The Magazine

Fashion Talks Back

A new show at the Met proves we are what we wear.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Fashion even talks back to death, not only in the A Rebours pieces but in the far less accomplished Miguel Adrover outfit made from the late Quentin Crisp's mattress. This holey, homeless-chic piece is reminiscent of Walker Percy's description of a coffee table made from "a stone slab from an old morgue, the blood runnel used as an ash tray," which he suggests is the result of the modern self feeling itself to be "a voracious nought" that must seek meaning outside itself, yet empties of meaning every object it touches: The morgue slab is intended to be more meaningful than a coffee table, yet it simply becomes less meaningful than a morgue slab.

And of course, fashion talks back to itself: We have Rei Kawakubo's muddily colored short dress made of interweaving swaths of fabric: It's bondagey and bandagey; it's clearly well done, its draping very balanced and almost flag-like, but it's also neither beautiful nor sublime. Detractors accused the dress of reflecting misogyny, but the real problem is that it's drab.

Other meta-fashion pieces work much better, though often that's because they're talking about fashion and something else. Yohji Yamamoto's pleated, coralline red dress, for example, may be a swirly takeoff on the mid-20th-century styles of Madame Grès. But the dress works, in part, because it's also playing off one of the show's recurring themes: the identification of woman and ocean. This identification is sometimes explicit, as in Alexander McQueen's "Oyster" dress, with its shipwreck-tattered bodice and hugely abundant waves of foam-yellow skirt. Other times the sea influence can be seen in the spilling, wavelike wash of ribbons or fabric, making woman's form liquid.

Flowers and the sea are the two images that recur throughout the show. From the first room, with its 18th- and 19th-century gowns plastered with floral colors and shapes, to the final display of a headdress modeled after a Chinese garden, woman is still the hortus conclusus, her flowery fashions paradoxically displaying a garden while concealing the body that garden symbolizes.

Meta-fashion can be frustrating, as the ladies behind me learned. I'm sympathetic to the hope that fashion will eventually work through its self-analysis phase and get back to talking about the permanent things: about men and women, loss and springtime, color and change. But "blog.mode" does prove that our current self-obsessed, wiggily weird period of high fashion can produce clothes that are tart, clothes that are beautiful, and even clothes that are sublime.

Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.