging journey from shocking to drab to classic, rearranging its value as an artifact.

The op-shop wedding dress is one such garment and a particularly pathos-laden one at that. For a single day this dress is a singularly important piece of clothing. It has been cut, pulled and stitched especially to fit the bride’s body. It is photographed, discussed and fussed over, bridesmaids stooping to flatten its hem. And then the day is over. Perhaps the bride (now ‘wife’) feels a glimmer of distaste, the dress having been so uncomfortable or expensive, perhaps a little stained and really so unwieldy and big – where will I keep it? It is dry cleaned (the op-shop wedding dress is always clean) and donated. It has become a ridiculous object, discarded but still steeped with some unknown woman’s personal but easily imagined fantasies and fears and hopes of a grand wedding day. It is a discarded relic – no bride will ever wear it again. It will probably become a Halloween costume, a sartorial one-liner.

The lingering presence of the other is felt in the op- shop wedding dress as it is in Rebecca’s clothes. The object’s meaning is no longer derived from exquisite fabrication or form. The many hands that have touched Rebecca’s negligée have left a garment deeply imbued with confused memories, which threaten to consume the people the dead woman has left in her wake.

And just as the orphaned wedding dress and negligée are saturated with sensory and nostalgic significance, the bras in the Indonesian market seem completely devoid of it. They too have made a departure from the fashion cycle, entirely unlovely though not because of any detail of style or cut. Rather they have come to inhabit a world in which clothing is robbed of fantasy and personal attachment. In this place, the hideous excesses of fashion are thrown into sharp relief (nylon, after all, takes 40 years to decompose). The bras are not being sold to be worn, but sold to be sold. Trapped in their PVC cocoons they have no tactile appeal and one can scarcely imagine a time when they will be touched, worn or loved.

It is a cruel one, the life of a garment; nasty, brutish, and short. Buffeted by the seemingly arbitrary laws of fashionable taste, which care little for an object’s beauty and nothing for its state of repair – only its place in the cycle of a trend. A projection of memories and emotional meaning can seemingly drag the occasional piece of clothing from the fashion cycle to a place where its craft is forgotten. By virtue of its intimate character, as an object with a uniquely physical connection to the wearer, the garment is well suited to become such a talisman. The milliner’s ribbon flits in an instant between beauty and worthlessness. It is a more meandering process by which the fashionable garment achieves such a fate, but the result is the same.

Friday, November 9, 2012

This isn't no intervention

I am so pleasantly surprised by the photos of Rihanna's performance at the latest instalment of the bonkers-fest that is the Victoria's Secret "Fashion" Show. (Oh I know, quotation marks humour. Move over Tina Fey.)

The dress is Vivienne Westwood. I feel like the sunglasses might be vintage Chanel.

I'm particularly fascinated by the last photo - the one in which she struts with Very Pretty Woman, Doutzen Kroes. Rihanna does more than hold her own and yet she doesn't dominate, precisely. In fact, I feel like there is a weird zen-voodoo-ying-yang sexiness balance in this photo.

The question of how to present female musicians at the VSFS is interestingly tricky terrain. For example, things didn't feel quite right when Fergie performed at the show in 2009:

The different between Fergie and Rihanna's ensembles is that the latter has some very decent fashion content. Fergie's outfit is an attempt to meet the VS Angels on their own terms (bonkers trash) and inevitably the comparison does not work to her advantage.

In 2011 Nicki Minaj went another way completely, taking a deranged whore clown of nightmares as her sartorial inspiration:

I actually adore this photo of Minaj and the oh so earnestly sexy Erin Heatherton, and get quite the Giulietta Masina in La Strada vibe from Nicki:

That said, and even bearing in mind that Miss Minaj has made outré costume an important part of her public persona, I can't help but feel that you can look at Fergie's example and find that Minaj has gone too far the other way. There is also something almost minstrel-ish about the singer's performance which feels kind of icky when you consider how fews black girls actually model in the show - I counted 3 out of the group of 37 models this year.

Katy Perry's live show aesthetic is so perfectly in tune with that of the VSFS that she must have seemed like an obvious choice when she performed in 2010:

I would actually say that, in the photos I have seen of the show at least, she often dominates the frame. That's not necessarily a good thing so far as Victoria's Secret is concerned.

And so it is Rihanna, with her Dietrich-ian sexiness, who manages to create the perfect dynamic. There's a quite a bit of Eartha Kitt-y cat cool in there too:

Rihnna exudes a very slightly masculine air while not a appearing, nor indeed wearing anything in the least butch. It's the opposite of how Missy Elliot appeared when she performed with Madonna, Britney and Christina at the Fauxmo Spectacular,  2003 VMAs:

Sidenote: Why didn't they make Missy the priest?!? I will never stop asking that question.

Ostentation 4 life

I'm fiending Lele Sadoughi's jewellery line so badly that I can't even take pleasure in looking at it.

I make me sick.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Obviously, Doctor

The Virgin Suicides was already one of my top three all-time favourite movies when I first read the Jeffrey Eugenides book on which it was based. I actually loved the book too, but reading it made me admire Sofia Coppola's film all the more. It would have been so easy to turn that story into an intensely dark film but Coppola took it to another place entirely.

Here is The Preatures' (formerly The Preachers) cover of Danimals' song, "Christmas Worm's Quest for Fresh Apples"

Again, hearing the original work (which you can listen to here) makes me appreciate the reinterpretation all the more.

p.s. Here is a Lone Maniac photo shoot starring The Preatures' Isabella Manfredi. Let's talk about this:

 Photo by Tess Huton

First Charlotte Free (who, quelle horreur, is a model, hairy and eloquent), and now Isabella?

Photo by Terry Richardson

About time.

To be clear, I'm not pro-hairy pits from an aesthetic standpoint (duh, I read Cosmo as a teenager, I'm keenly aware of which parts of my body I'm meant to be ashamed of) but my brain knows it's pissweak that this crazy rigid standard applies to women and not men.

And remember folks, it's always beautiful women who ease in the scary new trends. Just ask Miranda Kerr and her high-cut bathers.

Numéro #115, August 2010, photo by Sebastian Kim