silhouettes and signals

This post is the result of my live sketching lecture, Silhouettes and Signals, performed using Paper by FiftyThree at The Drake Hotel in Toronto on March 16, 2014.

1 eight head ideal

The most essential fashion silhouette is a very specific version of the human body. The Classical ideal is about 8 heads high, and remains resilient in the face of ever-changing fashions, recurring over many millennia since ancient times. It is incredible how the eye instantly recognizes these forms as beautiful, and is drawn to them. To many, the classical ideal represents healthy, natural man, unspoiled by civilization and modern culture, a symbol of rationality. For that reason, this shape can have a sinister quality. That competitive physicality reeks of eugenics and conformity. Human beings naturally come in an incredible variety of shapes, so this rugged or graceful physical ideal excludes almost everyone. For most of us, achieving this shape would require as much effort and artifice as any dandified exaggeration.

2a beauty

Beauty is a peculiar phenomenon. We have an instant, irrational, positive reaction to symmetry and average proportions. Objectively we understand that just because a person happens to have pleasing features by accident of birth, it doesn’t mean that they are a better person, and yet we can’t help but ascribe positive characteristics to beautiful people and pay more attention to them.

3 modifications

Considering this biological instinct to favour “natural” beauty, it’s fascinating how human beings have used fashion throughout the centuries to subvert our own proportions. We will use any technological means at our disposal, whether it’s padding, scaffolding, compression, surgery, propping, binding or prosthetics. We are hungry for novelty and constantly trying to transcend beyond our physical selves, which is why the fashionable ideal often diverges so dramatically from the more conventional “natural” beauty ideal.

4 contemporary silhouettes

The current silhouette for both women and men is top-heavy – oversized jackets, muppet furs, statement sweatshirt and tunic-length shirts for men. Fashion-forward men – even hyper-masculine rappers –  are beginning to adopt skirts. When men and women’s lives are similar, so are their fashionable silhouettes. The male and female silhouette has evolved in tandem ever since the 1970s.

5 class based silhouettes

This was not the case before the masculine renunciation of fashion. In the 1500s, both male and female fashionable silhouettes diverged wildly from the natural human form and from each other, with big ruffs, tall hats, bombastic sleeves and abstract torso shapes. Back then, if you didn’t have an exaggerated silhouette it was a class-based distinction – the poor simply couldn’t afford fancy collars and lots of fabric and accessories to achieve a fashionable silhouette.

When the revolutions of Europe shifted towards democracy, men renounced fashion as a way to demonstrate the ideals of equality and the value of work, and the weight of wearing wealth literally fell upon women. This is when fashion became “feminized” as we recognize it now.

6 domestication and upholstery

The feminization of fashion led to the upholstering of women. Women’s lives became so dramatically different from men’s that their silhouette became exactly opposite. Their clothing was literally constructed as heavily as furniture, and in the 1860s skirts became so wide women couldn’t wear coats – complete domestication.

The bottom-heavy, big-skirted silhouette still exists today in the context of prom dresses and bridal gowns. Women wear this as a very formal, ultra-feminine sexual display. Covering your legs this way is coyly enticing, a “look at me, don’t look at me” game – it totally covers the lower half of your body and yet also makes the lower half of your body the biggest thing in the room.

7 abstinence and bifurcation

Of course long skirts, negating the split between the legs, is traditionally a symbol of chastity. That’s why you only ever see men wearing them in the context of religions that uphold the idea of abstinence.

8 bondage and bieber

The current youthful silhouette, embodied most recognizably by Justin Bieber, has a very long torso and short little legs. It’s a look that evokes bondage and prison culture, which is interesting to consider in terms of the attitude of contemporary youth. It’s also very sexual – the pants come pre-dropped – but the sexuality is deviant, indulgent, and nihilistic. The way the legs are bound limits the gait of young men – the essence is “why bother? Might as well get our rocks off now, there’s no future worth running towards.”

9 twiggy helter skelter

Contrast that with the youth of the 1960s exemplified by the model Twiggy. The broad gait and short skirts are also extremely sexual but the sexuality is more promiscuous and conventional by 21st century standards. The attitude is, as the Beatles sang, helter-skelter. It’s youth on uppers, youth on speed. The essence is essentially optimistic – kids are striding forward into a space-age future. A far cry from Bieber-style bondage, this silhouette says “go for it, we are free and the possibilities are unlimited.”

10 I V A

Ever since the 1970s, the standard silhouette has been pretty close to the most minimal simplification of the human form – as upright animals, our most essential symbol is the letter I. Sure, it varies a bit – getting a bit bottom-heavy in the 1970s and 1990s, and more top-heavy in the 1980s. This is a very broad generalization, but I think it holds up: top heavy silhouettes are more conservative, bottom heavy silhouettes are more liberal. Think about it – if you’re dressing for a job interview you’re more likely to go top-heavy – it’s more structured, authoritative, formal. A bottom heavy silhouette allows itself to be pulled by gravity – it’s more laissez-faire, permissive, and relaxed – better for a house party.

11 trapeze to tuxedo

Up until the 1970s, female silhouettes diverged dramatically from menswear – but Yves Saint Laurent changed all of that. His first collection for Dior after the death of Christian Dior was an abstract shape – the Trapeze silhouette. But now we remember YSL for the Tuxedo, most iconically in that Helmut Newton photograph. It’s an androgynous silhouette about sexual liberation – but it’s also about liberation from the old fashion system, liberation from the idea of designer as dictator.

12 1800s skirt shapes

In the 1800s, silhouettes shifted each decade – skirts were like domes in the 1860s, like trumpets in the 1870s, and had bustles so big in the 1880s that there was a popular joke about balancing a tea service on them. This constantly shape-shifting kept women constantly updating their wardrobes – wearing an 1860s crinoline in the 1870s was simply not done if you wanted to belong in fashionable society.

When Christian Dior launched his business in 1947, he wanted to bring back the glory days of French fashion authority after the setbacks of World War Two. He did this by creating new, exciting shapes each season, just as Worth had done in his glory days. It was a very nationalistic, authoritarian and capitalist business model that worked like fossil fuel for re-establishing French fashion industry in the 1950s.

13 H line Y line A line

In 1954 and 1955, Dior did three lines inspired by letter forms. In 1954, the H-line was straight up and down. In 1955 the Y line was top-heavy, and the A line was bottom-heavy. Dior was a publicity-savvy designer and perhaps it’s no coincidence that these letters matched the weapons of mass destruction at the time – this resulted in some very topical fashion headlines.

“Alphabetizing” women’s bodies is no longer seen as a positive thing. The young people of YSL’s generation didn’t buy it, and Saint Laurent responded by flipping the designer model on it’s head, and instead of dictating “lines” to his clientele, he was inspired by the lives of the fashionable women he knew and the way they dressed.

14 S line V line

If alphabetization was introduced by a Western designer today, it would certainly be heavily criticized as a patriarchal, oppressive categorization of women’s bodies. But in South Korea, alphabetization is currently a popular sales tool – hyper-feminine S-lines and V-lines are used to sell body products and health food. This kind of rigid classification of the female form according to abstract shapes only flies in conservative societies with rigid definitions of beauty ideals. In Europe and North America, where we are seeing increasing social and sexual fluidity and softer definitions of beauty ideals, grading people by letter seems anachronistic.

15 raf vs hedi

Considering the reversal of design philosophies, it’s interesting to consider that the houses of Dior and Saint Laurent continue to uphold opposing silhouettes to this day. Raf Simon’s Dior features a recurring X-shape, a modernist simplification of Dior’s hyper-feminine silhouettes. Meanwhile, Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Paris continues the tradition a minimalist, long androgynous line.

16 hyperfertile figure

The hyper-fertile feminine silhouette is a lot like the Classical beauty ideal – it provokes an automatic reaction in almost everyone. When the hyper-fertile silhouette is in fashion, as it was in the 1860s and the 1950s, women’s lives tend to be dictated by their biological functions. This hourglass shape is a boon to those who have it and want it, and a bane to everyone else. Celebrities who have this figure have to deal with a much higher level of scrutiny and criticism than famous people with more fashionably slim figures. Perfectly intelligent, seemingly rational people – myself included – are somehow transfixed by Kim Kardashian’s ass. I think it’s a misplaced biological instinct to ensure the survival of the species. Once upon a time, our next generation depended on the sexual functionality of a few hyper-fertile females, and therefore their sexual status was of the highest concern for all members of society. In a world populated by 7 billion, this attitude is ludicrous, and yet we can’t help ourselves. That’s why having a body of this type is a mixed blessing.

17 futurist jumpsuit

Speaking of 7 billion, another anti-fashion silhouette that is fun to consider is the idea of Normcore. Nothing illustrates the breakdown of silhouette-based symbolism better. All silhouettes now are layered with contradictory meanings, and the media environment is so dispersed, there’s no way a single look could ever have the impact of Dior’s 1947 “Bar” ensemble. The subversion of the idea of “normal” is very timely in the light of questioning the value of beauty ideals.

Still, it is a manifesto-based trend and as such is reactionary against the fundamental precept of fashion – that we wear clothing in order to appear better than other people. It reminds me of the Italian Futurist movement, which also proposed an anti-fashion silhouette – T-shaped jumpsuits – as a way of liberating humanity from the tyranny of trends. This kind of attitude can only be taken seriously by the very young and idealistic – everyone else has acquiesced to the inevitability of our animal instincts over-riding our intellectual ability to reject fashion. Ultimately, no academic manifesto has ever successfully launched a lasting trend.

18 tall hats big hair

The most straightforward way to use fashion to appear better than other people is to use fashion to look taller. Even in modern society, tall people enjoy all sorts of economic and sexual advantages – CEOs are statistically taller (and still referred to as “chiefs”) which shows that we really haven’t progressed much from more tribal societies where the largest man was often chief by default. Historically, people have increased their height with tall hats. Pointed hats indicate a direct connection with the divine – sort of an “I’m With Stupid” shirt for Godliness – like a steeple on a church. Abraham Lincoln, already a tall man, wore a very tall top hat. This made him stand out very visibly as a an obvious leader in the early days of photography.

Tall hair is also an option – think of the towering hairstyles of the Rococo or the hairspray-held bangs of the 1980s. Big hair, pretty obviously, is about big head and big egos – think “let them eat cake”, or “the me decade”.

19 heels and trainers

Now that people don’t wear tall hats or big hair as much, they get their extra status from tall shoes, which over the past decade have been getting ever taller. However, even the most fashionable people have a limit to the angle they can endure. High heels offer status at the price of mobility, and we’ve just entered a reactionary period. Designers like Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld have been offering couture trainers and flat-footed creepers, and suddenly short – and the ability to walk – seems far more elegant than tall.

20 bauhaus ballet

It can seem like every silhouette ever has already been tried, but the avant-garde have pushed the boundaries of possibility, simplifying and abstracting the human form until it is barely recognizable. The Bauhaus ballet in the 1920s had geometric, playful costumes that made the dancers seem more like toys, and modern artists like David Bowie and Leigh Bowery have built fabulous costumes that push the human form to extremes.

21 dress meets body

In 1996, Rei Kawakubo designed a collection for Comme des Garcons called “Dress Meets Body; Body Meets Dress”. She padded her models in unexpected, asymmetrical areas – like the side of the neck, or the thigh. The fashion media was horrified. We’re not used to seeing non-symmetrical silhouettes and our instinctual reaction to them is to read them as disease. It’s still a very provocative collection to look at because you can feel inside yourself the friction between your animalistic revulsion and your intellectual ability to recognize a novel form of beauty.

22 untried silhouettes

There is really so much that hasn’t been tried in terms of altering our shapes, so many letters of the alphabet yet to be drawn. Asymmetry especially hasn’t been deeply explored – appearing inhuman is in some situations an advantage – such as when you want to avoid being recognized by surveillance technology. With access to ever-lighter materials and rapidly evolving visual technology, future silhouettes could diverge wildly from what we’ve tried so far. What is so incredible about fashion is how it liberates us from our biological fate to be born in the shape of a human – in fact, we can be anything we can imagine.

Videocast – Live Runway Sketching on the iPad

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If you missed my talk about live runway sketching on the iPad at Apple Soho in New York, you can still attend virtually! It’s available for FREE from the iTunes store. I describe the history of artists at fashion shows, demonstrate how to use Paper and Pencil by FiftyThree to sketch runway looks fast, and discuss why live sketching is having a bonafide fashion moment now.

Heartfelt thanks to Georg Petschnigg, FiftyThree and Apple Soho for inviting me to share my love of drawing and fashion with a wider audience.

beauty sketch made with paper

a brief history of live runway sketching

Halston by Joe Eula

I was considered the fastest pencil in the field, a mannequin need only do her turn down the catwalk at a fashion show, and voila – an illustration.

Joe Eula

A famous, venerable fashion writer (who was once an illustrator himself) told me that fashion illustrators “say they sketch at fashion shows, but they don’t really.” At the time I remember thinking, somewhat arrogantly – I’ll show you that they do! Of course, people have been sketching away at runway shows ever since runway shows emerged at the turn of the last century, though this history has yet to be written. This post is just a few scraps of information I’ve managed to collect.

Very few runway sketches ever see the light of day – it’s a challenging task to capture the fleeting moment of a catwalk turn with any kind of elegance, and most runway sketches aren’t much more than scribbles. Scribbling is just fine – sketching at fashion shows is another way to take notes, and it makes sense to capture visual information… well, visually. Occasionally critics and journalists will dash off doodles in between point-form notations – I’ve heard that Suzy Menkes does this – but of course such information is anecdotal, and not much evidence can be found of it as writers aren’t known for being proud of their artistic efforts.

It’s hard to imagine now, but early fashion shows were small affairs intended for wealthy clientele, and there was very little access for either photography or illustration. Photography, as a new medium, wasn’t considered to be classy – and sketching was frowned upon because it was used to steal ideas. In her wonderful book Fashion Is Spinach, Elizabeth Hawes recalls her early years in Paris in the 1920s, surreptitiously sketching at fashion shows so American department stores could knock off Parisian designs:

When I stole designs from the French dressmakers, it was, originally, a game which I developed between me and the mannequin. Her part was to try and get the dress out of the room before I could master the cut of it. My part was to digest its intricacies without missing a seam or a button. I was good. By the time I’d finished my second season of sketching, I could have designed you as pretty a Chanel as the master herself.

But swiping her designs accurately was violent mental exercise. If you made any more moves with your pencil than enough to write the equivalent of a number, someone suddenly leaned over your shoulder and grabbed your paper out of your hand. And these were the sketches the buyers wanted most.

– Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach

YSL by Kenneth Paul Block

[Kenneth Paul] Block travelled regularly to Paris to report on the couture shows from the early 1960s onwards. He never knew what kind of reception he might receive, since WWD was often feuding with designers. Sometimes he found himself ‘off the list’ and had to work ‘from dictation’. At other times there was special treatment and access. It is a tribute to Block’s skill that it is impossible to tell his real and imagined images apart.

– David Downton, Masters of Fashion Illustration, pp. 151

By the 1960s, fashion houses were photographing their runway shows using in-house photographers, but the shows still weren’t constructed around the photography pit as they are now. By that time, illustrators were made welcome as part of the press. John Fairchild, the EIC at Women’s Wear Daily wanted his paper to appear distinctive and artistic, and so WWD had a whole department of illustrators, most notably Kenneth Paul Block, whose runway work is incredibly prolific and admirable. His drawings aren’t fanciful or abstract, they are essentially reportage, showing the clothing with both accuracy and flair.

Lacroix by Gladys Perint Palmer


It is important to learn the phrase “La Premiere Rang Surélevé”, the first raised row, usually the third or fourth, where the view is better. Yves Saint Laurent used to seat his mother in the first raised row.

When the rows are not raised, it is another matter. From the second row, you can find a sliver of a view. From the third row you see only the heads in the first row. The fourth row is death. I have perfected the spot-and-sprint approach. Wait for the right moment, crouching, just before those with the standing tickets are let in, then leap—vault, if you will—into the front row. Timing is everything. If you leap too soon, the rightful occupant of the seat may turn up (generally Marie-José Susskind of L’Official who is always late) and you have lost both your new seat and your old seat.

– Gladys Perint Palmer, Fashion People

Block’s successor is undoubtedly Gladys Perint Palmer, whose book Fashion People is the only exclusive collection of live runway sketching I’ve ever seen, and contains a few comments on the challenges of runway sketching itself. I would categorize Perint Palmer as a “society sketcher” as well as a runway sketcher – she is able to recognize and record the fashion show attendees along with snippy little over-heards and humorous gossip. She’s not just interested in the clothing and the fantasy, but in the absurd scene as a whole, and she records the fashion show phenomenon as it reached it’s apex in the 1990s, when runways became theatrical and the scene was beginning to explode into the media spectacle it has now become.

menswear by Richard Haines


It happens very quickly! It’s really difficult to get details, so I focus on the shapes and the silhouettes–the shoulder, the length of the jacket, the shape of the head/hair. It’s challenging but so much fun–like a quiz show where you have to answer 20 questions in a minute!

Richard Haines

The most successful live runway sketcher working now is Richard Haines. He’s the master of capturing menswear – his experience as a designer, and interest in a specific, sophisticated-casual aesthetic has served him very well. The rumour I’ve heard is that is his sketches sell for $1000 each, and considering there’s no one else who can do what he does, I’m inclined to believe it.

Pink Tartan by Danielle Meder

… and then there’s me. I’ve been live-sketching at runway shows for over five years now, so compared to the masters of the craft, I am still just a baby, though I’ve had the remarkable opportunity this past season to adapt the form to the touchscreen and bring live runway sketching into the 21st century.

Most live runway sketchers do their greatest work towards the end of their career. Elegance only comes with experience. It’s a skill that takes a lot of practice, and getting access to get that practice isn’t easy to do, either. But the rewards are many – it’s a rush of adrenaline as your eyes and hands race to render an immersive experience in a bizarre, overwhelming environment. When a great sketch appears out of nowhere in seconds, it feels like fashion is an electric current coursing through your body. I believe my runway work has given me a more profound understanding of fashion at an instinctive level. It brings fashion illustration into the physical moment.


four more fashion queens

Since I posted about some of my favourite fashion queens, I’ve been alerted to a couple of outstanding omissions and discovered a couple new favourites. While not all of them are necessarily fashion-y, all of them have a keen sense of majesty and thrilling stories about how they used their power. Here they are.

Queen Nefertiti played a symbolic role in a religious revolution. Otherwise, very little is known of her life or death. Her bust, discovered in 1912, has become an indelible modern image of feminine majesty, just as her alleged torso evokes idealized fertility.

Eleanor of Aquitaine is remembered as an icon of courtly love, but her real life story (as I learned thanks to BBC’s She-Wolves) was much more interesting than fairy tales. As one of just a handful of fierce Medieval Queens who lived in an era where power had to be physically fought for, Eleanor’s role as a monarch was dependent on being the mother of an heir, and very precarious despite her considerable intelligence and ambition.

Queen Nzinga of the Ndongo, like Hatshupset, avoided the question of gender by crowning herself King. With a wily way of playing her opponents off of one another, she secured her kingdom in the turbulent era of early colonialism, playing an ambiguous, notorious role in history. The most famous Nzinga anecdote has her imperiously perching on a servant’s back when no chair was offered to her.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria is perhaps the most fashion-y queen of them all. Thanks to Lorna for properly introducing me to her! Brilliant, eccentric, and vain, “Sisi” remains forever beloved for her cult of beauty. Her hair took four hours a day to maintain, during which she would study, she had a very unusual diet and perhaps even an eating disorder, was dressed in exquisite House of Worth gowns, and when she aged she ceased allowing her image to be reproduced.

Are there any more amazing fashion queens out there? I love discovering more!

fashion queens

Princesses are ubiquitous. Queens are epic. Here are a few of my favourite fashion queens.

Pharoah Hatshepsut

Her story is a dramatic one. She is a woman who crowned herself king – and recorded her image as a man’s. Hatshepsut represents a very calculated, symbolic image-making. This is what fashion queens have in common.

Empress Theodora

Another amazing story of transformation. Theodora remains a thoroughly charismatic enigma, a woman who used acting, style and bravado to win power and awe.

Queen Elizabeth I

Another story of an unlikely candidate seizing and holding power. She used her clothes as literal armour of wealth, covered with pearls and jewels, and a literal halo of a ruff. At a time when both kings and queens liked to power dress, she overpowered.

Marie Antoinette

I have to include her in every survey post I do, because she is the crux of modern femininity, or maybe a warning for what can happen when fashion takes over. Her use of image was amazing, prescient, ill-timed, and indelible. She may be dead, but her style returns to fashion over and over again.

Empress Eugenie

The second empire restored the silhouette of Versailles with generous skirts and nipped in waists and tons of jewels. The romantic and super-feminine look was wielded with expert womanly wiles by Eugenie – another story of intrepid social climbing with style.

Queen Alexandra

Her story is a sadder one, she doesn’t seem as much an agent of her own destiny as the others. But she is notable fashion-wise for bringing big emphasis to a collar of pearls, thus establishing the iconography for 20th century female power.

Jacqueline Kennedy

Though not a queen, she was a modern, mortal queen – she dressed the part as if she had been born for it. In simple, spare strokes she wore the crown and the pearls with perfect modern sense.

Queen Rania

She is the most compelling modern fashion queen, an elemental beauty and aware of how she presents herself. She is a living queen who lives up to her role.

bellies in and bellies out

Whatever her function, it is clear that the graceful bulges of the Venus of Willendorf are an idealized exaggeration of the female form. Even though she is at least 25,000 years old, to my eyes she is an obvious fashion figure. The belly doesn’t get the glorification much any more. And yet, every so often in modern western history (and I’m sure outside of it, though I am oblivious) the belly gets to stand out.

This idealized torso, possibly of the Egyptian queen and famed beauty Nefertiti and dating to around 1350 BC, is quite slender while still featuring a pronounced belly. The Egyptian ideal is quite exaggerated. While ancient Greek representations of female forms were certainly not thin by modern standards, they were balanced proportionally, with the belly not standing out any more than any other feature.

Jan van Eyck’s 1434 masterpiece The Arnolifini Portrait features a fashionable couple, possibly celebrating their betrothal. Many modern viewers wonder if she was pregnant – all evidence points to no, and as you can see in this van Eyck depiction of Saint Catherine (on the right), the woman is just wearing contemporary fashion. The Arnolfini family were merchants, and are showing off their wealth with abundant quantities of fabric. Her gesture is possibly meant to indicate hopes for a fruitful marriage – hopes that were never realized.

The high-waisted silhouette featuring a convex belly was a long running trend for the 15th and 16th century female form – whether depicted dressed or undressed, by Botticelli in 1482 (as above) or by Cranach in 1528. These are fashionable bellies, not pregnant bellies, though it seems obvious that their fecund appearance was a significant part of their attraction. This trend very gradually, and in different ways in various geographical regions, began to evolve into the conical, geometrical torso of the Elizabethan woman.

The peascod belly (this example from 1569) is a bit more ridiculous to modern eyes – as it was to commenters at the time. The garment that clothed a man’s torso – the doublet – went through various phases over a few centuries, from more padding in the chest during medieval times, then less padding, and then more padding again. In the 16th century, the padding extended at the lower torso. The male belly became an abstract shape, described as a “peascod”. Echoed in armour, this protrusion was sometimes almost pointy.

The look was achieved with padding and was balanced out with padded sleeves, codpieces, stuffed hose and square toes – a bombastic silhouette most famously worn by Henry VIII. In this case, the look seems to be about abundance in a different form – masculine girth was probably meant to evoke solidity and strength – and later on as fashion turned, reeked of excess and machismo.

These young princes in 1637 are wearing heritage armour with distinctive peascod shaping, though by this time the style for this shape in the doublet had fallen out of favour.

Female and male waists alike remained nipped in throughout the 17th and 18th centuries until the French Revolution. A sudden resurgence in classical styles created a dramatic change in fashion and for a couple decades, women abandoned the waist. While the belly isn’t exactly the focal point of this trend, displaying a sense of relaxed roundness (these fashion plate examples are from 1806) does seem to be considered attractive.

Outstanding stomachs have been absent from modern fashion ever since. Even when styles are relatively waistless, as in the 1920s or the 1960s, the concavity of desirable bellies remains a constant. When lower torsos do appear in the spotlight, it’s only under two circumstances – here capably demonstrated by pop singer Christina Aguilera:

The turn-of-our-century trend for midriffs doesn’t quite compare to the other examples I’ve cited because the focus is on the absence rather than the presence of a belly. Still, expansive gaps between upper and lower garments do draw all the attention to the navel, and as with the other feminine examples, it is very sexual.

The trend towards displaying the pregnant belly – shocking as recent as 1991 when Demi Moore graced Vanity Fair – has now become a mundane facebook trope. Google “belly” and most of what you’ll find is garishly painted, proudly exhibited pregnant bellies. Pregnancy, which used to be something to conceal, has become something of a bulls-eye, with or without apparent irony. Does that indicate that fashion is full-circle cycling towards to fertility worship?

Sort of like square toes, bellies only seem to make sporadic appearances, and without any sort of obvious recurring pattern. It also seems like it is wholly out of our control – the hue and cry over the absurdity of the peascod belly did nothing to end its thrust. Modern campaigns meant to promote the idea of all bodies being considered beautiful – belly-ful or otherwise – are more than a bit hopeless. In history as now, bellies are only idealized under occasional circumstances.

the technique trap

London’s fashion schools are internationally renowned for producing some of the most talented, famous modern fashion designers. Less often mentioned are the thousands of also-grads. The tons-to-watch every year produce some of the most fascinating fashion shows, full of earnest hopes and dreams and ambitions that often overwhelm the models who have to carry so much yearning. The visual onslaught is blinding in a way – it gets very difficult to sort out the strongest visions in a sea of potential.

Most striking to me as a North American is how education styles heavily influence the favoured approach of young designers. I went to a school that focused on justifying a market strategy – this was reflected in the type of grad collections we showed. Here, the emphasis is on innovation via technique. At the RCA, for example, they have two exhibitions throughout the year – one is called “Work-in-Progress” and displays a vast array of experimental swatches and effects. When you watch the final exits on the runway at the end of the final term, each collection is a riff on the techniques each student developed.

Having seen several grad shows and variations of  “Ones to Watch”, I can’t help but notice how the emphasis on technical effect overshadows any conceptual messages or narratives, obscures the personality of the designer, and most tragically, inhibits the currency and wearability of the garments.

I’ve discussed the differences between brand-driven designers and designer-technicians before. While technically focused designers often end up being influential to other designers, they almost always fail to develop a lasting legacy and the license-able name that goes with it. People don’t wear techniques – they wear fashion, and techniques alone don’t do what fashion needs to do – confer status. Technique-driven design is fascinating to hard-core fashion nerds, but it is not a route to riches. It is ironic that so many young hopefuls come to London to go to these star-making schools and yet the instruction they receive sends them down the path of obscurity.

I’ve illustrated this post with a few examples of great designer-technicians, both historical and current. At the top is Madame Grès, the Parisian couturier whose intricately pleated, sculptural designs defied ready-to-wear and consumed vast swathes of silk jersey.

Fortuny‘s legacy is set in the pleat technique that bears his name – despite the fact that he authored other textile innovations, most notably with printed velvet.

Madeleine Vionnet was a pioneering modernist in fashion. Just as modernism in architecture is more about exploiting the possibilities of modern materials than embellishment, Vionnet’s designs drew their essential qualities from the properties of fabric. She also worked with visual artists like Erte for prints and created more conventional work, but her legacy hangs on the bias for eternity.

Vionnet’s successor to the bias crown was New York couturier Charles Kleibacker, whose technical mastery resulted in seemingly seamless construction. The simplicity of his designs are so subtly tasteful, they do not loudly proclaim the way their creator revelled in the elemental nature of cloth. His understanding of the creative process informed his role as a professor and curator in later life.

Canadian-born, London-based designer and Central Saint Martins graduate Mark Fast is the most prominent modern technique-driven designer. His designs are based on the possibilities offered by knitting machinery – and the effects are often unusual and intricate up close. Taking a longer view though, the longevity of the machine-made aesthetic is, pardon the pun, a stretch.

Fast has the potential to switch to a brand-driven career – he’s handsome and personable, he’s got a great name, yet the Spring 2012 collection seemed like he is still struggling to escape the technique trap. Explorations into other techniques like crochet are distracting from the real challenge – defining the identity of the Fast female. A collaboration with leatherwear brand Danier earlier this year was a more promising move towards establishing a non-technical Fast philosophy that resonates with the zeitgeist.

Mary Katrantzou is a Greek-born, London-based, Central Saint Martins educated designer whose bold engineered prints have caught the gaze of the eyes that matter, and as she goes into subsequent seasons under the scrutiny of the fasherati she’s dealing with the same dilemma as Fast.

I saw the Spring 2012 line by recent CSM graduate Phoebe English at Ones to Watch, and was struck at the technical singularity of the entire presentation. Every single garment was made of distressed, cartridge-pleated canvas. The question I was left with was “why?” The garments were – as English put it – clumpy. I couldn’t sort out a story or an idea, beyond the sample-swatchiness of it all. Where does a designer take such a narrowly conceived collection? What is it for? It seemed like a one-off.

A bit of research revealed a surprise for me – English’s previous collections were also technique-driven – but each with a completely different technique! Her MA collection was an attention-grabbing, visceral exploration of the possibilities of human hair. As she told i-D, she is at the mercy of her chosen materials:

There were a few different original references, but most of my influences came directly from what my samples could do and how they actually worked. Then I began thinking about how I could engineer them to work as garments. As the dresses are so frenetic I wanted to use one universal tone to unify and control the composition of the collection. The looks behave in such a wild manner in places and the black was a device to balance and unify their frantic kinetic nature.

I can’t help but be curious about what a kind of career English will build by leaping from one wildly different, materials-based process to another, from season to season. In a way she personifies the current state of fashion education in London. In a world which continues to reward personalities like Alber Elbaz and zeitgeist sensors like Pheobe Philo, the technique trap suggests that the future of fashion design isn’t being taught in school.

five ways to end your fashion design career

Christobel Balenciaga chose when to retire, saying “it’s a dog’s life”. It is a rare designer who can exit so gracefully. From history, here are five more ways to drop out as a fashion designer.

1. Sell Out.

Halston had genuine talent, sublime taste, and a compelling personality. But his career ended prematurely, and he lived out the end of his days in gilded isolation, designer no more. How?

  1. Sell your company for an outrageous amount of money.
  2. Party like no party animal has ever partied before, because you can. After all, your glamourous lifestyle in no small part defines your brand.
  3. Be the “consummate professional” by refusing to delegate anything.
  4. Why be satisfied with mere millions of dollars? License your name until it loses its lustre. Forget you said “you’re only as good as the people you dress.”

2. Fade Out.

Christian Lacroix is an expert colourist who revels in embellishment, celebrating the history and craft of French couture with signature verve.  Lacroix’s star never manifested in a way that matched his considerable talent. Why?

  1. Start your career with a one-hit-wonder (the pouf skirt) which is a pure trend item. Little-girl inspired clothing at prices only rich old ladies can afford.
  2. Nurture an over-the-top design style which appeals only to a small niche and is difficult to translate into accessories or ready-to-wear.
  3. Earn the faith and support of businessmen who should know better. Launch a business which fails to profit, ever, over the course of a decade.
  4. Produce your final collection on a shoestring, destined never to be delivered anywhere, and receive applause for belonging to an era of fashion which was ending just as you began your career.

3. Fall Out.

Ossie Clark was a designer whose designs not only resonate with fashion, but were created using masterful techniques. Clark never managed, and maybe never even really tried, to translate design genius into an empire. How?

  1. Be impractical, especially when it comes to money. Disregard dull matters of business.
  2. Live in the present moment, fully. Hang with rock stars. Work manically. Party hedonistically.
  3. Get bailed out by a high-street shop. Chafe at the restrictions of designing for mass production.
  4. Be difficult. Meet your Waterloo in the form of a complex, unmanufacturable sleeve inspired by shells. Get fired.

4. Flame Out.

John Galliano is a devourer of inspiration who produced transgressive, hyperactive runway fantasies that resurrected that sleeping giant of a couture house, Christian Dior. But his career is ending in disgrace. How?

  1. Enter a five+ year design funk. Raising the bar on past transgressions using the same techniques you always have delivers diminishing returns.
  2. Deal with your fading fortunes by turning to drink and drugs. Surround yourself with famous, sympathetic sycophants who shrug off your dependencies as if they are adorable quirks.
  3. Drink alone in public places, and wait for provocation. And then say the most provocative, illegal things you can think of, because you deeply crave some kind of reaction, any reaction.
  4. Become a victim of modern surveillance culture, and receive career-destroying blowback beyond your wildest expectations.

5. Eat Out.

Rudi Gernreich was a true fashion innovator with a keen ability to cook publicity into his designs, pushing the envelope of modernity and taste. His various attempts to sell out never came to any lasting fruition. In a bizarre branding derailment, his final venture lent his name to a line of soup. How?

  1. Generate large amounts of publicity. Be better at spreading ideas than selling clothes.
  2. Stay resolutely West Coast. Location matters – even more so half a century ago than it does today.
  3. Design yourself into a corner – deconstruct swimwear to the point that it barely exists, push androgyny to the level where tension between gender conventions is a moot point.
  4. Never mind fashion, make soup. Soup is more nutritious than fashion.


the economics of style – youth culture patterns

The original youth street style was all about poor kids dressing up rich. This observation, while watching this show, got me thinking about modern street style, and how it has flipped- rich kids dressing up poor. I was impressed by the pride that the Teds who were interviewed demonstrated, and how the modern attitude of hipsters is such a striking polarity – denial and distancing. It got me thinking about the relationships between money, youth culture, attitudes and perception. Is there a pattern here?

Like all fashions, youth tribes tend to fluctuate between rebellion and affirmation. Let’s take a look.

Rebellion – the Teds. Poor kids dressing up rich.

Teds were working class, blue collar workers, but on the weekend they cleaned up good, dressing inspired by the wealthy leisure class of the Edwardian era. Teds were, and are, proud. The style statement was upwardly mobile – they dressed to show that they were just as good as the upper classes.

Affirmation – the Mods. Rich kids dressing up rich.

Mods were proudly middle class. They didn’t want to just dress up on the weekend – they wanted, and got, the kind of jobs that allowed them to dress well every day. Mods have a lot of pride, reflecting how satisfying it must have been to achieve middle-class comforts unknown to any previous generation. That said, they provoked a lot of antipathy from other contemporary tribes, probably because taking pride in privilege is invariably perceived as snobbish.

Rebellion – the Hippies. Rich kids dressing up poor.

Hippies weren’t proud to be privileged. Even though they owed their considerable leisure, education, and liberty to the military industrial complex, they actively rebelled against their parents. Besides some major parties, they did have a major role in popularizing social justice, racial equality and sexual freedom. None of the other style tribes could claim credit for playing any kind of role in real political change.

That said, most people who look, act, and talk like hippies reject the label rather than taking pride in it, and the modern perception of hippies tends to be dismissive. I think this relates to “nostalgie de la boue”. This refers to when rich people romanticize poverty, for instance when Marie Antoinette and her ladies and waiting would dress up as milkmaids for fun and pretend to milk cows. Nostalgie de la boue provokes lingering distaste because it tends to be condescending and contrived. No matter what, rich dressing up as poor is disingenuous, and the result is that members of the tribes in this quadrant tend towards distancing and denial of their own membership.

Affirmation – the Punks. Poor kids dressing up poor.

Of all the tribes, punk strikes me as having the fiercest kind of pride, which makes sense because their style statement is an elaborate affirmation of authenticity – they embraced rejection, creating embellishment out of trash. These contradictions makes them an outlier on my axis diagram.

Affirmation – the Casuals. Rich kids dressing up rich.

Casuals were, like the Mods, proudly middle-class. The difference was a focus on sport and leisure rather than white collar work. Casuals take the hit from fashion circles for popularizing workout clothes as street wear and leading logo fetishization. Despite that, they display genuine pride – and share with the Mods an external perception of snobbishness.

Rebellion – the Chavs. Poor kids dressing up rich.

Chavs are essentially a further development of Casuals but without the money. From the outside they are almost universally mocked as the style statement is a tasteless exaggeration of the already borderline Casual ethos. Yet, they are essentially the last of the indigenous British style tribes, a modern iteration of the Teds, but without the redeeming factor of labour.

Rebellion – the Hipsters. Rich kids dressing up poor.

Modern youth suffers, if you can call it that, from an excess of advantage. When I walk through my gentrified neighbourhood in East London, there are upscale shops like Labour and Wait that sell tools and household cleaning items presented like precious objects, and the streets are full of boys wearing slightly too artfully paint-splattered jeans and un-scuffed work boots holding iPhones in their soft, un-calloused hands.

Nostalgie de la boue: we fetishize “functional” work because our own so-called work is so ephemeral and indulgent. Hipsters fixate on the trappings of manual labour with the same fervour that the Teds romanticized the clothing of a lost leisure class.

Hipsterism is fascinating to study and comment on for a lot of reasons. The self-loathing quality of it is quite striking. So much of its rebellion is turned on itself – a tangled Ouroboros of reactionary impulses that others have discussed at length. For the purposes of this post, I’ll limit the commentary to this: hipsters are hyper-aware that they are disingenuous brats, and unlike their counterparts the hippies, they have no redemptive qualities.

I say this as someone who admits to harbouring more than a few hipster traits. I have a blog and an indefinite 21st century job description, and sometimes I catch myself describing what I do in unnecessarily self-deprecating language.

So, is there a pattern? So much modern style movements reflect attitudes towards social mobility – but somehow, social mobility itself somehow still suffers from a weirdly feudal bias, like we’ve never been able to shake the birthright business. Rich>Poor and even Poor>Rich still have inauthenticity problems to this day.

Rich Dressing Up Poor suffer from the most complicated psychological contortions. Because they’re both highly educated and downwardly socially mobile – it doesn’t make a lot of sense relative to history, which is what makes the phenomenon so interesting.

Modern style tribes, Hipsters and Chavs, suffer from strong disdain – I think what they both have in common is a lack of meaningful work combined with hyper-access to products and information. They are spoiled and it is not endearing, though I feel sympathy for both groups. Their (our) future is so complex and uncertain, I don’t want to begrudge them (us) whatever indulgence they (we) enjoy now.

Future style tribes will likely be a reaction to hipsterism, which on macro terms will be precipitated by an end to prosperity. I think the next iteration could be a modern counterpart to punk – the aesthetics of scarcity. Cynical, perhaps? Is it weird that I consider the possible emergence of a new style movement an upside of a major recession?

podcast – interview with Oma

For my first ever podcast, I decided to interview my Oma, Herta Meder, not only to get familiar with how to use audio, but also because I’ve inherited my own interest in fashion from Oma and I’ve always wanted to record her experiences with fashion.

As my first ever phone interview and podcast, it is not very edited and moves a bit slowly – but if you do listen, you will hear my Oma’s stories about working with a dressmaker in Germany just after the Second World War, being an immigrant wife in Canada and creating her own wardrobe inspired by the fashions of the time, and eventually working for clothing manufacturers in Winnipeg and Toronto in the 1970s and 80s.

These images, taken from slides, are of my Oma modeling an outfit on the runway, which she designed for a competition at the end of the 1960s. It was a miniskirt, hat and cape created from a Hudson’s Bay blanket.  Oma won a prize for this creation – a Pfaff sewing machine.

Thank you so much Oma, for everything!