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Dress As The Image Of The Cutting Edge

In the period from 1964 to 1970, styles of dress worn by young women in Britain were the most famous visible representation of the "teenage revolution" and of the cutting edge of cultural modernity. Miniskirts exposed thighs to public view for the first time in European-American fashion history. These changes were rooted in the major social and cultural upheavals of the late 1950s, generated, as Tony Bennett explains, by "a watershed around which a series of significant "before" and "after" contrasts can be drawn" (p. 7). Young, radical film-makers, painters, writers, photographers, and designers then successfully challenged the British establishment's hold on cultural power. Many who came from working-class backgrounds were helped into university and art-school education by postwar state grants to cover fees and living costs.

The London couture trade ignored these developments, maintaining their prewar function of creating elegant clothing for the annual high society calendar. The fashionable age in 1955 was around thirty-five but could easily be fifty-five if a woman kept a slim figure. By 1965 the fashionable age was sixteen, a near twenty-year drop in ten years.

Countercultural groups and their dress.

This fashion shift was created by the young on their own terms. Angela Carter, a radical feminist writer and anti–Vietnam War activist, felt that "one was living on the edge of the unimaginable; there was a constant sense of fear and excitement" (p. 211). Young countercultural dressers from the late 1950s wore clothing appropriated from workers' clothing and army-surplus store outlets. "Ban the Bomb" campaigners and art students (the women often with long loose hair and the men with beards) wore fishermen's pullovers, road-menders' jackets, and ex-Naval duffel coats, in an effort to defy existing barriers of gender, class, and occupation. At about the same time, the subcultural, androgynous Mods focused their attention on modern jazz and on acquiring motor scooters, drugs, and neat expensive suits and short smart hair cuts. It was a tidy "look," originally male, but one that belied an "alternative" fascination with drugs and hard partying after the end of the working day.

It was a fusion of these styles and interests that by 1964–1965 evolved into the hard-edged bright "look" of London fashion and propelled the bold, colorful geometrics of Pop and Op art. By the late 1960s however a far more exotic, ethnic, and historical revival of styles, largely drawn from the hippie culture of the West Coast of the United States became commonplace in both alternative and mainstream fashion circles.

In Britain, state art colleges were the central catalyst for the blossoming of radical fashion, producing key designers such as Twiggy models a dress in London, 1966. During the 1960s, British fashion began to showcase youthful, eye-catching designs that featured short skirts and bold colors. Also popular was the hippie look, imported from the United States. © BETTMANN/CORBIS Mary Quant, Ossie Clarke, and Barbara Hulanicki of Biba. As the most directional British style creator of the mid-1960s, Mary Quant's work cannot be underestimated. Always more interested in creating a whole "look," her innovative, simple clothes (with colored stockings and flat shoes appropriated from art-college, countercultural dress) were retailed at mid-market price levels. These designers threw out centuries of British upper-class clothing etiquette and nearly destroyed the London couture industry in the process.

The contrast with Paris could not be greater. There, the couture houses themselves produced a new generation of dynamic designers, such as Paco Rabanne, whose metal/plastic disc minidresses were not only more radical than London designs but also, crucially, helped keep Paris couture alive because of their direct appeal to the young.

Yoruba fashion, Nigeria.

Through the 1990s the academic study of fashionable dress began to reject its Eurocentric focus and a long-held view, as Joanne Eicher comments, that "dress outside the boundaries of western civilization has experienced little change and is therefore traditional" (p. 4). Acknowledgement has finally been made that the term fashion applies as equally to dress designed, manufactured, and consumed, for example, in Lagos, Dakar, Rajasthan, and Chiang Mai as in Paris, London, and Milan.

One of the most useful texts is Cloth, Dress, and Art Patronage in Africa (1999), by Judith Perani and Norma H. Wolff. This details the design, manufacture, and consumption of contemporary Yoruba strip-weave aso-oke cloth, which forms the basis of fashionable women's Yoruba dress in Nigeria. Made up into wrapper, blouse, and head tie, a competitive fashion in the late twentieth century was "shine-shine" lace cloth woven from specially imported Japanese, synthetic, gold, filament yarn.

Perani and Wolff explain that "shine-shine" cloth, made on narrow, traditional Yoruba strip-weave looms by male weavers, "has been adopted by wealthy urbanites as a visible symbol of prosperity, status and pride in ethnic heritage." They show that the weavers "have their fingers on the pulse of fashion through on-going interaction with their elite consumer-patrons" (pp. 171–172). Because of the flexibility of these craft processes, the weavers can alter the design of these fabrics rapidly, in keeping with fashion shifts. As Perani and Wolff make clear, none of this bears any relationship whatsoever to elite levels of European-American "designer" dress, except through the same constant search for design modernity and newness.

Designer fashion in the twenty-first century.

The world of couture has always responded to the zeitgeist of its times, as much in the twenty-first century as in Madame de Pompadour's day. In the twenty-first century's fascination with brand labels as symbols of modernity and "cool," the top designer fashion trade now serves as the glamorous front for the billion-dollar global marketing of designer-branded products of every kind. This mass retailing of branded fashion accessories, cosmetics, and perfume is built on near-mystical, magical designer images of beauty and celebrity, seen in glossy advertisements, on catwalks at the Academy Awards, and in Japanese youth wearing American T-shirt, Tokyo, 1991. The global mass-marketing of fashion has frequently resulted in a demand for popular designer brands that is not limited to any certain culture, race, or gender. © CATHERINE KARNOW/CORBIS much-reported fashion shows. With only a few thousand clients personally buying couture, designers are given free reign to create. All involved—particularly the two major fashion conglomerates, of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (also known as the LVMH group, which owns the salons of Givenchy, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs International, Kenzo, Christian Lacroix) and Pierre Bergé, owner of Yves St. Laurent, and of Gucci (which in the early 2000s owned majority holdings in the companies of Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney)—recognize the central need for brand images to be "individual," seductive, and at the cutting edge of modernity. John Galliano's London sense of extreme, romantic, youthful modernity has, for example, been successfully appropriated in Paris, transforming the international image and bank balance of the house of Dior.

Weaving in and around this world are the conceptual designers, such as Martin Margiela, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and Hussein Chalayan. Defined as designers who are more interested in the ideas behind their designs than in commercial viability, all of these produce both commercial and conceptual collections. Some, such as Alexander McQueen, fuse both approaches successfully into one. Caroline Evans in Alexander McQueen's "What a Merry-Go-Round" fashion show. By the twenty-first century, much of the emphasis of fashion began to center on spectacle and image, as seen in McQueen's 2001–2002 collection. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS her seminal study Fashion at the Edge (2003), argues that from the 1990s avant-garde fashion design has reflected "the dark and deathly side" of consumer capitalism (p. 37). She notes the deliberate creation of "spoiled work that reflects a spoiled world" (p. 307), spoiled by deconstruction, remaking, cutting, slashing, damaging, even despoiling with mould and bacteria as in Margeila's exhibition work in the Netherlands in 1997. She describes these clothes as "apocalyptic visions" typified by notions of trauma, deathliness and haunting (p. 4). Evans sees these clothes as contemporary representations of cutting edge modernity, through their sartorial articulation of the political, cultural, social, and technological instabilities of the turn of the twenty-first century.

Evans shows how the work of Alexander McQueen illustrates many of these themes. She highlights his "What a Merry-Go-Round," autumn-winter 2001–2002 collection, based on a circus theme, with models made up as white clowns "to produce a mournful and alienated image—rather than celebrating circus performance" (p. 102). Evans notes that this show stressed "the frightening and strange elements of the circus—and thus the darker side of modernity" (p. 102).

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