Essay by Marketa Uhlirova The Enigma of the Fashion Object

Marketa Uhlirova

In his short 1921 poem Things (Veci) the Czech avant-garde poet Jiri Wolker paid tribute to the autonomous existence of everyday objects, which, always discreet and solemn, was only perceptible to those willing to tune in. Ordinary things may be static and silent but they do have a life – not in a parallel world of their own, but around us, with us, here and now. “They watch us with focused looks,” asserted the poet. It is perhaps a shame then, that while he tapped into the poetic potential of things, the somewhat sentimental declaration of his love for them didn’t take into account their shadier side, namely, their penchant to lend themselves to irrational, slippery and perhaps even menacing acts of imagination, an idea that became famously dear to the Dadaists and later the Surrealists.

The idea of objects coming to life has a long tradition in the popular imagination and cannot be confined to avant-garde practice. The entire history of film offers worthwhile examples which testify to our compulsion to fill inanimate objects with human qualities but also to the darker consequences of such personifications. From early gags and tricks in Edison’s and Méliès’s shorts, to long close-ups in narrative feature films, documentaries, animations, instructional films and adverts, objects are imbued with a power to communicate their own properties and, divorced from their usual functions, to take on unexpected roles that can lead the spectators astray. Crucially, film reveals the two-fold part of servant-versus-master that objects perform for people, and how dubious it is.

The Enigma programme probes in detail the behaviour of the object of fashion in the moving image. It invites clothes to step out of their closets, making their secret lives known. Seeking a correspondence between the experimental approaches of early and avant-garde film on the one hand, and film commercials on the other, the programme is a homage to the enigma that emanates from the filmic treatment of the materiality of clothes, and an attempt to pin down the methods in which the moving image captures them. In an episode titled “The reason for this extravagance” part of Man Ray’s film Emak Bakia (1926), a man enters a room with a box full of detachable white shirt collars. He picks them up one by one, tears them along the folds and drops them onto the floor. The torn pieces then rise from the pile and when they vanish, the man removes his own collar and throws it on the floor too. A sequence follows which shows two collars rotating in a lyrical dance against a dark background, gradually spinning off into abstraction and setting off an intricate play of shadows and lights. Man Ray uses here the Surrealist technique of obscuring, and even negating the functionality of the most simple and mundane things – in this case collars. By replacing function with odd rituals, formal distortion and play, he makes objects dreamlike, mysterious and elusive.

Similarly, Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast (Vormittagsspuck, 1928) challenges the realism of filmic image with abstract and graphic forms. Clothes here are some of the everyday objects that turn against their users between the eleventh and the twelfth hour. A bow tie travels around the neck, undoes itself and despite efforts to hold it down, it slips away, together with the collar. Hats fly off gentlemen’s heads (Richter being one of them) and have to be chased after. Teacups and saucers drop on the floor and break. Beards appear and disappear. Film positive changes into negative. The eleventh hour belongs to objects’ ghosts which muck about with their users in order to disorient and baffle them. Arguably, it is most disturbing when the objects that decide to “follow their own law,” as Richter himself put it, are clothes. When they desert their wearer, they not only physically bare parts of the body – a nightmare in itself – but they also take with them their representative purpose. In Vormittagsspuck, they seem to strip the four gentlemen of the all-important markers of their bourgeois identity and dignity. When hats go flying, the four gentlemen behave comically; the absence of hats releases a state of anarchy and “unreason” (1). But the mockery of rationality is not taken to its extreme; before noon strikes, reason, order and serenity are restored with hats symbolically landing on the gentlemen’s heads. As Richter later wrote: “In the end the old hierarchy of person-master over the object-slave re-established itself. But for a short time, the public entertained a niggle of doubt about the general validity of the usual subject-object order.” (2)

Grotesque situations based entirely around clothes’ rebellion and subversion were championed some thirty years earlier in Georges Méliès’ eccentric mise-en-scènes that combined elements of theatrical performance with cinematic editing methods. Here the “victims” were travellers in hotel rooms, also male played by Méliès himself. In Going to Bed Under Difficulties, this filmic illusion is reversed, clothes stubbornly refuse to leave their wearer. Their constant reappearance on the exasperated man’s body – a repetitive cycle that nevertheless does not repeats the clothes on display – and their subsequent removal and placement on clothes hooks behind him is an amusing travesty, as well as an impressive showcase of commodities, in this case, a comprehensive gentleman’s wardrobe around 1900. Similarly, in Ferdinand Zecca’s In a Hurry to Catch a Train (Monsieur et madame sont pressées, 1901), a direct variation on Méliès’ earlier How He Missed His Train (Le réveil d’un monsieur pressé, 1901), a man and his wife unsuccessfully try to get dressed. The comical innovation Zecca brings to an old gag consists primarily in the misplacement of gendered clothes. Importantly, both directors go beyond animating clothing by virtue of filming it on a person’s body. Instead, they use the clothes’ motion (appearances, disappearances, reappearances, movements around the set) to spectacular and awe-inspiring ends.

If the hats in Richter’s Vormittagsspuck temporarily take on human characteristics in order to act out their own agendas, the gloves in Jirí Bárta’s 1982 animation The Extinct World of Gloves go several steps further – they become metaphors for people. In the film’s six episodes told through “found” footage, gloves assume roles as diverse as policeman, dictator, war victim, lascivious hedonist, adulterous mistress, her cavalier and her dissatisfied husband. The humour and poignancy of The Extinct World of Gloves derives not only from the well-observed typology of glove characters Bárta presents, but also from the sophisticated body-language upon which their performances are chiefly based.

Anna-Nicole Ziesche’s video work asserts a strikingly different set of concerns but here, too, garments are central to the expression of meanings. There is, perhaps, an element of haunting n some of Ziesche’s videos, particularly her States of Mind and Dress (2002). But what seems to be a more pressing matter is the possibility of communicating emotions through the complexity of textures, folds and movements in clothes and textiles. With a background in fashion design, Ziesche uses film to animate the “empty shells” of clothes in order to arrive at new shapes. Effectively designing through the motion picture, she attempts to push fashion design into the realm of the image, beyond the physical object.

The Austrian artist Erwin Wurm also operates with the translation of three-dimensional sculpture (sculpture-performance) into two-dimensional image (film-image). In the 59 struggles for a position in his 1992 video piece 59 Positions, the artist’s body and clothes are displayed in the act of deforming each other. As Wurm’s improbable, misshapen sartorial creations pose in silence for the camera, they appear at once substantial yet perplexing, solemn yet pathetically clumsy.

The processes of designing clothes (and oneself) through film that Ziesche and Wurm address are also evoked in Diane Pernet’s experimental mini-documentary series Chapels, and most obviously in an episode about the Belgian fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm (2002). Pernet too has a background in fashion design and is thus a most sympathetic accomplice to Willhelm; her off-the-wall filmmaking mirrors his approach to fashion. Together they concoct a fable where the dressmaker’s studio collides with his kitchen and where copious amounts of cloth are cut, celebrated and finally made into food.

Out of all film genres it is commercials that have most notably put clothes to the forefront, introducing them from all sorts of angles and emphasizing their attributes through a combination of clever camerawork and inter-titles or voiceover. In Edison’s Warner Corset Advertisement (after 1910), two little girls fight over their mother’s corset in order to stress its strength and durability. By dropping it repeatedly into water and soaking it completely, they point to the fact that it may also be rust-proof (indeed, later confirmed by their mother). The aesthetic qualities of the garment are finally laid out for the viewer in a sensuous, animated ritual of folding and unfolding. Similarly, two commercials advertising stockings (A Week in Film, 1947, and Pathé’s Tough Stockings, 1960) show women models/presenters pointing out to the camera the delicate texture of nylon and its Czechoslovak rival “silon”. Both films utilise the manufacture routines such as weaving, seaming, measuring and sewing, all of which represent an opportunity to closely examine the material in order to show off its desirable assets – thinness, crispness and smoothness. This ritual of close looking is again repeated with women touching and feeling the stockings, dressing their hands with them for the benefit of the camera. But far from being caressed as precious goods, stockings here are also submitted to some quite bizarre, even drastic acts: pressing into a walnut shell, draping over a cactus plant, scraping with a nail or taken for a walk stretched over high-heeled shoes. In order to demonstrate their resilience, they have to be put on trial.
(1) Malcolm Turvey, “Dada Between Heaven and Hell: Abstraction and Universal Language in the Rhythm Films of Hans Richter,” October 105, Summer 2003, p 20.
(2) Hans Richter, Dada, Art and Antiart (London: Thames and Hudson, 1966).

© Marketa Uhlirova 2006

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