Utopian Bodies. Fashion Looks Forward

review by Edith Lázár

In the Fashion Series

*Disclaimer: To accompany a detailed presentation of Utopian Bodies and the exhibition catalogue, we asked curators Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov to discuss their concept, approach, and multitude of ideas that made the exhibition distinct. While the interview was initially published together with the presentation below, it was removed on request from the curators.

On September 25, 2015, Liljevalchs opened the exhibition Utopian Bodies – Fashion Looks Forward, an imaginative and thought provoking approach to the relation between fashion and the human body aiming to map out imaginable futures for the adorned body and show alternative ways in which fashion can be harnessed to shape the future. SVT, Sweden’s number one television broadcaster, noted that what makes Utopian Bodies particularly interesting “is that the exhibition has a different perspective on fashion, it is not just about shapes, colour, and glamour. But rather how fashion is also an art form that can affect the world in social and political ways.” [1] In her review of Utopian Bodies, Professor Elizabeth Wilson claims “there has been no fashion exhibition as original as this for a long time,” stressing that the exhibition catalogue “is a valuable monument to creative fashion in Sweden, and internationally.” [2] Conceived as an interdisciplinary study of the body and body-related creations, experimental and sustainable solutions for the future generations, the exhibition provides an insightful perspective on the socio-political role of fashion as creative and cultural aggregator. The curatorial concept aimed at creating an experimental utopia, with Liljevalchs rebuilt and enveloped in wearable art, yet the interweaving of craftsmanship and high technology can be seen not only from an imaginative perspective – it can also inspire an analytical study of aesthetics and politics.

Maiko Takeda (Japan), Headdress. Atmospheric Reentry, 2013. Photo: Yuen Hsieh. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Maiko Takeda (Japan), Headdress. Atmospheric Reentry, 2013. Photo: Yuen Hsieh. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Nadine Goepfert (Germany), Memory Foam pullover. The Garments May Vary, 2013. Photo: Sanna Helena Berger. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Nadine Goepfert (Germany), Memory Foam pullover. The Garments May Vary, 2013. Photo: Sanna Helena Berger. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Bea Szenfeld (Sweden), Paper Ensemble / MINI MIKI, 2015. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Bea Szenfeld (Sweden), Paper Ensemble / MINI MIKI, 2015. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Notes on the Exhibition and the Catalogue

The thematic galleries spread across over 15,000 square feet and have been individually designed, taking inspiration in various utopian ideas that aim to highlight the promise of technology and creativity. Over 200 objects, images, and videos invite the visitors to ponder about the different worlds on display. The Memory room in particular was designed to present fashion as a material memory, showing how clothes can make us recall and negotiate the past and exhibiting garments that tell a personal story.

The open format of Utopian Bodies – Fashion Looks Forward was intended to appeal to the wide audiences, but has also provided extensive focus on children activities and engagement with children as a means to inspire educational and fun ways to interact with the themes of the exhibition. Featuring illustrations by Pernilla Stalfelt, Jojo Falk, and Caisa Wessberg, the special catalogue for children is written by children’s author Anna-Klara Mehlich, who also devised a child zone together with students from the Stockholm school of art, Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, to present a range of activities such as treasure hunts, sewing, drawing, and sculpture tasks, mini exhibition of children’s work, and classes by Patrik Söderstam, Maja Gunn, and This is Sweden. A series of seminars organised by the Association of Swedish Fashion Brands and Ingrid Giertz-Mårtenson has brought together an important number of Swedish and international speakers such as Professor Elizabeth Wilson, who has also written the forward of the impressive exhibition catalogue. A 300-page survey of the exhibition, the catalogue includes contributions from internationally renowned writers and academics such as: Professor Elizabeth Wilson, Cultural Historian and Writer; Professor Christopher Breward, Principal of Edinburgh College of Art; Susanne Madsen, Editor at Dazed & Confused; Dr. Shaun Cole, Fashion Historian, Curator and Writer; Kaat Debo, Director of MoMu; Professor Kate Fletcher, London College of Fashion; Ingrid Giertz-Mårtenson, Fashion Historian, Curator, and Senior Advisor of Association of Swedish Fashion Brands; Professor Barbara Vinken, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich; Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, Editor-in- Chief at Vestoj; Bradley Quinn, Fashion Historian and Writer.

Ryohei Kawanishi (Japan), Five children ensembles / Fairy Tales, 2012. Photo: Yuta Kawanishi. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Ryohei Kawanishi (Japan), Five children ensembles / Fairy Tales, 2012. Photo: Yuta Kawanishi. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Gypsy Sport (United States), Ensemble Spring/Summer 2015. Photo: Jonathan Grassi. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Gypsy Sport (United States), Ensemble Spring/Summer 2015. Photo: Jonathan Grassi. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Manon Kündig (Switzerland), Ensemble / Bowerbird, 2012. Photo: Michaël Smits. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Manon Kündig (Switzerland), Ensemble / Bowerbird, 2012. Photo: Michaël Smits. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Utopian Bodies was conceived to explore the space surrounding the living body, but fashion is innovative precisely with bodily differences and imperfections. The collection of garments, images and videos is, in fact, a re-collection of creative ideas that dare looking into the future. In her catalogue intervention, “No One Escapes Fashion,” fashion historian and curator Ingrid Giertz-Mårtenson claims that fashion affects us all: “Fashion always exists in the garments that we wear next to our skin, the tactile frame and the cultural expressions that surround us, and in the image we create of ourselves each morning when we dress. It is an extension of the body and the individual, but also a conscious or unconscious interpretation of one’s own personality. (…) Nobody can escape the frameworks we create around us every day – especially fashion.” [3] Elizabeth Wilson argues in her extensive introduction that dress is central to human culture, allowing us to elevate the human body “into work of art, sign system or metaphor. Bodily adornment is an authentic medium whereby ideas, beliefs, thoughts, emotions and aspirations take concrete form. Dress is meaning.” [4] As Wilson explains, the choice of utopia as a guiding theme for the exhibition does not only imply a critique of the current state of fashion and its production, but also aims to reveal the aspirations of a new century and our ability to imagine better futures. [5] “Many individuals, for example, are deeply concerned about climate change and the degradation of the planet. Sustainability is equally a concern within sections of the fashion industry. Yet it is often difficult for individuals to know how sustainable the clothes they purchase are, or difficult for them to afford garments that have been made without harming the environment. There is also the question of how far the rush to technology is compatible with the sustainability agenda. The imagining of a different sartorial future would include a vision of how this circle might be squared.” [6] The idea of solidarity and collectivity are in need of strengthening, says Wilson, referencing the uniform as a means to show how it can signal “adherence to a cause, even a rejection of dominant ideals, as in the clothes worn on demonstrations and marches in support of a political cause.” But the exhibition is important in that it reinforces the aesthetic dimensions and principles that make clothes an expressive and therefore meaningful medium, with psychological and emotional connotations built around ideas of resistance, memory, or love. [7]

The most relevant contribution to the catalogue is arguably Franziska Bork-Petersen’s text “Ideal, Imagined, Impossible: Fashion’s Utopian Bodies,” which draws the essence of utopia to desires as specific to the social context in which they arise. [8] “Most commonly, utopianism is associated with either a literary genre or communal living,” explains Bork-Petersen, “and stands for the attempt to describe in fiction, or construct in reality, an ideal society. But both in colloquial and academic language, ‘utopia’ also suggests a vision of an improved, better society to be impossible. (…) those who actively attempt to make their visions come true are at best tolerated as well-meaning dreamers, and at worst dismissed as dangerous totalitarians.” [9] While real bodies are tied to the present, Bork-Petersen states that the bodies can be utopian because in the contemporary world our definitions of utopia have changed: “Coinciding with this, technologies such as neuro enhancement, plastic surgery, pre-natal diagnostics or doping have become both possible and increasingly accessible; and they have changed body images and the notion of human enhancement. Bodies in the contemporary Western world are utopian objects in the sense that they are constantly under construction (…).” [10] Bodies are constantly in the making, claims the author, and they have been “a malleable form throughout history – surrendering to fashion’s often extreme visions of beauty.” [11] Bodily utopias may be seen today in models, since “they have to perform the impossible act of ‘physically disappearing.’ In some cases, this allows us to project ourselves, or other potential wearers into the clothes they show. But in high fashion (photography), the primary purpose of this disappearance of the model’s specific body is to invent new, sometimes unfamiliar appearances – they become a canvas for fashion’s imagination. Roland Barthes has blazed the trail in thinking about fashion models as ‘pure form.’ Here, their bodies simply facilitate the silhouette a designer envisions: fashion uses the bodies of models as a means to a creative end, the bodies themselves are inconsequential.” [12]

Marketa Martiskova (Czech Republic), Ensemble / Protest, 2012. Photo: Etienne Tordoir. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Marketa Martiskova (Czech Republic), Ensemble / Protest, 2012. Photo: Etienne Tordoir. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
H&M (Sweden), Dress. Sustainability – Beauty Beyond Rubbish, 2015. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
H&M (Sweden), Dress. Sustainability – Beauty Beyond Rubbish, 2015. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Anrealage (Japan), Two ensembles / WIDESHORTSLIMLONG, Autumn/Winter 2010. Photo: Anrealage. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Anrealage (Japan), Two ensembles / WIDESHORTSLIMLONG, Autumn/Winter 2010. Photo: Anrealage. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The Sustainability gallery explores the concept of sustainability in relation to fashion production and consumption, based on the credo that a sustainable society is a utopia that must be realised. While looking at the garments’ life cycles, from production to distribution or re-utilisation, the discussion of prototypes and recycling creates a discourse on sustainability where craftsmanship is mainly seen in its intimate connection with technological developments and thus functioning within a Western paradigm of modernity. The marriage of technological development and better worlds has nevertheless proved to be faulty and calls for a rethinking on how exactly does it affect people. Sustainable fashion today implies more than just a creative input associated with technological assets which continue to stress the recycling process, itself problematic. What is also at stake is an account of craftsmanship as hand work and human agency. If a sustainable utopia is to be met, it also needs to stringently address the problem of the workers who actually craft the garments, the conditions of production, environmental impacts and ‘no waste’ strategies that discuss recycling as a system of redistribution in itself. This then refers to fashion creations and their dissemination as well. The accent falls particularly on the numerous issues raised by the production of a garment which impact consumer habits. What does it mean to wear clothes that bear a history written over them? How can emotional attachment to clothing trigger a slower paced consumption? And with what do we equate quality today?

In a statement on sustainable fashion, Ulrika Berglund claims that ‘sustainability’ has been historically associated with economic development and the conservation of scarce resources, especially during times of war and crisis. “Today, the concept is linked to environmental and social responsibility and the realisation that the earth’s natural resources are limited. Perhaps the problem lies in our contemporary view of fashion as a phenomenon.” Professing a return to the origins of fashion, that is – clothing, it may seem possible to return to the sensible qualities of the materials as practiced in the Swedish textile and clothing industry of the first half of the twentieth century. [13] It is worth mentioning that concepts of ‘honesty’ and ‘trust,’ which stand as key words for sustainability, have been taken up and commodified by the fashion industry. Professor Elke Gaugele has argued that the discourses of honesty and trust work in fact to create other types of fashion mythologies which bring fashion closer to the spirit of capitalism. Drawing on French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s statement that “Ethics is a fashionable words,” Gaugele analyses the roots of ethical claims in fashion by underlining the “integration of social critique as ethical capital and a new spirit of capitalism.” [14] Sustainability in fashion should therefore be approached with precaution and its relevance should exceed that of simple creative outbursts of using eco-materials and recycling strategies. H&M, to give just an example, have a special department for sustainability, which states their strategies and environmental concerns. Yet at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2014, at the panel debate On the future of fashion moderated by Nader Mousavizadeh, Helena Helmersson – the head of H&M sustainability department at that time – found herself in difficulty of giving a clear answer over the costs and financial improving of the wages for garment workers in places like Bangladesh. [15]

Motifs like flowers, spring, life, death, mementos, oxygen, or children are used in the Change gallery to create snapshots of our contemporary relation to birth, decay, and rebirth. “On the one hand, fashion has moved more into the realm of art. Actually, I think it is more interesting than art these days, because it deals with life and death on a real body. On the other hand, fashion is running itself to death,” says fashion historian Barbara Vinken in a conversation with lecturer, writer, and curator Maria Ben Saad. Ben Saad, in return, thinks that “the fashion cycle is not only about cyclical changes in terms of seasonal changes or the time period between the birth of a new fashion and its eventual death. In the exhibition Utopian Bodies, I would rather relate the themes of birth, decay and re-birth to fashion as the art of dying and the art of living.” [16] Such a perspective is illustrated by Alina Brane’s Dreamwards ensemble, for example, Hussein Chalayan’s black marble dress, or Fiona Blakeman’s laser-cut dress, Chiu Chih’s Voyage on the Planet or Ryohei Kawanishi’s five children ensembles Fairy Tales.

The Technology gallery goes back to the role of technology and fashion in utopian and dystopian literature, insisting less though on seeing it as an instrument to convey conformity and control, as in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World (1932), but rather as a means to empower people to do new things., as in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865), where technology and clothing enable the characters to go beyond the human condition and reach the moon. It is technology’s ability to extend the human body that makes fashion function as a second skin, with online media and avatars now allowing us for new ways to consume fashion and break away with our genetic appearances, through either internet personas or anonymous expressions. “Wearables bring technology closer to the body, creating a peculiar intimacy between the human and the machine,” comments fashion historian and writer Bradley Quinn. [17] While wearable technology seems to increasingly penetrate the surface of the body to become a part of it, cyborg-like implants are just the other side of accepting breast augmentation, facelifts, or other medical procedures. “For those who are ready to embrace future fashion, the prospect of wearing technology is as exciting as it is terrifying. The processes and materials required to make technology wearable bring risks and uncertainties, potentially causing health issues and challenging the wearer’s right to privacy. These concerns and others need to be addressed by practitioners in both fields, and eventually regulated by a public authority. Wearable systems need to be tested and assessed, and once they have, fashion may finally have the potential to help us create the utopian bodies we seek.” [18] Such over-reliance on technology reinforces the already mentioned paradigm of modernity. Relating technology to the body as a utopian ground for enhancing it does not speak about the ways in which the body would actually extend its functions, or how technology works in order to accommodate it; instead, it may refer more to the norms which govern us and compel us to enhance it in the first place. As such, it underlines the dominant functions we assert to a body while living in the contemporary society. Sci-fi imagination has always been connected to the societies and times that produced it, and fashion may fall under the same rule: technologized bodies steam out of the society that produces them, taking along a share of cultural and societal norms of what a body is, what it should do, and how should it behave – through the very use of clothing. It may therefore imply that we have a body that we can use, but it speaks less about we actually having a body. What is also worth taking into account is that, in spite of their potential, these exceptional examples rarely cross the boundaries: they are neither worn on a day-to-day basis, nor enjoy an actual success. While they may improve our life, they remain prototypes often accessible to just a privileged few.

Technology gallery, exhibiting works by Pauline Van Dongen, Satsuki Ohata, byBorre, Smart Textiles, Chromat, Ying Gao and Moon Berlin. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Technology gallery, exhibiting works by Pauline Van Dongen, Satsuki Ohata, byBorre, Smart Textiles, Chromat, Ying Gao and Moon Berlin. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Craft and Colour gallery, presenting two dresses by Alexander McQueen next to KTZ and Kenzo. The room was specially designed by Orlando Campbell. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Craft and Colour gallery, presenting two dresses by Alexander McQueen next to KTZ and Kenzo. The room was specially designed by Orlando Campbell. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Craft and Colour gallery. From the left, Utopian Bodies specially arranged ensemble featuring pieces by Gudrun Sjödén and Walter Van Beirendonck's Explicit Beauty (2015), ensemble by British KTZ (2015) and Manon Kundig's Bowerbird from 2012. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Craft and Colour gallery. From the left, Utopian Bodies specially arranged ensemble featuring pieces by Gudrun Sjödén and Walter Van Beirendonck's Explicit Beauty (2015), ensemble by British KTZ (2015) and Manon Kundig's Bowerbird from 2012. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Craft and Form and Craft and Colour are two complementary galleries exploring how craftsmanship in fashion can help us understand and value the work that goes into making the garments, as well as the misplaced subordination of colour to form in the Western traditions. The work of artist and fashion designer Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) has provided the initial inspiration for the Craft and Colour gallery, resulting in a dynamic juxtaposition of vibrant colours, patterns, and light. Manish Arora’s spring/summer 2015 ensemble, Manon Kündig’s Bowerbird, or Alexander McQueen’s Heaven and Hell provide radical expressions of how colours inspire and give shape to forms.

“Dressing collectively holds the promise of allowing till people to relate to one another across national, ethnic and gender borders,” states the presentation of the Solidarity gallery. Addressing the way in which uniform clothing can be employed as a way of reinforcing group identity or instil social control, but also the recurrent theme of collective dressing in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the gallery moves away from social constructions based on the similarity between clothes to investigate how ‘normcore’ has come to describe a new fashion attitude, visually characterised by unpretentious, average-looking clothes. “The normcore trend has been interpreted as a reaction to the over-saturated and relentless fast fashion of today. Is a new generation of designers looking towards uniformity as a way of freeing people from the lure of consumer culture and stripping fashion of its ability to indicate status? Beyond normcore, is a union once again emerging between politics, art and design, representing collectivity between people?” [19] By insisting on “white clothes from a selection of Swedish labels,” the gallery loses its potential as an authentic social aggregator to move into a disputable field of ‘whiteness.’ In “Performing Whiteness: Revisioning White Textiles in Visual Culture,” Brigit Haehnel makes inquiries on how the semantic of white clothes in fashion can be understood as a visual sign of whiteness and which strategies can be used to subvert ethnicized representations of dominant culture. Haehnel underlines that visual culture retains the discourse of white clothing pertaining to national and colonial interests. It is white clothing, as a so-called ‘pure’ clothing, that has been imbued with powerful ideological charges, as, for example, the works of designer Ludwig Hohlwein in a calendar sheet family advertisement from 1938. White was used there to stress the racial purity of the represented bodies of women and men. White can also play a critical role in masquerades or re-interpretations of the white robe, when compared to renown representations in visual culture. [20] “Often texts and images in fashion journals re-establish in an apparently playful way national and colonial contexts but nevertheless transport racializing values of whiteness at the same time,” claims Haehnel. [21] From this point of view, in spite of being instrumented to create an idea of cohesion, inclusion, and factor of equality, whiteness actually codes bodies as white and western, with dress reinforcing western constructions of race. If solidarity is emphasised as a white collective, it loses its potential to challenge and reform established hierarchies.

Returning to [Quentin] Bell’s description of the history of dress as ‘a history of protests,’ there is something potent about threatening to transform our bodies. It is the first step to changing the world.

Jane Tynan

“Re-fashioning the body is a powerful expression of resistance to the dominant order,” says cultural historian Jane Tynan in relation to how fashion can be envisioned as a means of social resistance. [22] The exhibition gallery Resistance and Society illustrates the ways in which people demonstrate their discontent with society or allegiance to particular causes, looking at the powers of subversion and protest through fashion and clothing, from political affiliations to gender claiming, feminism, or the right to vote. Drawing on Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘carnivalesque,’ a concept used to analyse transgressive themes in the carnivals of Medieval Europe to explore similar tendencies surfacing in Modern art and literature and reveal the inversions of authority or the collapse of hierarchical power structures, Tynan relates it to the subversion of fashion practices as a way to express dissent. “In fashion, the carnivalesque surfaces as a kind of rebellious beauty, reflected in playfully distorted figures, asymmetry, chaos and dark humour – a reversal of the usual emphasis on physical perfection.” [23] In discussing the ways of fashioning protest, Tynan notes that “political demonstrations derive their potency from the various ways in which they visualise and embody social alternatives – often through street theatre and imagery. The body is the raw material for these spectacular transformations when protesters make aesthetic decisions to invert power structures through ‘ritual spectacle’.” [24] Tynan claims that the resurgence of interest in Debord’s work on spectacle finds the image at the centre of the debates about power in capitalist societies, employed by both dominant orders and civil dissent movements aiming to oppose and resist them, from anti-capitalist protests, to the Occupy movement or the Arab Spring. Going back to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s conception of discourse as a site of power and resistance at the same time, Tynan remarks that Femen or Slutwalk “have adopted creative styles of public protest that echo 1970s feminist activism, drawing attention to the ways in which the female body is treated as a battleground in modern society. Subversive fashion practices challenge the forces that seek to normalise power over bodies. Foucault reminds us that the body most effectively stages acts of resistance in everyday struggles for power. For protesters this shape shifting is about disguise and transformation, offering them an arsenal of techniques to rebel against authority. These aesthetic body practices create new forms of thought and action.” [25]

Change gallery, presenting pieces by Ann-Sofie Back, Fiona Blakeman, Chiu Chih, Iris Schieferstein and Manon Kundig. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Change gallery, presenting pieces by Ann-Sofie Back, Fiona Blakeman, Chiu Chih, Iris Schieferstein and Manon Kundig. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Sustainability gallery, Issey Miyake's and Dai Fujiwara's red ensemble together with H&M's dress with beads of recycled glass dominating the room next to pieces by, among others, Hussein Chalayan and Miguel Mesa Posada. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Sustainability gallery, Issey Miyake's and Dai Fujiwara's red ensemble together with H&M's dress with beads of recycled glass dominating the room next to pieces by, among others, Hussein Chalayan and Miguel Mesa Posada. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The Resistance and Beauty gallery looks at fashion as a subversive practice that can challenge established and authoritarian beauty ideals through the use of humour. “Fashion shapes our perception of what is beauty and non-beauty, but it can also be an act of rebellion against such norms.” [26] References to Medieval carnivals and the carnivalesque, a time when the authority of mainstream society is turned upside-down and the unconventional, vulgar, ugly, or grotesque rule together with humour to revert social orders, create a frame where symbols and designs reveal the construction of norms. Alexis Themistocleous’s Freaks, Anrealage’s Wideshortslimlong, or Nadine Goepfert’s The Garments May Vary are interesting examples for how fashion’s versatility in playing with representations of how the body can be constructed and opposed to societal norms, give birth to a body out of its boundaries. It can be said that they reflect on Bakhtin’s ideas that “the grotesque body (…) is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created and builds and creates another body. (…) Thus the artistic logic of the grotesque image ignores the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the body and retains only its excrescences (sprouts, buds) and orifices, only that which leads beyond the body’s limited space or into the body’s depth.” And, respectively, that “in carnivalesque images there is so much turnabout, so many opposite faces and intentionally upset proportions. We see it first in the participants’ apparel. Men are transvested as women and vice-versa, costumes are turned inside out, and outer garments replace underwear. The description of charivari of the early 14th century, in Roman du Fauvel, says of its participants, ‘They donned all their garments backward’.” [27]

Visitors to the Memory gallery will be able to explore how clothes commemorate time and space, observant of their transformations and alterations so as to conform to new needs, wearers, and fashions, and survive the passages of time. While resonating with a collective memory of the time in which they were made and worn, the objects in the Memory gallery tell the intimate and personal story of their wearers. “In our most successful acquisitions memories are woven into the fabric of the clothes already: old memories belonging to the new owner of the garment,” says Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, editor-in-chief of Vestoj. “A desirable new garment has to hold a promise of an unknown, more triumphant future but at the same time make you feel sheltered and safe by reminding you of your own past. Elizabeth Wilson writes in Adorned in Dreams that ‘the now of fashion is nostalgia in the making’ and nostalgia – the ravages of longing for something beyond one’s reach, has seemingly become an epidemic of the modern age. In fashion the past is forever haunting the present, but because the system depends on perpetual movement – onwards, forwards – it must also renounce its own history.” [28] The tactile memory of textiles reminds us both of the perpetual flux of culture and our own transience, while “reassuring us that, to paraphrase Victor Hugo, history is merely an echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future in the past.” [29]

Gender Identity is a gallery conceived around Judith Butler’s argument that we learn to ‘perform’ gender by repeating the behaviour associated with our biological sexes – fashion indicates, produces, but also redefines gender. While clothes and fashion have traditionally been divided along the female-male divide and have thus perpetuated cultural constructions of how to dress as a man or a woman, the Gender Identity gallery questions the established perceptions of gender and highlights how characteristics deemed feminine and masculine change over time. Walter Van Beirendonck’s Skin King, David Brask’s Colossus, or the Liberty Capsule designed by Acne Studios are but a few examples of how working with silhouettes, colours, materials, and styles that have been coded as male, female, or neutral plays with gender in a way that further reveals the perpetuated markers of constructed or performed genders only to stress the need in “understanding of difference between and positioning on the relation of gender and sex: ‘Gender is between your ears, not between your legs’.” [30]

The potential of fashion to bring joy to people and create attraction between everyone is explored in the Love gallery as a means to also negotiate between private and public matters, issues of intimacy and distance, and engagement into a plural manner of understanding fashion and its affects on us. In a concluding conversation between writer Marco Pecorari and Kaat Debo, Director of MoMu – Fashion Museum Antwerp, suggestively titled “Collecting Utopias,” the idea of utopia appears to be suiting both fashion and museums. [31] If museums can be understood as “a refuge for utopian thought,” as defined by art historian Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, they are indeed institutions for imagining ourselves just as much as for conserving narrated histories. If fashion can be defined “as a space of imaginative thinking, where ideas about ourselves are created through the constant re-interpretation of the past in the present,” [32] it may indeed come to outline, together with museums, a space of representation where reality is both challenged and imagined: “Both fashion and museums are utopian world-making practices, built on the traces of the past that are re-organised and re-arranged into possible futures. In this sense, speaking about a fashion museum is not an oxymoron because a fashion museum is more than just a cemetery for dead clothes. On the contrary, the history of fashion museums and exhibitions shows how various curatorial practices not only contributed to the reconstruction of dress history, but also deepen our understanding of the imaginative characters of fashion.” [33]

Love gallery, in focus H&M's Love dress. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Love gallery, in focus H&M's Love dress. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Love gallery, presenting Viktor & Rolf's Hana Bedtime Story (Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam on loan from Han Nefken's Fashion on the Edge), flanked by Sonia Rykiel and Charles Le Mindu. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Love gallery, presenting Viktor & Rolf's Hana Bedtime Story (Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam on loan from Han Nefken's Fashion on the Edge), flanked by Sonia Rykiel and Charles Le Mindu. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Closing Notes

“Without a body, there is no fashion,” stresses Kaat Debo. “A problematic element is that most museums exclude the body from the start. As a curator you have to be aware of this at all times.” [34] The representation of the body in fashion exhibitions is often accompanied by the disjunction between clothing and the body and the loss of the narratives deriving from this interaction. This falls on the substitution of the body with a support for the exhibited pieces, this being a common, mostly repetitive and rather obsolete exhibiting practice. Elizabeth Wilson has previously discussed the strangeness viewers experience when looking at decorporalised clothing pieces and argued for the role of the body and its dynamic interaction with movement and materials as a means to challenge fragmented perspectives on clothing that no longer account for the ways in which a piece is actually worn. [35] Anne Hollander too has shown how clothing pieces mark the body and its representations; they do not only function on multiple levels that involve social and cultural constructions, but are also a necessary condition for subjectivity. [36] Clothing is an extension of the body which expresses culture and its values, with systems of value being involuntarily integrated, incorporated, and embedded into clothing: dress codes reveal the battle to control the power which defines us, the power to create meaning. [37]

In an article that takes its starting point in Spinoza’s question ‘What can a body do?’ Léopold Lambert and Minh-Ha T. Pham stress that, for Spinoza, “bodies are constituted not be predefined classifications but by encounters with material, social, and spatial forces. That means the body cannot be abstracted into neat categories of description, but exists in relation to broader contexts of power and meaning. Bodies are realized both through individual actions and by being acted upon, but the conditions under which a body can (and can’t) act are nearly limitless.” [38] We have no idea what a body does, nor what a body actually is. The authors discuss how the introduction by US industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss of the anthropometric models to emphasise the “human factor” in industrial design, continues to influence and define ergonomics and industrial design today. These measurements are characteristic of how bodies are standardised based on the principle that raises socio-ethical problems “of knowing too well what a body is” and consolidates (hetero)normative two-gender binary systems. The standardisation of bodies though normative design creates violent relations between bodies and environments: “The intensity of violence the standard body brings to bear on an individual’s body is measured in that body’s difference and distance from the standard. (…) Bodies that are farther from the standard body bear the weight of these forces more heavily than those that are closer to the arbitrary standard. But to resolve this design problem does not mean that we need a more-inclusive approach to design. The very idea of inclusion, of opening up and expanding the conceptual parameters of human bodies, depends for its logic and operation on the existence of parameters in the first place. In other words, a more inclusive design approach to design remains fundamentally exclusive in its logic.” [39] What Lambert and Pham propose, in the wake of Spinoza’s question and the works of fashion designer Rei Kawakubo or artists-architects Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, is a perspective that challenges predetermined conceptualisations or normative-corrective constructions of what a body is and what a body can do, arguing instead for a double-negative – “we don’t know what bodies are not” – that refuses total claims of body knowledge at all. “(…) not knowing what a body isn’t affirms all bodies by doing away with the ideal of the normative body altogether. To not know what a body isn’t means that the idea of the body is infinitely open, (…) that all bodies are equally valid modes and forms of embodiment.” More than a philosophical issue, this becomes a political statement focused on the political relations “of bodies, objects, and environments that are produced and maintained through standard design practices and knowledge. (…) A design process that doesn’t know what a body isn’t can be found in a decidedly more mundane built environment.” [40]

Lambert and Pham go on to discuss the connection between architecture and culture as living spaces, since architecture provides specific relations with the body and the contingent relations between weight and gravity: “We know from Spinoza that the relations of surfaces and bodies are measured and maintained by differing degrees of intensity. It is not only that bodies encounter surfaces with an inverse force (what we commonly call ‘ground’ or ‘floor’) as a consequence of gravity, or that bodies’ relations with surfaces are mediated by a balancing of various weights with the weight of their own bodies (e.g., clothes or ‘wearable objects’). These encounters, and the intensity of their relations, have been largely fixed and naturalised. Design should denaturalise the standard body.” [41] Because floors and clothing structure all our encounters with our own and other’s bodies and environments, regardless of whether intimate, mundane, or extraordinary, the heterogeneous terrains evoked by architect Claude Parent and cultural theorist Paul Virilio’s theory of the Oblique Function can represent models for a more non-hierarchical design and design philosophy, argue Lambert and Pham: “What’s more, the intense encounters they enable and enact cannot be fully pre-known or pre-determined. How a particular body inhabits these built environments shapes and, crucially, activates the encounter.” [42] What design must critically engage into is a constant re-imagining of ever different relations between bodies and environments.

Resistance and Beauty gallery. Next to Hideki Seo's Blue and White ensemble from 2005, pieces by Acne, Alexis Themistocleous, Anrealage and Patrik Söderstam. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Resistance and Beauty gallery. Next to Hideki Seo's Blue and White ensemble from 2005, pieces by Acne, Alexis Themistocleous, Anrealage and Patrik Söderstam. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Solidarity gallery, a room entirely in white, with custom-made wigs by Perry  Patraszewski and pieces by Minna Palmqvist, Gudrun Sjödén, Ida Sjöstedt and Sandra Backlund. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Solidarity gallery, a room entirely in white, with custom-made wigs by Perry Patraszewski and pieces by Minna Palmqvist, Gudrun Sjödén, Ida Sjöstedt and Sandra Backlund. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck. Image courtesy of Liljevalchs. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

For all the discourse it sought to build, it is nevertheless somehow surprising that Utopian Bodies – Fashion Looks Forward has missed the chance to build more around Michel Foucault’s ideas expressed in a text titled precisely “Utopian Bodies.” [43] While Foucault initially claims that the body is the opposite of utopia, “the place without recourse” to which we are all and subjectively condemned, his discourse leads him to argue that utopia is not only a place outside all places, but the place where we will always have our bodies transfigured: “No, really, there is no need for magic, for enchantment. There’s no need for a soul, nor a death, for me to be both transparent and opaque, visible and invisible, life and thing. For me to be a utopia, it is enough that I be a body.” [44] According to Foucault, utopias are born from the body itself and maybe just afterwards turn against it – the body is the product of its own phantasms: “And if one considers that clothing, sacred or profane, religious or civil, allows the individual to enter into the enclosed space of the monk, or into the invisible network of society, then one sees that everything that touches the body – drawings, colours, diadems, tiaras, clothes, uniforms, all that – lets the utopias sealed in the body blossom into sensible and colourful form. And perhaps, then, one should descend beneath the clothes – one should perhaps reach the flesh itself, and then one would see that in some cases even the body itself turns its utopian power against itself, allowing all the space of the religious and the sacred, all the space of the other world, to enter into the space that is reserved for it. So the body, then, in its materiality, in its flesh, would be like the product of its own phantasms.” [45] Such thoughts most certainly reflect some of the ideas in Utopian Bodies and can be taken further.

While Foucault has rarely addressed fashion as such, except for an explicit discussion of the appearance of the modern soldier in terms of the colour and shape of his uniform, cited in Discipline and Punish as evidence of the emergence of a disciplinary regime, his work remains crucial, as Cressida Heyes argues, in negotiating the “normalizing technologies that encroach upon the micro-territory of the body, helpfully presented as ‘solutions’ such as diet regimes and cosmetic surgery. It is not just idealized images of perfect bodies that serve as a reminder of the prevailing norms of beauty. The normalizing gaze is far more searching and intrusive; its reach onto every surface of our bodies serves as a painful reminder of just how badly our bodies are ‘failing’ to live up to socially constructed ideals.” Because Foucault sees power as everyday, socialised and embodied – shows Jane Tynan -, his contribution to fashion is valuable in that his approach transcends politics. [46] What makes Foucauldian methods all the more relevant, and could have been emphasised in Utopian Bodies, is an emphasis on the visual that “is less concerned with aesthetics and more with what images do. In this way,” Tynen continues, “panopticism offers a useful model to understand the mechanisms whereby idealized images of women in magazines and on the catwalk might result in unhealthy levels of self-monitoring by fashion consumers.” [47] Foucault’s “Utopian Bodies” is essential in articulating a substantial curatorial discourse precisely because it continues Foucault’s dialectical take on discourse as a site of power and resistance at the same time, as a reminder that the body may well be the ultimate site of resistance.

My body, in fact, is always elsewhere. It is tied to all the elsewheres of the world. And to tell the truth, it is elsewhere than in the world, because it is around it that things are arranged. (…) The body is the zero point of the world. (…) My body is like the City of the Sun. it has no place, but it is from it that all possible places, real or utopian, emerge and radiate.

Michel Foucault

It may be argued that the way Utopian Bodies discusses the current state of fashion does little to change perceptions that fashion is no more than a sea of floating signs, for which the body is the perfect canvas or container. Jean Baudrillard has already discussed fashion as indistinguishably related to consumerism and at the heart of simulation, where signs no longer connect to underlying realities, but are formulated as enchantment or seduction, white symbols appropriated mainly for their aesthetic value and a “passion for artificial.” [48] While such fluidity and flexibility is most of the times seen as capable of constantly redefining one’s identity, in re-formation and in normativity equally, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has been critical about post-modern fluid identity and especially about the role consumerism is playing in moulding identities, within the socio-cultural power structures of fashion particularly. As authors Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik underline, this perspective is close to Barbara Kruger’s renowned work I Shop Therefore I Am. [49]

Talking about utopian bodies is always more than referencing representations, given that utopias are charged with the potential to disrupt established norms. The body has a complex and ambiguous relationship to representation which clothing – the working material of fashion – makes manifest. Scholars Alexandra Warwick and Danni Cavallaro point to some of the expressions through which clothing juggles with corporality. Being symbolically affiliated, much like images and through them, clothing translates the body into signs and decarnalizes it. As form, it constitutes a surrogate for the body which becomes a container for significations and, at the same time, it structures a form while pointing out metaphorically to materiality. As a tangible body structure, it breeds tension between the structure of clothing pieces and the body sensitiveness through which it manifests resistance to strategies of symbolic reworking. Through all extensions, clothing manifests the difficulty to configure the body in a precise schematisation and clearly outline it, [50] leaving the body to be negotiated as representation, flesh, and the ultimate site of resistance.

Edith Lázár / February 4, 2016

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