Sir, …..were you a Punk?….and the fashion of offence

During my cultural education lessons with my fourth years (15-16 year olds) I spend a little time looking at some applied arts. And amongst these lessons what better applied art to make use of than fashion. Nice and close to the range of interests and experiences of the pupils you would think. You might also think that they would relish the idea of the more experimental and progressive work of modern designers.

I acknowledge that I don’t teach in one of the more cosmopolitan cities of Europe. I actually teach in a relatively small provincial town. But even so, I am still regularly taken aback by the conservativeness of my pupils. Are there rebels amongst them? Well, when it comes to clothing, probably not!

westwood2I watched a film with them today about Vivienne Westwood that spent a considerable part looking at the Punk related fashion she, in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren produced in the late seventies and early eighties. We saw the bondage trousers and the near pornographic t-shirts that were intended to stir things up and to shock. The film certainly caught the attention of the class, to say that the pupils were shocked, in the same way that the general public might have been shocked back in 1980, wouldn’t be true. No, they weren’t shocked, they were bemused.  They just didn’t seem to understand why someone would want to confront someone in that way through what they wear. They also wanted to know whether I had been a Punk back in the early eighties, but I had to admit to being just a shade too young for that!

I guess we are living in different times.  I can think of plenty of things that you could put on a t-shirt nowadays that would be shocking too. The perception of the world today is such that a provocative statement of offense to others might involve a risk to yourself. It would really seem that sensibilities have shifted. We are exposed to so much through modern media, but simultaneously there does seem to be a creeping restriction in freedom of expression that didn’t seem to be the case thirty years ago.

Could the rebels clothed by Westwood back in the late seventies and early eighties have a place in today’s society? What shocks and offends today is not the same as what shocked and offended then. The Punk fashion point of reference seemed to be the establishment and society that was immediately around them. The explicit content that featured on their t-shirts then would probably now result in little more than a shrug of the shoulders of passers-by.  The global village nature of the world in which we now live in means that frames of reference and potential offended audiences are spread over the entire globe.

Fashion and storylines

Having visited two fashion exhibitions in the last couple of months (which if I’m honest is quite unusual) I find myself reflecting back a little on what I have seen. What has engaged me, what has caught my attention?

The two exhibitions were one that took a look at nineteenth century fashion and linked it with a number of contemporary designers at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and The Future of Fashion is Now at the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam.

den haag

In short the show in The Hague focussed on the developments and progressions through the nineteenth century, the silhouette, the fabrics, the under garments and the history and romance of the designs as the title Romantic fashions indicated. The Rotterdam exhibition had a perspective of looking ahead, exploring new materials, functions and the practicalities and impracticalities of things we might wear.

Future-of-Fashion-is-Now-3In the Boijmans show in Rotterdam there certainly were a number of examples of designs that were, in practical terms, difficult if not impossible to wear. Having mentioned this though, I can’t say that I am particularly bothered by such a detail. I am only too happy to walk through a painting exhibition without needing a function more than an aesthetic one or just intellectual stimulation, so why should clothing not also occasionally offer the same?

In this way I might say that the Future of Fashion is Now exhibition was actually closer to that areas of art and culture that I might usually engage with, yet looking back I feel that the display I saw of nineteenth century fashion actually drew my attention more. So why was this, what was it that the exhibition in The Hague had that wasn’t the case in Rotterdam?

What I am left contemplating is not only the historical perspective that the older clothes have, but also the sense of narrative. The clothes come from a period past, they connect with stories and lives that once occurred and are, to a small degree, captured in these items of clothes that have passed through time. They have a story to tell, a sort of historical authenticity. Maybe this is what I missed in Rotterdam. The clothing there was a look towards the future and so inevitably missed some historical baggage.  Maybe that as I get older I myself am more able to look back and appreciate and contextualize this more. I am able to link the nineteenth century clothing with what I know of the period through its art, form the photographs I’ve seen of distant relatives wearing similar clothing or from books that I have read.

Both exhibitions of course have their own merits, but in order to engage, appreciate and understand maybe I need a little more of a storyline (even if it is one I construct myself) to be able to find my way.