People are always saying how shallow fashion is. It is perceived as a vain interest, its existence is for those obsessed with aesthetics and beauty, but I think they’re missing the deep influence it has on the world.
If we look back to where fashion developed from, it has actually become less about wealth and extravagance and, arguably, has taken a more philosophical and political route. So where did fashion begin? With the monarchs and nobility who displayed their wealth through their dress and possessions. Obviously, the more wealth they had, the more they were able to source rare materials and jewels; similarly, the greater power they held, the further afield they could import trends and fashions from. Throughout history, people have used fashion to demonstrate their wealth, travels and experiences; interestingly thought, it is only since the world has developed allowing for greater and more diverse production methods, greater trade opportunities, as well as, people having more disposable incomes, that the idea of fashion has been deemed shallow and vain.
If we take it back to basics, fashion is self-expression through materials and colours rather than words, paints or facial expressions. A true designer isn’t someone, whose sole aim is to make their fortune, but an artist who has been inspired and has combined fine art with sculpture and textiles; ultimately, haute couture is fine art which has been brought to life. Designers take inspiration from all aspects of life; be it music, artworks, lyrics, nature or an experience, so why do we all perceive fashion to be shallow and fickle? I can only assume that it is because we have the opportunity to make it so. Nowadays clothes are so readily available at low costs that we can constantly buy new pieces and change our style whenever we want, thus we are creating the perception that fashion is materialistic.
Everyone wants to be successful in life, achieve their dreams and live happily, and if we’re taking fashion to be a pure form of self-expression then it makes sense that we want to be attractive, because our natural instincts (and the media and every soppy rom-com) tells us we’ll be happiest once we find our perfect partner. So is fashion just an extension of biology and our animalistic desire to be attractive to the opposite sex? No, not really, that’s probably taking it slightly too far, but it is fair to say that fashion gives us the ability to accentuate our beauty and express ourselves, so we’re almost wearing a brief synopsis of our lives. When you’re choosing what to wear, there is a certain decision to be made in terms of the personality we want to portray, how attractive we want to appear, whether to demonstrate certain beliefs, opinion. Because let’s be honest, everyone judges people on their aesthetics initially and we all want to appeal to the right people, whether that is for friendship, relationships or business.
But what about the people who aren’t interested in following fashion? Well, that just another expression of themselves, they might not be concerned by the pre-fall collections or Spring/Summer ’14, but they have their own style which they maintain. There is a social expectation to conform to certain fashions, I mean, you don’t see people wondering around in togas anymore. So whilst they might not be ‘en Vogue’, they are conforming just as much as Anna Wintour or Franca Sozzani.
Besides, it’s quite apparent that fashion’s place in society is considerable and powerful; thus people have use this position to make bold statements; from Westwood’s t-shirt’s supporting Julian Assange to Benetton’s ‘Unhate’ campaign which deeply upset the Catholic Church. I am by no means condoning some of the editorials which promote child models, anorexia, racism or abuse; in fact I’m utterly disgusted that anyone would give such proposals the go-ahead. I also believe there are many aspects of the fashion industry which are not positive or admirable and need some serious reconsidering. However, I feel that the artistic side of fashion is too often forgotten by the many of us, as well as many in the industry too.
Primarily fashion is art, and when a piece of art can invoke such fierce debates then I think it is almost impossible to say that fashion is shallow. In fact, in its very purest form, it is far from shallow or vain, it’s a multifaceted concept that affects people everywhere every day; from your average Joe in a plaid shirt and jeans, to the most chic French fashionista who frequents Hermes and Prada. What began in the royal palaces with the wealthy showcasing their opulence has become deeply-rooted into our society and if anything, fashion and its capacity to be unique and a trend at the same time is fundamental to society and our desire for self-expression. It is cardinal to each individual, the story-telling of who we are, where we’ve come from and where we want to go.
Somerset House is currently home to an exhibition, the largest to date, of photographs, drawing, sketches and magazines from the world-renowned fashion photographer, Miles Aldridge.
From his degree in illustration at Central St Martins, and brief dabble in directing music videos, Aldridge isn’t your average fashion photographer’s background – in fact, nothing about his work is very conventional either. Aldridge’s shoots are conducted in an almost theatrical manner; he explains he works with film rather than to shooting static frame by frame. This motion is apparent in each work. The boldness of colour alongside the high definition creates his near-unique, cinematic quality.
Aldridge ignores the parameters of typical fashion photography and takes his works to a level beyond the immediate beauty. Beyond the aesthetics, extravagance and debauchery which appear natural in a glossy copy of the latest Vogue Italia; Miles’ focus is always the women, the stunningly beautiful women with blank-expressions. Past the blood-red ketchup splatter on the black and white tiles, the strikingly dazed housewives in the shopping aisle and the opulent Virgin; there is a distance between the women, the empty gazes suggest a deeper sense of neurosis and trouble.
The works are busy with colour, grandeur and opulence but if you consider the scenes, Aldridge’s work, arguably, has a darker side; the women are perceived as almost broken. The absence of delicate materials and muted hues makes the women’s fragility even more apparent, their emotionless eyes seem to hide a story that they want to tell but their bold clothing and surroundings do not allow for a moment to disclose their anxieties. It is important to note that Aldridge states that his work is not a social commentary, but an exploration of the human condition in all its complexity.
Parallel to the notion of exploration, Aldridge’s work can be appreciated on varying levels. The images have multiple layers, meanings and stories, but he leaves it to you to explore and decide how deep you want to read into them.
Take ‘The Rooms #2’ (below).
Initially, there is an attractive, finely-dressed woman, submerged in luxuriously rich colours. A bit deeper and you have a handsome model clothed in high couture, surrounded by objects which hint at hedonism, perhaps the theme for this season’s campaign. Deeper again, you can analyse the techniques which were involved, the use of film to capture the moment of the split objects, the gentle folds of the material captured in a way you expect them to move in a slight breeze. Deeper again, who is this elegant woman? Why is she lay on the floor, has she fallen, been pushed, overdosed? If so, then why? Deeper again, what is Aldridge trying to say about the human condition? Is it because we are human that we are never satisfied? Are we all dangerously materialistic, or once we acquired everything, do we start to lose other parts of ourselves? It is simply up to you to interpret as you wish.
His works, in this exhibition in particular, are like an adult picture-book. You are given the character and the scene, the rest is up to you. It is your choice to make is as thrilling and debauched, tragic and opulent, or splendid and conventional as you want.
January 25th 2011 marked the beginning of the Egyptian Uprising. For eighteen days, collective social force hit the streets in an unprecedented manner. The Egyptian population – their resolve manifest in the numerous demonstrations in Tahrir Square – voiced political concerns and called for change within both the government and society. For eighteen days, Egypt was gripped by chaos and uncertainty; tensions which remain unresolved in Egypt to this day.
However, destruction breeds creation. One of the outcomes of the revolution in Egypt has been the formation of space for expression, where such expression had previously been stifled. Moreover, not only did the uprising allow for new modes of expression, it generated them. The ‘Revolution’, catalysed by the use of social media, represented the accommodating framework for artistic experimentation, such as the surge of street art, standing monuments in the streets of Cairo.
Graffiti riddled with political significance has become for many individuals a tool of resistance wielded against the status quo. And what makes it so effective is its creation and development borne out of a common dissatisfaction, revolt, and the timing of a historical trigger – such as the quasi-tidal course of the “Arab Spring”. As these feelings spill out in the public realm, the street becomes a site of contestation, a key element in the interaction between community, activism, and art. Due to its dichotomous status of anonymity and publicity, the street functions as the arena in which social issues are expressed, highlighted, and developed. These range from gender concerns, to honouring the martyrs of this conflict, to record history as it is happening.
The streets of Cairo present themselves as an urban papyrus onto which artistic expression is allowed to flourish, continuously shifting with the ebb and flow of people and city. Through this freedom in expression a sobering reality is physicalised and highlighted, not as a means of ‘prettifying’ one’s surroundings, but as a creation of social awareness against the injustices of poverty, censorship, repression, violence, and corruption. The public space is re-claimed, as a means of resistance, and as expression of free-thinking – a freedom that has proven extremely difficult to annihilate. The evolving and layered nature of street art allows for a continuation and a development of expressive discourses that remain current and relevant to the issues which feed it. When the government paints over graffiti (in itself an act that affirms and augments its role as a vessel of freedom of expression), more eventually appears – as an evolution, as a response. This is freedom of expression at its most flowing, despite extreme pressure and constraint which actually create the necessity to express. This is freedom of expression at its most ever-shifting existence.