Uniform thinking

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Fashion is essentially the interpretation of symbols. The form, colour and decoration on a garment encompass a wealth of statements and ideals. However, there are certain symbols that are beyond personal interpretations, the meaning so specific that no other translation is possible. From the crucifix, synonymous with Christianity, to tribal masks and the bankers uniform, the suit; such iconic items are an immediate and easily deciphered code of dress.

The crucifix has long been associated with Christianity and Catholicism; in fact it is unlikely that any other meaning could be gleaned from this particular symbol. Although the crucifix is an interpretation of the Celtic Bolgar or Sun Cross, its’ interpretation within contemporary adornment has always acknowledged its Christian roots. Designers have used the cross in a variety of ways, and applied a multitude of meanings to the symbol, though its use is generally to create a gothic or macabre atmosphere.

Givenchy designer, Ricardo Tisci acknowledges the heavy influence of his Catholic background in his collections, the use of black and lace his own realisation of the traditional clothing worn by women in his hometown Taranto, Italy. Tisci’s collections for Givenchy often appropriate different religious and cultural symbols, drawn mostly from the Mediterranean part of Europe. His Autumn/Winter menswear collection for 2010/2011 was described as aspirational monasticism. He used such obvious iconography as the priestly dog collar, necklaces of thorns, with an austere palette of black and white. His Spring collection for 2010 again referenced Catholicism, but through the use of repeated motifs of middle eastern tiling patterns found in many churches both in Italy and across Northern Africa, and headgear that is distinctly reminiscent of the helmets worn by knights going to the crusades.

As well as having some clever cultural symbology in it, this outfit’s also pretty pimping…

Givenchy SS 2001

For a symbol so synonymous with religion, the cross turns up in a surprising number of mediums. Anyone who has seen Lady Gaga’s film clip for her song ‘Alejandro’ cannot help but notice the nuns’ habit, decorated with blood-red crucifix motifs across the crotch and sleeves that she wears. Deviating from the themes of man, nature and the macabre that defined much of his work, Alexander McQueens final collection carried a strong religious sensibility. The use of baroque patterns loaded with Byzantine and medieval religious symbols, gave the garments a ‘papal’ propensity that was enhanced by the silhouettes and cutting. It seems almost portentous that he created work that dealt with such strong religious elements so close to his own suicide.

McQueen’s work was often an interpretation of cultural symbolism and identity. He has consistently used manifestations of indigenous icons as a method for his exploration of the experiences of ethnic-cultural identity construction through different periods of social change and destruction. This idea was most notably obvious in his Autumn/Winter 2001 presentation entitled Eshu. By creating a physical manifestation of the experiences that have shape the social and ethnic identity of the Yoruba tribes people of West Africa, McQueen provocatively drew attention to issues of ethnic-cultural identity formation and further contextualize them through his own aesthetic adaptation.

Alexander McQueen AW 2001 “Eshu”

His depiction of the Orisha-Ifa tradition of the West African Yoruba (a process of divination facilitating communication with their deities) was free from any cultural appropriation of identity. The collection, although a non-stereotypical celebration of the deity Eshu, was seen as somewhat confronting. Nevertheless, it was an optimistic reflection of West African mythology that physically portrayed the economic sources of agriculture and craft directly in the clothing as a way to depict the Yoruba as they may have been prior to Christian conversion. The bodily deco- rations consisted of heavy steel and wooden bangles, pierced septum and lips, pubic aprons, and traditional Yoruba tattoo scarring called Kolo, all representing the body modification aesthetic of the Yoruba belief that scarification is pure and natural. Powdered glass beading was applied to transparent horsehair tunics to represent traditional forms of decoration, while effigies of the trickster god Eshu were depicted in the form of carved horsehair headpieces.

Fashion symbols with a single interpretation are often found more in uniform, and cultural dress. Militaristic references have been especially popular in the last decade, perhaps as many commentators have claimed, in reaction to the continued global unrest. Elements of militaristic dress have been ever apparent, reappearing in collections repeatedly for the past few years, whether in the tailoring and silhouettes, or in the use of materials and decoration.

Esteemed Savile Row tailors, Gieves & Hawkes have a history that is steeped in uniforms, producing bespoke battle dress for the crowned heads of Europe for some 200 years. An iconic heritage that is preserved in the archives, and still referenced today in much of their work. The bespoke nature of their suits is reflected within their past, and the collection of uniforms serves as a source of inspiration for head of design Frederik Willems and his team, whether created for the officer classes or royalty. The archives are not only a historical timeline, both of the house itself and the evolution of military dress, but a repository of technical knowledge that is still relevant today.

Uniforms have an obvious language, both empowering and disempowering, designed to easily distinguish one persons allegiance to a certain group from another. It is after all, the function of uniforms to create conformity out of individuals. The school uniform is one every person dons at some point. In the context of an educational institution the uniform serves to remove difference and identity. Defining features are added with successes, whether the colour of a shirt changing with prefectship, or badges to denote academic or sporting achievement. Similarly prison uniforms function to remove identity, just as the garments worn by the police and legal system serve to enhance their position of authority and power.

Essentially all clothing can be seen as uniform in one way or another. Unlike formal uniforms, how an individual links themselves to a particular career, by dressing in the suit and tie espoused by bankers and other white-collar professionals, or follows a particular style such as punk, he or she is making a statement, telling the onlooker much more than a style of clothing. Dress denotes social and political beliefs, or lack thereof, that encompass a set of symbols that are essentially the uniform of the particular social group. Individuals use dress, to stand out or blend in as a way of legitimizing their existence with their society.




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