Essay: Design and disruption of the human body

by Jake Hall .

The ways in which designers choose to work with the silhouette creates the meaning behind fashion; some choose to deform, cloak, or reconfigure it entirely, creating new possibilities as to what a 'human', 'male', 'female', or 'non-binary' shape could be.

Every designer has their own approach to clothing the bodies of women. Some, like Azzedine Alaïa, chose to treat it as something to be revered and replicated through fabric; his dresses were tight-fitting, cradling the contours of the human silhouette whilst simultaneously employing sophisticated techniques to enhance their appearance. Thierry Mugler’s designs were similarly rooted in femininity and a fascination with the body, although his methods of decorating it were arguably more extreme. His couture shows were famously spectacular, made up of glamazon models whose corsets were impossibly tight, their hips fiercely exaggerated and their shoulders jutting upwards; together, they wiggled and shuffled down his runway, mimicking ‘femininity’ in its most often-repeated guise.

There was a queerness which ran through Mugler’s incendiary twist on glamour, manifesting itself in the form of female bodybuilders and drag queens who would strip sexily to reveal a slim ‘male’ body beneath. At times, this queerness manifested itself in the form of looks which twisted what it meant to look human. His 1997 ‘Chimera’ dress, which dripped with iridescent, rainbow-hued glass and trails of dyed hair, transformed its model into a bizarre, monstrous hybrid-creature; a jagged headpiece which blended seamlessly into the model’s icy, ethereal makeup - as though it was yet another component of her own face - finished off the look.

While the likes of Alaïa and Mugler sculpted the female silhouette into the most extreme iterations of its expected self or morphed it into strange hybrids, another cluster of designers were toying with ideas of volume and proportion to cloak the human form in ambiguity. Yohji Yamamoto was one such designer. Although his intentions were to ‘cloak the body’, the effect of this obscuration was a series of genuinely gender-ambiguous clothing which challenged rigid Western notions of beauty. Yamamoto sent women down the runway in oversized cocoon coats created from stiff, military fabric which shrouded their bodies, masking any trace of the silhouette beneath. He also revolutionised the aesthetic of Paris menswear throughout the 1980s and 1990s in particular, introducing flowing materials and dress-like trousers as marked alternatives to the buttoned-up business suits and Americana denims that had, until that point, reigned supreme.

In the eyes of Yamamoto, distance should be placed between the body and the fabric. In doing so, Yamamoto drastically disrupted the idea that hyper-femininity was the only acceptable guise on the runway. He toyed with more romantic designs later in his career – and went on to deconstruct yet another binary with his ‘demi-couture’ approach – but these early designs had a disruptive effect; they transformed their wearers into chic, anomalous shrouds of fabric free from the gendered shackles society loves to impose on the bodies beneath.

Other designers have similarly played with volume and obscuration: Demna Gvasalia’s awkward, oversized wardrobe staples at Vetements played with the proportions of the body beneath, sloping, tapering and reshaping them, whereas Rick Owens’ amorphous garments manage to create unconventional silhouettes without ever entirely hiding the body beneath them. Viktor + Rolf’s famous Russian Doll collection, itself a commentary on consumption and capitalism, saw model Maggie Rizer draped in dozens of heavy, elaborate gowns until she became more art installation than functioning human. These perversions of the silhouette are queer - they blur binaries: male body/female body, human body/animal body. Mugler and Alaïa both played with notions of hyper-femininity, queering the idea of a ‘natural’ female body by highlighting the extreme measures undertaken to achieve what the Western world largely deems to be the ‘ideal’ hourglass feminine silhouette.

Yamamoto, Owens and Gvasalia have all experimented to different extents at the opposite end of this spectrum, queering the notion of a ‘sexed’ body by burying its revelatory signs entirely, thus forcing spectators to reckon with a truly gender-ambiguous, often monstrous silhouette instead. But none took it further than Rei Kawakubo. Over the course of more than four decades, Kawakubo has continually played with the relationship between clothing and the body beneath it. Armholes were dropped, or even absent; oversized sweaters had numerous holes, allowing the wearer to pick for themselves what body part should go where. In her more recent shows, she has created unimaginable amounts of space between the garment and the wearer; voluminuous swathes of stiff fabric cocoon around the bodies of models, transforming them into oversized mutants three times the size of the women underneath. Masks and oversized headpieces are often employed in order to distort the face and further blur the lines between human and creature; it’s a playful, surreal take on the monstrous and grotesque which creates a radical reconfiguration of what we expect a human body to be.

Still, her 1997 ‘Bump’ collection is still arguably her most celebrated. Comprised mainly of chequered pastels and gingham fabrics, the clothing fuses these symbols of domesticity with bulbous lumps of fabric which jut out from various points of the silhouette. Shoulders blend into exaggerated, curved hips, whereas some models were simply swathed and rendered spherical by stuffing nestled underneath thinly-stretched fabric. These extraordinary costumes later found their way into a collaboration, Scenario, with Merce Cunningham. They were worn by both male and female dancers. Nobody could tell; the bodies beneath didn’t matter.

Ultimately, the role of fashion is to clothe the body. One cannot exist without the other. The ways in which designers choose to work with the silhouette creates the meaning behind fashion; some choose to deform, cloak, or reconfigure it entirely, creating new possibilities as to what a 'human, 'male', 'female', or 'non-binary' shape could be. Decisions like these are crucial given the ongoing politicisation and policing of bodies, female bodies in particular. Exposed nipples can be censored, bodies drowned in fabric can be labelled dowdy and bodies which are too exposed have - in absolute worst case scenarios - been used to justify their violation. It’s in our best interest for designers to keep subverting, twisting and queering fixed notions of the 'human body' or the 'sexed body'. It only takes a glance through the news to show that the way we discuss and interact with bodies needs to be interrupted.