Fashion: Your identity
When you think of fashion, you often think about different designer brands, favourite high street stores, what’s in and what’s out, but the deeper connotations of fashion as a form of art can easily be forgotten. The truth is that each and every one of us represents our own individuality and identity through our outward appearance, from the way we do our hair to the clothes we wear. Right now I know that when I sit on the tube every morning to get to lectures, the office workers sitting opposite me are aware that I am a student because of my big bag, messy hair and casual clothes. In other words, everyone represents themselves and a certain social category through their appearance.
The Aware Fashion Art Identity exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts gave me a great insight into an area of fashion that isn’t always thought about. Fashion is a beautiful art that is a means of communication, celebrates personality, is a form of expression and distinguishes between different groups of people living in diverse cultures. The exhibition was broken into four separate subjects which represented different issues from political conflict to personal expression. It began with Helen Storey’s dissolvable dress, but there was a range of artists and although I didn’t find all of them impressive, some did convey particularly meaningful messages through their works.
As soon as I walked into the first room; dedicated to storytelling, Susie Macmurray’s ‘Widow’ (2009) blew me away. All I saw was a beautiful dress that I wanted to get right into, but as I got closer the appearance of the dress was becoming less elegant. As I stood in front of the dress, the aggression rather than the beauty became overpowering – especially when the pins sticking out from all over became visible. The inside of the dress was made of leather and all I remember thinking was: this is making one massive statement. From afar, the dress was gorgeous; quite obviously a connotation of a happy woman. Then the pins appeared, bringing with them a strong association with hurt, anger and grief and suggesting prickly solitude and isolation, justifying the emotive name of the work. This meshed with the choice of leather used to make the dress, as the material conflicts with traditional tailoring and also represents skin and sensitivity. The dress was a widow and although she seemed content, she was alone, grieving and secluded.
The most bizarre creation was a strange-looking garment worn over the upper body, predominantly used to cover the face, and allowing the wearer to create a private space for protection from the outside world. The garment was quite open, allowing freedom of movement, and it had a mirrored surface apparently reflecting the cityscape, while also hiding the wearer from others. This was part of the Building section of the exhibition, and although I could never see myself wearing this flamboyant piece of clothing for protection against the world, it was easy to appreciate the creativity and thought behind the work.
The work of art that I admired most was part of the Belonging section. The artist was Sharif Waked and his creation: the Chic Point (2003). The work was a powerful film that confronted the difficulties of Palestinian men and the complicated political situation in the Middle East. The video showed a catwalk with men wearing pieces of clothing with large and deliberate holes and gaps. It would then suddenly cut to images of men today in Palestine who are subjected to body searches at Israeli checkpoints. One model on the catwalk wore a white T-shirt with one big hole in the middle which opened up to his stomach, a reminder of the immediately previous clip, in which Palestinian men who had no freedom lifted their shirts to be body searched at checkpoints. This piece of work was so powerful in its meaning as it explicitly showed the sense of identity and dignity linked with clothing. It made clear the influence of art and fashion and how both together are not only able to make the most intriguing statements on controversial matters in today’s world but also how they provide us with reason and meaning in our everyday lives.
The rest of the exhibition was dedicated to performance, where Alexander McQueen’s famous red lace dress from the Autumn/Winter collection of 1998 was on show. The theme of the dress, Joan of Arc, and the fact that it was red, with a shrouded face, symbolised female strength which was finely counterbalanced by the delicate lace of the dress, suggesting the opposite, weaker historical connotation of women. It was an amazing piece of work, but not enough to divert my attention from Sharif Waked’s video.
The exhibition did not only show the relation between art and fashion and how they always interlink: the artists showed how fashion and art work together to express opinions, beliefs and identities. It showed the power of dress and how meaningful fashion can be. Fashion is not only about making beautiful clothes and shoes, it is an art that can make political statements, respond to the economy and ever-changing nature of the world, it can formulate opinions on gender and personal situations and it can be a part of anyone, anywhere around the world.
The Royal Academy of Arts is open 10am-6pm Saturday-Thursday (last admission to galleries 5.30pm) and 10am-10pm Friday (last admission to galleries 9.30pm).
Photograph: Susie MacMurray’s Widow, 2009, photographed by Andy Stagg