THE LANGUAGE OF FASHION
Musem für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg
August 14, 2020 – October 31, 2022
The exhibition The Language of Fashion at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MK&G) sheds light on the significance of text for fashion products. The items on view are variously emblazoned with brand names or logos, political messages, typography or plays on words. All objects on display come from MK&G’s own fashion collection, including more than 35 items from the 19th century until today by established designers such as Walter Van Beirendonck, Coco Chanel, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld, Martin Margiela and up-and-coming young designers such as Edda Gimnes and Flora Miranda Seierl.
Something we don’t often think about is that the word “text” originally came from “textile”. Text and textile share the same Latin root: “textus”. The German translation for “textus” is “Gewebe”, which in the figurative sense can also mean “connection”, as in a “fabric of connections”. Writing can be found in every conceivable place on dresses, trousers, coats and shirts. Sometimes the letters splashed across the chest or back just can’t be big enough, and other times they almost disappear in the pattern repeat. And in some cases they wrap themselves around the body so circuitously that the message remains a mystery. Written information may be discreetly hidden inside the garment. Or the letters of the alphabet may be replaced by an alternative system of signs whose meaning can be deciphered only by the adepts. The use of lettering on the outside of clothing first emerged with 1960s pop culture, for example on paper dresses, hybrids of poster and dress. In contemporary fashion design, the “Antwerp School” in the orbit of Walter Van Beirendonck is particularly well known for embellishing apparel with written messages. A wide variety of techniques is used here, including jacquard weaving, bandage knitting, embroidery and laser cutting.
PLAYING WITH LANGUAGE
Puns and plays on words displayed on clothing arouse curiosity and pose fun riddles to solve. Sometimes difficult to decipher, these messages may be elaborate or quite banal. Garments in this group display texts that vary between provocation (fuck) and high culture (Proust), between Death Punk lyrics and doodling. The content of the texts sometimes stands in sharp contrast to the form and function of the garment, while on other occasions it may interpret them or take an apparently neutral stance. In the bandage dress, text and textile merge almost indistinguishably: the band of writing constitutes the garment. And it is probably no coincidence that the colours black and white predominate here, in keeping with our reading habits. A coat displays a quote from world literature in large handwritten letters: taken from the famous Madeleine episode in the volume “Swann’s Way” (1913) from Marcel Proust’s (1817–1922) epic cycle “Remembrance of Things Past”. The name of the author is hidden on the back. It is in this same spirit that the fragmented words and sentences spur viewers to search their own memories. The printed letters and dates refer to important stages in the writer’s life: his birthday, making the acquaintance of Robert de Montesquiou, his first publication.
How can a no-name product be turned into an object of desire? Labels are often used to charge design with meaning. Brands give consumers orientation and can be a sign of quality. But more than anything, they convey messages about the label’s vision and values. Language is used here in diverse ways: from designs that boldly sport brand names to more discreet identification marks, from showy logos to a cipher that is reduced to a minimum. Monograms and personalised labels containing information such as the name of the wearer and the date of manufacture spin a narrative thread about the garment. Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895) is regarded as one of the key figures in nineteenth-century fashion history. He revolutionized the fashion world by designing models instead of individual dresses and by furnishing them with a label bearing his signature, an innovation that elevated him to the rank of artist. Worth thus went from being a mere tailor to achieving the status of fashion designer with signed designs marketed under his name. In the late 1980s, Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela (b. 1957) would launch the eponymous Maison Martin Margiela label and devise a way to subtly convey authorship. The four white stitches that attach the inside label are visible on the outside of the garment, a code that insiders instantly recognise.
TEXT AS A DESIGN ELEMENT
Writing is a central component of language, both preserving and conveying content. And the typography the writing is set in, i.e., the typeface or font, conveys additional messages. Whether bold or italic, curvy and dynamic, playful or rigorous – these formal choices can trigger associations and feelings. Playing with different fonts and languages has become a popular design tool in fashion. Lettering is produced in many different ways: printed, woven, sprayed, painted, appliquéd or cut into the fabric using a laser. Apart from the formal language of the garment itself, the choice of typography also “speaks volumes”. A prime example is the paper dress that Time magazine sent to subscribers as a supplement to the Valentine’s Day issue in 1967. The arrangement of the lettering is indebted to the popular Op Art style: what first appears as a black-and-white pattern turns out on closer inspection to be the title of the magazine. An optical illusion thus ensures that the promotional message is only apparent at second glance. The dress becomes a fashionable advertising vehicle.
The examples show garments with – in the broadest sense – political or socially critical messages. The unstructured surfaces of T-shirts are particularly conducive to disseminating short slogans, as they usually grab attention at eye level. The artists and designers of the garments shown here allude to topics such as the Vietnam War and terrorism in the 2010s but also engage in criticism of consumer society and self-critique. Only the worn-out jeans bear highly personal messages created by their former owner. Hussein Chalayan’s (b. 1970) “Airmail Dress” has the message itself as its theme. It is a garment and a piece of stationery in one, but the letter has yet to be written. The handwritten missive as a link between sender and recipient stands here for the communicative aspect of fashion. Printed pattern markings and short instructions for writing and folding the “airmail letter” vie for space on the paper-like material of the dress.
The title of the exhibition, The Language of Fashion, is a reference to the French philosopher Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and his pioneering work “Systèmes de la Mode“ (Paris 1967) about fashion and language theory. All objects on display come from the fashion collection of the MK&G, some of them are permanent loans of the Stiftung Hamburger Kunstsammlungen.