Utopian Bodies: Fashion Looks Forward


26 November 2015

All those interested in the present and future of fashion should take the next plane to Stockholm.

It is there that Utopian Bodies: Fashion Looks Forward, an exhibition at the city’s Liljevalchs Museum that has been curated by Sofia Hedman, Serge Martynov and Mårten Castenfors, is on display. It is a fashion exhibition with a difference: it focuses not on the work of a great designer, nor on a period within fashion, but on how fashion is brought alive by ideas.

Sofia Hedman studied curation under Judith Clark at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts and brings to her subject the theoretical and avant garde preoccupations for which Clark’s work is well known. Clark, and now Hedman, dedicate themselves to the belief that dress, and the dress/body duo, like any art or design form, reproduce and represent the obsessions of the society in which they appear. Consequently, when we enter Utopian Bodies we leave behind our day to day ideas about fashion in the new millennium. Instead of the impact of casualisation, the dominance of sportswear, or the deformations of celebrity dressing – or, on the other hand, the collected oeuvre of a great designer, preserved as it were in aspic – we encounter eleven themes: Sustainability; Change; Technology; Craft and Form; Craft and Colour; Solidarity; Resistance and Society; Resistance and Beauty; Memory; Gender Identity; and Love. The galleries devoted to these themes present the viewer with the challenge of relating the garments displayed to the varied ideas they explore.

The portal to the exhibition is hung with swags of discarded garments: a selection of those dumped daily on charity shops to be sold on, processed as rags, or – all too often – simply sent to landfill. From there, we move to the room devoted to sustainability, which must by any account be the major challenge not only to the garment industry, but to all societies generally. The curators have rightly rejected the often expressed idea that the alternative to the global mass marketing of very cheap clothes is a return to artisanal production. Instead, they display garments that have been made from recycled materials of different kinds; an H&M evening dress made from reprocessed rags and another made from German waste milk that has been transformed into Qmilk, a light-absorbing, temperature regulating and biodegradable textile. The idea is not to reject technology and industrial development, but to harness these in ways that protect instead of damaging the environment and the quality of life.

These are ideas that are explored with equal originality in the section on technology, which, for example, displays laser cutting and sensors embedded in garments. “These,” writes author and journalist Bradley Quinn in the magnificent exhibition catalogue, convert “pressure, temperature, speed and movement into signals”, which “integrated into clothing ... mimic some of the performances of skin”. Of course, as Quinn points out, these could also lead to “a dystopia of unlawful surveillance and social control”. While the curators emphasise the progressive potential of the developments that interest them, they are sensitive to the ambivalence of the Utopian ideal, with its dual potential for liberation, but also for authoritarianism in which all must conform to a prescriptive ideal.

To embrace a progressive technology does not entail the rejection of traditional qualities of craft and exquisite workmanship, and this is equally central to the exhibition. A traditional men’s suit by London tailors Gieves and Hawkes is displayed alongside a 2014 Schiaparelli frock, which is embroidered with a pierced heart motif, and contrasted with an embroidered Georgian petticoat from 1738, the message being that craft and technology go hand in hand rather than being opposed.

There is, throughout the exhibition, a robust emphasis on the physical materiality of clothes and their making; however, this does not edge out the importance of more abstract ideas. For example, the importance of political ideology is made beautifully concrete in the room dedicated to Solidarity. This room, all white, is lined with hundreds of white paper roses made in India. White figures stand in lines based on Constructivist patterning, each crowned with an identical white wig, each gowned in white. Yet each robe is unique, created by a different designer, brilliantly exemplifying the “difference in unity” suggested by the term “solidarity”.

A further development of the political dimension of dress is explored in the room devoted to resistance. When I visited, one visitor was disappointed that this room failed to reflect the countercultural or oppositional fashions of a bygone period, or to reflect the theories developed around them by the theorist Stuart Hall and the now defunct Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. Yet protest in the new millennium has taken on a more sinister aspect than that of mods and rockers in the 1960s, and the exhibition rightly foregrounds the spectacle of deadly serious protest in the shape of the Arab Spring, Slut Walks and the Occupy Movement. In these, slogans on the body and other forms of anti-authoritarian display have replaced the more picturesque uniforms of hippies and punks, and the exhibition seems right to emphasise these new forms of resistance. The theme of resistance and society is referenced by slogans derived from the Occupy movement or, for example, an installation aimed at Macdonalds: Walter Van Beirendonck’s Stop Terrorising Our World presents a statue of Ronald McDonald alongside a giant container of chips.
Utopian Bodies takes ideas seriously, but that does not mean that the exhibition is devoid of either beauty or humour. On the contrary, the rooms provide a dazzling display of creative work from a wide variety of designers, many Swedish. Ann-Sofie Back's "anti-porn” collection of minimalist outfits, which play with ideas that pornography is now so ubiquitous as to no longer tittilate; Diana Orving’s gowns that explore the border between the unconscious, dreams, fantasy and reality: these are only a few of the many designers in the exhibition to challenge the viewer and consistently flout the distinction between art and fashion.

The one gallery where confusion seems to have outrun purpose is that devoted to gender identity. Mirrors reflect back a crowd of outfits that play with colour, corsetry and body shape. These fail to clearly elucidate notions of gender that are currently in flux, but it may be that too much is going on with regard to sexuality and gender for any exhibition to find a way out of these contemporary uncertainties.

Utopian Bodies appears unique in including children within its remit; children and clothes is an important field that is too often ignored. We notice it only when the gender stereotypes that mass manufacturers impose on us become too blatant. Here, however, there are games and displays designed to get the youngest members of society to get them also thinking about what they wear.

There has been no fashion exhibition as original as this for a long time; any individual seriously interested in the field would be mad not to make the effort to visit it. The catalogue is a valuable monument to creative fashion in Sweden, and internationally, and is on its own worth the trip.It is hoped that the exhibition may be able to travel abroad in future; in the meantime, take the next flight to Arlanda Airport.