Postmodernism: The Style Subversive

...challenging the institution.

by Georgia Shaw
The V&A’s exhibition ‘Postmodernism: Style and the Subversive 1970-1990’ offers a pop of colour with its run through the wintery months until January 2012. The exhibition features photography, paintings, prints and installations depicting significant moments within the cultural movement. But in a world of smug ‘isms’, concepts like Postmodernism and their loaded meanings can easily be lost in translation. Now more than 20 years since its demise, Postmodernism offers a confronting but engaging way to think about culture. With hindsight, it acted as a radical turning point which has had a resounding and electrifying impact transforming the visual landscape through art, design, architecture, film, music, advertising and fashion.

In its simplest terms, Postmodernism was a cultural movement which emerged as a rejection of simplicity, clarity and perfection in academia which filtered into the creative industries with a confident, resounding flow. It signified a radical break which challenged our institutionalised ways of understanding and categorizing the world. With no absolute truth, creatives were encouraged to create art which could be simultaneously authentic and imitation, glossy and distressed, independent and commercial, pastiche and serious. Creativity was about making subversive statements and the result was often unsettling as well as humourous. Visually, this unstable mix signified an injection of the absurd, colourful, richly thematic and theatrical which fit comfortably with the 1980’s, a decade synonymous with Yuppie overspending.

Central to this movement was a shift in social practices with a new self-awareness in style which encouraged an individual freedom. More broadly, Postmodernism could be thanked for formalising the status of the stylist to articulate these changes aided by a burgeoning independent magazine culture. Stylistically, the original poster child for Postmodernism is the original Material Girl, Madonna, who recognised the power of sartorial reinvention with each new album. Her style progeny have followed suit with Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj constantly merging eclectic style references as they seamlessly construct new identities. These women represent a powerful amalgam not only of identities but subcultures and sexualities.

NOT JUST A LABEL has more recently provided a venue for today’s fashion image makers from stylists to style enthusiasts and Postmodernism’s impact can be seen in many of the collections profiled. A striking expression of the movement is an eclectic resurrection of historical themes often exaggerated for effect. The playful proportions of Atush’s ‘Rococo Collection’ appear as an homage to the headed pieces of Russian orthodox clergyman moulded from black leather. The movement’s conflict with the conventions of religious art can also be seen in Ena Macana’s crucifix necklace constructed from welded gold plastic guns. Macana’s work draws parallels to Warhol’s incorporation of iconic pop culture imagery in his prints which intentionally trespassed the boundaries of taste to ask questions about what qualified as art.

Subversive style references can also be found close to home with Hannah Taylor’s collection ‘You’ll Grow Into It’ which makes a tongue in cheek reference to the over-sized knitwear and animal motifs she associates with her Dad and eating roast dinner in the North of England. Her knitwear is deliberately playful incorporating over-sized smiling faces into her highly decorative, colourful designs as she explores this personal theme through her collection.

Postmodernism has made an impact not only in the decoration but the structure of fashion design. Ivana Pilja’s work inspired by the concept of moving sculpture manifests as a series of angular, artificial silhouettes. The designer’s magnified interpretation Japanese fashion and origami invokes Postmodernism’s conflicted message of authenticity and as a larger than life pastiche. Johan Ku’s work enhances this aesthetic further with the absurd proportions of his knitwear as a rejection of functionality. His work broaches the boundary between art and clothing creating a collection of soft sculpture using giant needles and raw wool.

The designer Lucy Jay has translated Postmodernism to a digital format with her graphic print scarves. Her designs are a fusion of incongruent elements incorporating old fashioned, quaint advertising images with saturated, psychedelic patterns. The result is quite literally a pocket sized statement invoking the movement’s irreverence and humour.

Postmodernism, like movements before it, reached a status of crisis when its art was given a monetary value. With this deep irony, the movement which had once directly questioned our evaluation of art had become weird for the sake of it. Thankfully, its impact didn’t begin and end within a 20 year period and its influence can be seen in the complexity of fashion’s style referencing. Arguably, it is our pop culture figures who now bear the strongest signs of Postmodernism’s impact existing as a series of constructed identities in a constant state of flux. As a movement, it may have exposed more questions than answered them but in doing so it dashed the boundaries of creativity to create a carte blanche in which anything in fashion was now possible.