Breaking the mode

Celebrating the radical designers who reinvented our sense of the beautiful

The design of clothing has undergone dramatic changes over the past twenty-five years. Designers have introduced subversive elements into the fashion system, examining and deconstructing its entrenched conventions and changing the rules about what is aesthetically pleasing and fashionable.Breaking the Mode: Contemporary Fashion from the Permanent Collection is about designers who revolutionized methods of garment construction or challenged the existing canons of the body’s form, proportion, and fashionable silhouette.


The method of construction is a fundamental component of the design of a building, sculpture, or garment. Couture-dressmaking construction techniques of the early to mid-twentieth century were fundamental to Western fashion; traditional methodology determined the quality and appearance of clothes.
Christian Dior’s 1947 “New Look” mandated an hourglass figure with round shoulders, narrow waist, and voluminous skirts, achieved with meticulously designed and crafted understructures. Dior’s contemporary, Cristóbal Balenciaga, instead relied on the substance and texture of the fabric and his knowledge of construction techniques to create a garment’s volume and fit. Madeleine Vionnet exploited the fluidity of bias draping—manipulating cloth on its diagonal—to create her feminine silhouette, inspired by the human body. With another vision of the ideal, Charles James produced complex architectural monuments with opulent fabrics.

In contrast to traditional Western methods of cutting, padding, and fastidious tailoring to fit an idealized silhouette, in the 1980s Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto, in particular, introduced a new aesthetic based on the Eastern concept of asymmetry. They used draping and construction techniques not for perfect fit, but to craft shapes that were in concert with, or in opposition to, existing body parts.
More recently, inner-construction details that previously were hidden have been exposed as part of the “finished” garment. Deconstruction and construction became unified in a functional and aesthetic goal: both remain vital to the garment’s structural integrity, and both are integral to its design and decoration.


Remarkable advancements in textile technology have altered or diminished the authority of traditional construction techniques. Thermoplastic fibers used heat instead of labor-intensive hand-pleating techniques to create pleats, gathers, and tucks, and thus encouraged a radical expansion of the vocabulary of form and the design of the garment as a whole.
Some designers explored new approaches to traditional methods of construction, reinterpreting time-honored techniques such as lace making. By featuring synthetic ornamentation, by combining incongruous materials, such as velvet and plastic, or by integrating traditional materials and practices with innovative ideas, designers assaulted conventional notions of luxury and elegance. The dictates of what was “suitable” or “appropriate” were sabotaged.

New textiles for fashion and interiors include three-dimensional structures designed by computer with sculpted surfaces that replace the traditional techniques of embroidery and beading. Topographical surfaces are achieved with such processes as chemical blistering, spatters and laminates of metallic particles, heat molding and treating, and various complex novelty weaves. With rapidly evolving technology, the potential for textile development will continue to change the look and perception of fashion.


History has borne witness to the oscillating extremes of fashion relating to the parts of the human body. Focus on, and consideration of, the torso and its component parts—bust, waist, hips, derriere—changed with regularity.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the idealized female form in the West was sculpted by artifice, with restrictive corsetry and voluminous petticoats. During the century, with the exception of the 1950s, fashion’s approach to the torso grew progressively more lenient. Developments in elasticized textiles that mold to the body’s natural curves assisted contemporary designers, including Azzedine Alaïa and Hervé Léger, in realizing their respective paradigms of the female form.

Although costume history is rife with sculptural manipulations of the body, the symmetry of the human armature was rarely questioned. Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake, addressing the body as only part of the integral whole of the garment, have used asymmetry as the core design concept in creating garments that virtually stand alone—alternative forms dependent on, but not defined by, the body.
Reminiscent of the architectonic turn-of-the-twentieth-century underwear, contemporary garments also rely on additive structures or structural textiles to create extensions to the natural silhouette and change the perceived shape of the body. The result may be an ingenious twist on the historical figure, a freestanding geometrical model, or a piece of kinetic sculpture.


Designers wrestling with new concepts, evoking definitive positive or negative responses, are not committing transgressions against the established canons of fashion. These designers examine and deconstruct fashion’s entrenched conventions, scrutinizing the origins of preconceptions—the “hows” and “whys” of traditional fashion rules—and consider any building block in the process fair game for subversion and conversion.
For some designers, historical sources are analyzed, taken apart, and re-created, yielding recombinant forms of old and new in unique configurations seen, for example, in the trenchcoats on display. For others, social conventions are the subjects of inquiry. For example, society’s ambivalence and fascination with underwear has been exploited by many post-1980s designers. Some designers make critical or confrontational assertions with their work or, like Franco Moschino, introduce wit and incongruity into their fashion statements. Issey Miyake chose to engage a series of artists because he sought fertile collaboration with other creative people whose concern was the body. A number of contemporary artists incorporate the complex visual language of fashion into their work because of its plethora of cultural, political, and economic associations. Fashion is conceptual and functional; its compelling nature is that it can be either or both.

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