Postmodernism and Fashion

...everything's already been done; so appropriate it!

by Angela Oatley
Postmodernism in fashion has developed over the past twenty years with designers such as Comme des Garçons, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood demonstrating its key elements. So how is Postmodernism still relevant in fashion today? Postmodernism has been widely used over the past two decades but trying to pinpoint one definitive meaning for the term is very difficult indeed. Taken literally, Postmodernism means “after the modernist movement”, but there is more to Postmodernism than that. One thing that is certain is Postmodernism is a flexible term that can cover a wide range of art forms. Critical theorists use Postmodernism to refer to a point of deviation for works of literature, drama, architecture, cinema and design.

Originally, Postmodernism was a reaction to modernism. Malcolm Barnard explains “where modernity conceived of the object in terms of production, Post modernity conceives of it in terms of consumption”. This means that all forms of art are made with the sole purpose of being ‘consumed’ and with a main target of postmodernism being to appeal to a wider audience the two go hand in hand. Postmodernism can also be used to describe the society in which we live in today:

“[p]ostmodernity is a globalizing, post industrial world of media, communication and information systems. It is organised on the basis of a market-orientated world of consumption rather than work and production…it is a world of culture in which tradition, consensual values…universal beliefs and standards have been challenged, undermined and rejected for heterogeneity, differentiation and difference.” (Bernard, 2007)

Postmodernism can be seen as an artistic style, or an approach to the making of things. The way something is constructed, the silhouette created and the status it gives the wearer or user. Andrew Hill points out, “clothing is no longer associated with the type of social hierarchies it once was”. For example, exposing female flesh in 19th century gave the impression of prostitution, whereas now it can signify any number of things such relaxation or wanting to appear attractive to the opposite sex. Malcolm Barnard states, “The signifier that is exposed flesh now has no secure and fixed signified (or meaning) and all previous rules are at best unreliable guides to post-modern meaning”.

Post-modernism doesn’t distinguish between high and low art forms. Some aesthetic forms of art were stereotyped as “feminine”, for example fashion, then judged as being almost lower in class than the more “masculine” forms, for example, architecture. With Postmodernism there isn’t a rulebook to dictate to us the status of the different art forms.

“…Throughout the nineteenth century anything ‘detailed’ or ‘ornamental’ was judged feminine and inferior; and this distinction was carried on into twentieth-century modernism.” (Ash and Wilson, 1992)

Postmodernism challenges the traditional cultural values of today’s societies, in particular, western society. Life today is radically different to what it was fifty or even thirty years ago. The traditional values of marriage and family no longer exist; with women having the same status in the work place as men and also not settling down until later in life. A lot of couples choose not to have children at all. Religion also has less of an effect on society as it used to, it is almost becoming irrelevant to many people. Postmodernism has become a description of these shifts in contemporary society and culture. Elizabeth Wilson, Visiting Professor of Cultural Studies at the London College of Fashion, claims,

“Postmodernism gestures towards all this in a word. The terms ‘post-modernism’ and ‘postmodern’ have seeped into semi-popular language as short-hand for a vague, general ‘zeitgeist’ (spirit of the times).”

The art forms in Postmodernism re-think the relationship between art and popular culture and reconsider the supposed differences between works of art and other consumer goods.

So how does Postmodernism relates to Fashion? As mentioned above, postmodernism embraces all Art forms, one of the Art forms embraced by Postmodernism has been Fashion. Not always seen as “Art” and still frowned upon in this context by many traditional Art lovers, Fashion embodies many of the key elements of postmodernism, evidence of this can be seen on the international catwalks of the veteran and latest fashion designers.

Besides the established designers and representatives of postmodernism such as Maison Martin Margiela, Vivienna Westwood, Comme des Garçons and Hussein Chalayan, more recently, new designers are using the influence of postmodernism in their collections. Constantly looking forward to the future of fashion but drawing from it’s past.

Nothing seems to be too controversial for us anymore; we have seen and done it all. So, seeing a model walking down the catwalk in a see-through dress with nothing but her knickers on doesn’t cause the controversy it would thirty years ago. It doesn’t seem sexual or provocative in the slightest, women’s bodies aren’t just objects of desire anymore. We have the same status as men in many aspects. To me, this image shows women’s empowerment. Although some feminists would disagree, Elizabeth Wilson points out,

“Now, feminists have begun to explore the meanings of fashionable and other kinds of dress. This exploration has gone against the grain of traditional feminist suspicion of fashionable dress: many feminists reject fashion because of the way in which it reinforces the sexual objectification of women; for it’s association with conspicuous consumption and the positioning of women as economic chattels, as property, and because it is held to be uncomfortable to render women helpless (high heels and pinched-in waists, for example, can impede movement).”

But, that is what postmodernism is all about, embracing all opinions and not seeing just one explanation for everything.

In conclusion, from my research into postmodernism and how it influences fashion I have learnt that there is much more behind an unfinished seam or a raw edge than meets the eye. Every row weaved in the fabric, every line drawn by the designer, every button sewn on (or not) is intentional. Fashion in itself is postmodernism; it echoes the world we live in today. I have also found out that there is another side to art, the art critics who “deconstruct” the meaning of every art form and look at what even the smallest detail signifies.

Each detail is argued and poured over by many critics who all write their own articles, journals, and books on the subject. Postmodernism in fashion is all around us, from eclecticism, to pastiche, to parody and deconstruction, fashion designers constantly use the new and old to create new looks in the strive to be “the next big thing”. Mass media means that fashion is so much more accessible today and it can reach far and wide, for the consumption of the consumer. Fashion seems to move at a faster speed today than it did thirty years ago and high street stores are constantly updating their lines to keep up with the public demand for “fast fashion”.