Part of: Future Tense

Essay: Finding Fashion's Funny-Bone

by Leisa Barnett on 6 August 2008

Journalist Leisa Barnett investigates the importance of humour for this new generation of fashion designers.

Journalist Leisa Barnett investigates the importance of humour for this new generation of fashion designers.

Still from 'The Future is Cancelled', PPQ (2008)

When Janet Jackson's right breast made an unscheduled appearance during half time of the 2004 Super Bowl it caused a ripple effect through the media to the very heart of things: it changed the way in which we talked about how we dress ourselves. The phrase 'wardrobe malfunction', the delicious euphemism with which Jackson's people passed off the furore, has just made it into the latest edition of the Chambers Dictionary.

Which is hardly the stuff to which anybody who associated themselves with high fashion might pay any special note. Yet it is significant, because it proves how, in one instantaneous moment, the body and the way it is presented can still - even in the twenty-first century - call into question the greatest fundamental beliefs of the most civilised of nations.

The beauty of this example? The unabashed tongue-in-cheek-ness of the whole affair.

If the way we talk about fashion is constantly evolving along with fashion itself, then fashion as a language in its own right - a never-ending dialogue between the past, the present and the yet-to-come, as well as dialogue between our inner selves and the world at large - just continues to get richer. As a universal credit crunch starts slowly sucking the life out of our bank balances like some ambivalent spoil sport Dementor, the way we choose to dress ourselves increasingly speaks volumes about who we are.

As Danish wunderkind Louise Amstrup would have it: 'I think it's very important fashion is there to emphasise and flatter the individual; not to overshadow the person but to complement her.' And, in these brutal times, is it any wonder that the combustible mix of couture and humour seems like a sensible route to take to show the world we've got both the chutzpah and the style it takes to make it through to brighter times?

Much has been made of the new season's preoccupation with armour-like shapes - exaggerated shoulders, breast-plates, shoes made so fierce with platforms and adornments and pattern that they could wound on sight - as a kind of uniform with which one might choose to tackle tough times ahead. But if we peel away from the big guns and look at what the next generation of designers are championing, humour and a return to the sheer fun of fashion are potent ingredients in their aesthetic make-up.

As the high street rises the style stakes, so do designers take their wackiness.

PPQ, with the ever-controversial Peaches Geldof as its unofficial muse, is one label that determines not to take itself too seriously; see, for example, the way it bowed out of its premises on London's Conduit Street just this summer with a 'trash the carpet' party that, rather than being incongruous with designs that might set one back a month's pay, rather reinforced the 'couldn't care less' nature of the next generation's creative philosophy.

'There is that really great lyric, Groove Is In The Heart', Amy Molyneux one half of PPQ's design duo, has said when asked about the girl she designs for. 'I often look at PPQ girls and this is in my head.'

Who could be miserable - or, indeed, misconstrued - whilst wearing a day-glo Cassette Playa shift? Or sporting an outlandish piece of Nazir Mashar headgear, or oversized Patrik Soderstam pants, or Rodarte's all-over web-like knits, inspired by Japanese horror movies? Whereas once such out-there statement pieces might signal a 'taking seriously', these days, they are an expression of the relief of individuality - egged on by high fashion's determination to distance itself from the mass market.

With 'collaboration' a buzzword for the mid-Noughties (think Stella McCartney at H&M, Christopher Kane for Topshop, Phillip Lim for Gap), many designers are moving back into the realm of the outlandish or the absurd to play out their creative vision; the antithesis of the 'play it safe' mentality that, by necessity, drives the high street. As the high street rises the style stakes, so do designers take their wackiness - insisting on an emphasis on couture-like shapes and the most top quality fabrics and cuts all the while - to ever-greater heights.

And, thanks to the advent of the Internet, now everyone can get in on the joke. If we clothe ourselves in designs to mark us out as the Darwinian fittest, chances are, our image will be posted on blog sites within twenty-four hours to be cooed over by the fashion fanatics of the entire world. In a recent interview, couture maven Daphne Guinness gave this the ultimate acknowledgment, stating: 'Between couture fashion and street fashion, there is a certain continuity. It's like a bunch of ad-hoc experiments going on all the time.'

The Internet allows us to break down the cultural and social norms associated with dress and portray the fashion world as a nation unto itself: one where, just because Frank Leder's vision of his work is one of decidedly German humour or Peter Jensen's, Danish, we do not shy away from it.

Humour in fashion is a comfort, regardless, because the language of fashion is the facet with which we identify - and the addition of 'wardrobe malfunction' to everyday parlance is just one extra, however peripheral, reason for us to celebrate fashion's new fixation with the unserious.



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