Sunday, June 30, 2013

BEAUTY: Clothing--Thom Browne

Paris Fashion Week saves the most spectacular, over-the-top displays for last. And Thom Browne's reputation for spectacle and OTT-ness precedes him. Although his '14 Spring-Summer cricket-themed collection for Moncler did not thrill me (I passed it over for posting on "Oh, By The Way," and instead prefer to recall the Scottish Highlands extravaganza he presented for Moncler's '13-'14 F-W season, here), I was hopeful for a lush '14 SS collection for his own eponymous label. Careful what you wish for as the saying goes. It seems as if Mr. Browne has lost his mind--again--and I love him for it. Browne has been presenting theatrical events to showcase his clothing for a long time. He is not afraid to take inspiration from the strangest or most unusual of places (witness last season's Amish-themed show here!), and he is not afraid of a grand statement. And his '14 SS statement is pretty charged.

Let's face it: his menswear is ultimately subversive. He has been feminizing traditional tailoring and menswear ever since he put a model in a fur stole for his first collection in 2006. Browne has augmented the staple of men's suits with what is generally thought of as "feminine" accessories, shapes, or cuts such as skirts and aprons. He even put models in versions of Flapper dresses, pearls, and cloche hats for his '12 SS collection, here. While elevating and paying homage to the "male" silhouette, he has, at the same time, tried to pry it apart, loosen it up, to loosen its fear-based death grip on the trappings it uses to prop itself up. There really is no such thing as anything essentially "masculine." Masculinity defines itself not by any inherent qualities but by being the opposite of "feminine." Masculinity is a construct. By contrast, the feminine simply is. Masculinity looks at it and says, "I am whatever you are not." This is where misogyny and homophobia come from.

As it goes with fashion, design, architecture, painting, music, novels, then so it goes with the psyche of the people, of the time, the zeitgeist. This is not just about fashion, not about only something to put on your body, but about the evolution of culture and people's spirits. And in this way, Thom Browne is working to break down rigid, self-imposed barriers that lead masculinity to lash out at anything that could disturb its artificial sense of itself. In the end, what is "masculine" or "feminine" clothing? Is a skirt feminine? Well, men have worn kilts and wrap-around garments for centuries. Is a dress feminine? Men have been wearing tunics for centuries. Are soft fabrics and high heels feminine? Let's look at the aristocracy over the course of centuries and see men wearing heels, silks, satins, furs. Is a purse feminine? Men have carried their belongings in pouches for centuries (and really, isn't a businessman's brief case just a hard, rectangular purse?). These garments and objects themselves have no gender...they are inanimate. They can be used equally by women and men alike. The psychology that Browne is addressing here is that men can wear a skirt, an apron, a tunic, a ruffle, a heel, or the color pink (I find it amusing how some men have a literal crippling phobia of that color) and none of that says anything about the personal value, strength of character, or sexuality of the man wearing such things. Browne's work calls into question the ideas of "masculine" and "feminine," and urges us to find the inner qualities that make us human, not the outer, superficial qualities that stamp us as "masculine" or "feminine."

Some excuses for a masculine construct: 1) "I am a man because I wear a suit/pants." Well, what if, for some strange reason, all your suits/pants get destroyed and there are only sundresses and skirts at the clothing bank of the shelter that takes you in after the hurricane/ flood/ tornado/ remaining climate-change-induced disaster? When you put one on, do you physically transform into a woman? Don't be ridiculous, of course not. 2) "I am a man because I hunt/kill things." What if you are forbidden from ever hunting or killing anything again? What if a woman next door to you hunts and kills then? Do you stop being a biological male? Again, of course not. 3) "I am a man because I can father a child." What if, for medical reasons, you cannot father a is the case with many, many men in the world. Do you cease having a penis, do you instantly turn into a woman? How stupid, of course not. These ideas about gender and roles are how undeveloped psyches go about imposing order. This is the heart of the current anti-gay backlash against gay marriage and gay civil rights. When you base your sense of yourself on ideas that are hollow, it is easy to knock those ideas down. But if you know who you are at a deep, cosmic level...if you have looked inside yourself and mapped out the shape of your soul, then that cannot be shaken.

Too heavy for a blog post about fashion? Only if you are looking at the surface. Clothing at this level is all about culture, psychology, how we see ourselves, and how we wish to be seen. Browne's collection here is actually quite stunning, working with all the concepts I have just been talking about. For this current collection, he has the bravado to take the most obvious, the most sacrosanct of male signifiers, the armor-like military uniform, and mash it with voluminous A-line ankle length coats, puffy skirt-length overcoats (with crinolines keeping the shape?), pinafores, a ruffled sock, and blood red lipstick to accompany the mirrored aviator-frame sunglasses. What could be more subversive?

He really accomplishes a lot in the signature Browne colors of red, white, blue (which he has somehow miraculously, and thankfully, never connected with the American flag), and black. Narrowing down the uniform to a naval theme, anchors are everywhere, in jacquards, embroidered on hems, and appliquéd on trousers exactly over the crotch. But when you really think about, isn't military dress parade the ultimate pomp, the ultimate primping and preening, the strutting of one's "stuff" (hence the big, erect feathers on caps) the "feminine" elements end up feeling like enhancements rather than intrusions. The peplums below the tight jackets fit right in, essentially creating a two-piece top.

Like most of his collections, the presentation may be all Browne (today's show fittingly took place at the École Militaire), but once the pieces are separated and make their way to stores, there are some special and very wearable moments in this collection. Most of these coats would look great on their own. Most of the tight-fitting jackets would look great with jeans. Also of note is a clever way with a cummerbund... the pleats that are part of a classic cummerbund create bands of fabric. Browne put a tone on tone box with stars in the upper left, and voilà, the United States flag in all black (last row, middle photo).

But the denouement came when a military figure in a very full, black PVC ball gown-like coat (with a twenty-foot long train carried by two attendants) presented a folded, all white flag, as if at a military funeral. Who died? Hopefully the previously discussed constraining ideas about masculinity and gender.

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