Clothing - a Human Category

author Ante Tonči Vladislavić
interviewed by Vera Grimmer, Silva Kalčić

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Interviewed in Zagreb, 10 September 2013


At the borderline between fashion and art, the work of Tonči Vladislavić, a teacher and theoretician – but also creator – of art, is currently focused on the research of the authentic message of fashion to identity, for example the visual identity of the Balkan macho-man or the economics of clothing in a retirement home. To Vladislavić, fashion is the creation of the identity, especially of the modern figure of a dandy. Fashion is one of the first examples of international and globalising style first distributed by dolls dressed in miniature copies of adult clothes, which circulated among European castles (until the appearance of the first fashion magazines in the 1770s). Unlike the rebellion of postmodernism, which erased the differences between so-called high and low culture, represented by Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano and their respective fashion lines, a new neomodernist style, founded on established traditions, has been formed in the millennium we have recently entered. These, however, have also been subverted in various ways: unsuitable material (e.g. denim suits), shape (e.g. tighter and narrower models than standard) and purpose (e.g. lumberjack boots worn to the cinema). The aesthetics of pastiche in fashion, very often used today – like Repetto’s heeled ballet shoes – can be seen in Balenciaga’s trenchcoat made after Dali’s Venus de Milo with Drawers or the portfolio of Couture magazine from 1950 with the interpretation of various historic images. The use of old clothes, used in an objet trouvé manner, can be seen in the work of Tao Kurihara, for example, who made a black coat out of antique handkerchiefs.



ORIS: Many people will perhaps think that the fashion and clothing phenomenon is something superficial, readily understood, which is functional and cannot be avoided. However, fashion and clothing style are in the historical context, and today also, something with a far wider meaning including sociology, psychology, economics naturally, and reaches the very subtle areas of personal identification and personal emotions and self esteem.


Vladislavić: I would start from today’s situation and the relationship with the phenomenon of fashion and clothing. I would use these two terms together regardless of their differences. Today, we owe this intensified interest in the culture of clothing, or the theory of fashion, to the magazine Fashion Theory and its editor-in-chief, Valerie Steele. She announced the preparations for and publication of that magazine in Zagreb, because the symposium we organized, ‘Body in Transition’, emerged from the same multi-disciplined perspective with the goal of discussing fashion in relation to semiotics, literature, philosophy, psychology, ethnology, anthropology, sociology, economics and so on. Today we can be very satisfied if we can use fashion theory to address some matters that make this issue more serious. But, on the other hand, this space opened many new questions, especially concerning fashion and clothing, considering that, although of the same raw material, they have diverged, so we can speak of great differences between the two. We owe many initial attitudes to the rare scientists who have concerned themselves with the fashion phenomenon. Thus, John Carl Flügel, in his book The Psychology of Clothes, considered clothing from a psychoanalytical perspective. In this social context he considered the issue of clothing as the relationship of static and socially mobile opinions, in which also lies the aspect of fashion as the motor of modernization. Fashion itself is a motor of mobility, making clothing dynamic and turning it into contemporary fashion. This also means that fashion escapes from the realm of clothing and it will not be strange for this fashion to hide within itself, and sometimes realize, a perverted dimension, sometimes futuristic or decadent, as the dimension of clothing that is outside and above foreseeable boundaries. It is in a sense what Kawamura said, the invisible in clothing, representing the expression of power of some inner drive. When we talk about clothing, we talk about a human category; on the other hand, when we talk about fashion, we can agree that it is a category that is becoming even less human.


ORIS: This is perhaps the question of fashion and power. In the past, clothing was certainly a symbol of power; today there are various power codes which can also be reflected in clothes, but no longer so strictly determined, i.e. there is a freedom to appropriate some rights, or almost seize power through clothes. In a class society, one is not allowed to dress above one’s social rank, or live in an area that is unsuitable for one’s social status or financial power.


Vladislavić: We can take a brief historical overview of how this separation of fashion from clothing came about. Gilles Lipovetsky says that fashion appeared in the middle of the 14th century with the first clothing cuts, respecting the body, a desire to present it in the narrow society of the feudal system. The second – and in my opinion more significant – phase happened in the middle of the 19th century with the start of industrial production. In order to understand fashion, we should be aware that the capitalist form of production materialised in the 19th century. The appearance of the bourgeois class and capitalism enabled the creation of surplus value, thus enabling the development of desire. Clothing is a necessity, a man needs only one suit, but the possibility of having red, yellow or striped ones enables us to develop desire. Every problem, I would say, even this dichotomy between need and desire, is the difference between clothing and fashion. The fact that we all have the right to fashion created a space where fashion gradually becomes a phantom of the collective unconscious. The inhumane part is the part that drives desire, the one that created the fashion system. Within clothing, which is not determined by changes in time but only in space, we find specificities developed a long time ago, disinclined to change, but retaining characteristics of the clothing culture (textile values, symbols, coded modes of dress, customs and presentation rituals). Today, in the global processes of deconstruction, it is necessary to consider fashion and clothing together, because that is the only way to criticize fashion culturally. The clothing movement called slow fashion is a natural reaction to the seasonally changeable, institutionalized fashion that is fast fashion. Thus, the focus, like binoculars, turned towards the little things, inwards and where the global, that is, common and general, suddenly returned to some human dimension, and so some traditional techniques were rediscovered (for example, the phenomenon of the discovery of the value of Boro textiles in Japan, textiles that are constantly patched, preserved, taken care of, with a history, a life outside the pressure of seasonal changes). Today, we can no longer speak of the relationship between fashion and clothing as the relationship between the dynamic and the static, the fixed, but should speak of some relations of correction of the overly accelerated dynamic called fashion, and some promotion of the human, which is seemingly fixed and so should be conservative and static. In this sense, the established theoretic approaches should be corrected. Therefore, fashion theory should be translated in our language as the theory of clothing and decoration, which is an anthropological term. Berg Publishers, which publishes the scientific magazine Fashion Theory, has launched a whole series of books, including many other cultural areas. So, fashion in this sense should be observed as a complex multi-disciplinary area, thus gaining its independence as a separate discipline. Roland Barthes’s efforts to go in detail into the very language of fashion in his book The Fashion System (Système de la mode, first published in France in 1967) possibly includes everything, and interprets this fascinating autonomous matter called fashion. I believe that fashion is a language, that is, it establishes a certain protocol in the system of fashion culture. It simply connects the text and the context and attempts to understand and interpret through a protocol and ordering. That is the great thing about Barthes – he understood it as a system. He established the three important layers of the fashion object: a real, material product; its photographic, visual representations; and its verbal presentations.


ORIS: You exhibited Deborah Turbeville’s fashion photographs because the clothes in them are no longer a symbol of social status raised as the central theme of the picture, but just one of its elements, which also include time (with effects such as soft focus). The style of clothing, or the clothing itself, is a way we mark ourselves as persons. Is fashion a system, Barthes’s Système?


Vladislavić: I absolutely agree with Barthes’s semiotic approach to fashion. By determining us as marked, he establishes the body and fashion as a text in a way that we can read it. Remember Greenaway’s film Pillow Book, where you can see that everything is written in us. If it is written in us, then it is material, a document, and therefore a text. So what would fashion be but a text. Furthermore, if we take the root of the words textile and text we can see that these are some fabrics that enable marking, as you yourself said. The exhibition ‘Aware: Art Fashion Identity’ was held in London in 2010–11 and addressed the question of identity, as a question of the relationship of fashion and body, as well as an aspect of artistic ‘marking’ as a socially constructed identity. Naturally, all postulates on the aesthetic and individual are now falling if we are to establish a manipulated or false message through fashion. Fashion clothing functions such that this is the place where we allow ourselves to be marked. I think fashion requires its protagonists to communicate, which is a forced, I would say, ideologically propagated text, an excess. Fashion is, therefore, always propaganda. Its main instrument today is the notion of the brand. The brand is a substrate to determine a context and name of something that is constantly destroying us. I cannot imagine, although it is a reality, that we have that slavish relationship of what fashion wants to be. Therefore, if I am marked, then there is the right to choose, perhaps to belong to some smaller groups, smaller dialects, so to say, perhaps some vanishing languages, but in a way to affirm something that is non-fashion and avoids manipulation.


ORIS: ‘Drugarica à la mode: Odijevanje i moda u Zagrebu od 1945. do 1960.’ (Comrade à la Mode: Fashion Clothing in Zagreb 1945 – 1960) was your great exhibition held in 2006 and organised by mca Zagreb, and in the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade in 2010.


Vladislavić: And that exhibition had 21 000 visitors in the Museum of Yugoslav History.


ORIS: It was about the phenomenon of clothing in a period that, in the culture of clothing and development of modern discourse, is particularly interesting due to the meeting of the effects of this imposed ideological matrix characteristic of Yugoslav socialism in the stereotype of the ‘comrade’ with the preserved memory of the stereotype of the ‘lady’; or the socialist and bourgeois world view becoming imbued in the form of the comrade. A performance student fashion show was put on at the opening of the Zagreb exhibition at which red and pink were juxtaposed in their empathetic dimension. Why was the fashion of the comrade a softener, a subversion of society, what was the initial thesis of the exhibition? What is the image of the contemporary Croatian woman? Has her body gone through a transition?


Vladislavić: ‘Comrade à la Mode’ is a case study that reveals the combination of the two things in the title itself, comrade, which is a certain stereotype, and the term à la mode, meaning in fashion. This is a phrase of two things, ‘comrade’ as something horizontal, real, political, ideological, together with something that is the culture of (salon) fashion that appeared and was gradually adopted. Most importantly, I was interested to see and put together the political and the ideological with something that is fashionable, and that really happened. Also, it struck me as interesting that Zagreb had something to say about this pattern, since Zagreb had the minor privilege within Federative Yugoslavia of supporting the continuity of artisan fashion production and of the crafts of tailoring. There was a silent approval by the ideological regime of the preservation of some micro production as an individual process to achieve the relationship of the manufacturer of salon fashion and the consumer herself, that is, the comrade. This model of fashion production, although in micro dimensions, coincided with the period of high fashion (from 1947 to 1960) and equalled the high fashion production in European fashion centres. I was particularly interested in the early phase, a period of poverty, when people survived, lived with coupons. This was a period of getting-by, remodelling clothes, do-it-yourself methods, exchanging textile goods at fairs and markets. From today’s perspective, this seems to me like a form of slow fashion, that is, sensitivity to the permanent values of clothing and the development of a sense for the culture of clothing. Thus, for example, the magazine Women in War, immediately after 1945, taught how to re-cut an old pullover to make new ones for children, showing the illustrations, cuts and instructions how to do it. This means establishing and developing a discourse with the right to something individual, something special, something cultural and somewhat fashionable. On the other hand, in October 1946, the Zagreb Craftsmen’s Association organized a large fashion show, 5 months before Dior’s New Look collection, accompanied by a printed catalogue with all the designers, salons and so on, including descriptions of materials and models. So, the language of this brochure is an important material for analysis and fashion experience.


ORIS: Speaking of the subversive influence of clothes, perhaps we can mention 1968 and the hippie movement, when liberation in all senses, especially in clothes, was present. Not wearing underwear, corsets, bras, everything being fluid and so on, continuing on from Emilie Flöge’s reformed dress, or the Grecian tunic and bare feet of Isodora Duncan.


Vladislavić: Lately, working on the book Šutej’s Anti-Fashion, I been intensely concerned with fashion and clothing in the 1960s. That was, in the world and Croatia, a big decade, the decade of high modernism, enthusiasm, democratization of fashion, but also of rebellion. In art, as well as in fashion, everything got the prefix anti as a symbol of freedom and opposition, of rebellious opinion. In the same year, in 1967, Guy Debord appeared with the book Society of Spectacle, as well as Roland Barthes with the Fashion System. Instead of the trickle-down effect during times of high fashion, meaning the influence from above towards below, now we have the bubble-up effect, influence on fashion from below, from the street. What does that mean? The democratization of fashion in the sixties means it goes into an even larger horizontal and everything goes to reduce exclusivity and the influence from above. Haute Couture, that is, high fashion or custom-made fashion, is significantly reduced. From then onwards, a cheaper Prêt-à-Porter fashion began. That is very important. What does that mean? That you combine. Therefore, there is participation, individual creation of the fashion image, the collage. Anyway, the notion bricolage appeared then, when the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss used it in his book Wild Thought in 1962, and the same concept was applied by Dick Hebdige in his book Subculture: the Meaning of Style in 1979; bricolage today is a code used by fashion, especially the Slow Fashion movement, based on combining, quoting, recycling, living together, therefore, an anthropological perspective is included and it intends to put man in the centre, to humanize his relationship towards fashion and clothing. In that sense, 1968 was important because it was critical towards fashion itself by creating hippie fashion as a form of engaged opinions.


ORIS: Postmodern crossover in visual arts reached its peak in deconstructivism and deconstruction and in the Japanism of the 1980s when Rei Kawakubo created pieces of clothing for Comme des Garçons which physically changed and even deformed the wearer’s body (hump-like protrusions, asymmetry and penetrating planes and reinterpreting the silhouette of the body, similar to the historical style Marvelous and Incredible / Les Merveilleuse et Incroyables), stating ‘Something does not have to be beautiful for it to be wonderful.’ What do you think about Japanism in fashion?


Vladislavić: The continuation of this process of liberation from the dictate of fashion was continued in the 1970s during the punk movement, as well as in the 1980s with the phenomenon of the fashion of Japanese creators in Paris. Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake influenced a change in the understanding of fashion and clothing, combining forms of traditional clothing with western style, resulting in total deconstruction. In a completely different way, the creators of the Antwerp Six group brought the process of destructuring to the final destructuring of fashion.


ORIS: We recall ono, a collection of elements from real life: an evocation of house dresses, shopping bags and aprons of the post-war generation as part of a cultural collective unconsciousness, kind of narrative transition (young/old, ugly/beautiful, male/female, manufactured/high-tech), and retro-reflective strips that, applied to vests and uniforms, make us more visible in traffic – as it said in the catalogue of the exhibition in the ulupuh gallery in 2010.


Vladislavić: It is a series of projects that question fashion and clothing from a more humane perspective. In collaboration with my four colleagues, we founded the Centre for Researching Fashion and Clothing, and one of the projects is clothing for older women when they leave for the old people’s home, when clothes are being sorted, recorded and selected for living in new spatial and living conditions. This is the moment the economy of clothing is considered and the moment of the final doubt in fashion itself. I am interested in this personal inventory at times when a person is naked with himself. This is a physical minimum, but also maximum of meaning. I have dealt with the problem and possibilities of retro-reflective or fluorescent materials applied to clothing and fashion items. Then Zlatko Kopljar came with the wish to make a kind of an illuminated costume for one of his K-projects, his video films. I have just downloaded some stills from this video to see how this costume shines. I continue to be involved with retro-reflective materials, since the ono project was not finished with the image presentations – the graphics, bath robes, shopping bags and aprons. Those clothes are intended for old ladies in old people’s homes as a form of protection and warning in dark rooms. The dresses have suprematistically distributed fluorescent retro-reflective surfaces as warnings because they add visibility in dark rooms. They are neither for the hanger, nor for an exhibition, this is how it had to be for presentation.


ORIS: You also work in film costume design, as well as video works of contemporary artists such as Dan Oki and Zlatko Kopljar.


Vladislavić: Once I was asked what I thought the best film costume was, and I said without much thinking that it was the costume in In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai. Why? Because the actress was dressed in traditional Chinese chi pao during the whole film, only the colours change. The costumes are actually an afterimage – that what is separated from the visual fact, the dramaturgy – ­and not a costume. Naturally, I also made costumes, almost all of them, in the manner that the director gives guidelines, mainly close to creating the same atmosphere envisioned by the script or the dramatic text. Since it is always the applied arts, it is a convention and negotiation. Honestly, it would be a challenge for me to design costumes that twist the text. Perhaps it is a lack of boldness to avoid the usual naturalistic and narrative approach. Therefore, for example, modern dance, where this can be avoided, can be a real challenge and an opportunity to change this approach to costumes.


ORIS: Or the dancers to be dressed in non-material, in light.


Vladislavić: Yes, of course. In a way. I always tell my students that the naked body is also a costume.


ORIS: A mask tells us more than a face, as Oscar Wilde said.


Vladislavić: Yes, the mask is the most beautiful proof of the symbolic power of a concept, and not associative literalness or narrative of the clothing part of the costume.


ORIS: You’ve just finished work on your book on the beyond-fashion, anti-fashion of Miroslav Šutej as an ‘open work’ arising from a hybridisation of fashion and art like the op-art Space Age fashion of André Courrèges. Anti-design or radical design is considered the opposite of the usual definition of anti-fashion as something that does not submit to changes in fashion, such as uniforms or traditional dress. In order to define anti-fashion, we first have to define fashion. Is an alternative to fashion at all possible?


Vladislavić: The text for the book Šutej’s Anti-Fashion is finished and there is a chapter called ‘Art vs. Fashion, Fashion vs. Art’, so the relationship between fashion and art has always existed, but today it has become a place for discussions, dilemmas, but also new creative challenges. Fashion and art to live together, to overlap or be separate, whether close or far.


ORIS: They were equal.


Vladislavić: Throughout history, clothing has always been connected with art, at the beginning in the sense of being beautiful, an aesthetic canon, while in time it began developing in the way that fashion began creating its own language, just as art did. This is when the two began separating in various forms of interlinking. On the one hand we have designers who use art in this transfer of fashion statement, but on the other hand, fortunately, there are artists who use a single clothing item, but also a fashion repertoire, in their artistic creating. Thus Vanessa Beecroft finds materials for her work in the language of fashion, while artist Yannis Kounellis takes finished clothing items and intervenes in them. Thus, some draw from clothing to make a sculpture or an installation, some draw from fashion. Anyway, the aspect of clothing is very present and an important part of performances by Marina Abramović. Her red dress, her long dress, is charged with meaning.


ORIS: What do you think about fashion’s synergy with art, for example Marc Jacobs in cooperation with Murakami, who mixes Vuitton’s monogram with manga and neo-pop imagery, similar to the work of Yoshitomo Nara? It seems fashion is considered too closely connected with the identity or identification of the wearer, including status, for it to be exhibited as art until it comes out of fashion. Comparative exhibitions are frequently organised today on the themes of the musealisation and exhibition of fashion, for example Schiaparelli-Prada or Chanel-Lagerfeld for Chanel.


Vladislavić: What remains is the question of whether fashion is art or not. After my long research of fashion and art for the book Šutej’s Anti-Fashion, I believe fashion is not art. There are many names today that put this issue in the centre of focus, but I believe this must be discussed further. We need to be honest and say that an authentic artwork comes from a quite different source. Art deals with the irrational, the intuitive and speaks of dimensions not determined by time, in any way. Fashion is connected with cyclic seasonal changes, determined by time. Therefore, the product has something a priori built into it. This is a form of language that has to balance production, market, semantics, psychology, psychoanalysis and even economics. It deals with and counts on the category of liking. However, a work of art is still a work of art as long as it has some form of insolubility, mystery, unclear function, questioning, impact that always maintains the same power. Let us consider James Laver’s law, very important for this issue, that speaks of the revelation, growth, peak and the gradual disappearance of fashion rhythms. A real work of art should have no peak of duration. It either is or is not. When we look at Vanessa Beecroft’s work, there is no such dilemma. For example, the collaboration of Marc Jacobs (for Vuitton) and the Japanese artist Murakami, who redesigned the basic accessory by adding his own symbols next to the Vuitton logo. This is a form of design and art cohabitation in the two-dimensional textile pattern, but also a clever way to strengthen the commercialization of these products. Regarding Šutej’s Anti-Fashion, it is an interesting case of questioning the relations between art and fashion in a unique way. In order to understand this, it is necessary to use two languages at the same time, the languages of art and of fashion, and understand how difficult they are to combine. Because, when I want to talk about a dress, then I translate a certain term, sentence, perspective or view, while an artwork and artistic intentions keep running away somewhere else. This is what puts fashion and art on a similar plane, something we will never reach. There is a certain futility, both in fashion and art, that I believe makes sense.