Essay: Posthumanism in fashion

A queering of human

by Georgina Evans .

As humans, we possess a biological sex and a socially assigned gender. Machines, however, are void of such differences unless assigned so. Thus, the progression of robotics and A.I in fashion has the potential to take us to a new mass production and personalisation.

Posthumanism is a constant push and pull of discussion in fashion. It redefines the notion of the human - it’s awe-inspiring, erring on the uncomfortable, eccentric or eerie. In some cases, when technology and invention become so inviting, so promising, one looks at utopic ways to ‘queer’ the human or human-ness, to alter or be rid of all typical norms - be that gender, species or form. We are also in an age of seismic technological progression, of nuclear warfare, of gender warfare, of potential dystopia, and when typical ideals of humanism are challenged or queered, the post-human in fashion can often be a form of reactive technophobia. Post-human fashion is often a reaction to cultural climes . Throughout the A/W 18 shows, the notion of the human was queered to a point of redefinition.

One of the most typical strands of posthumanism in fashion is that of the increasing osmosis of human and progressive technology. For A/W 18, Creative Director of Paco Rabanne Julien Dossena revived the brand’s archival 1964 chainmail dresses; their metal-work - at the time of The Space Race - was reactionary in reminding one of the unforeseeable future of man. This season, Dossena blurred the borders of human identity with the brand’s signature hardware. These models are cold to the touch, one imagines the smell of pennies as the garments chink and clink in motion; to a human’s senses, the tactility of these individuals could be perceived as post-human. Rather than use technology to queer the body, Dossena has used the influence and mood of technology to queer the sense of smell, sound and touch, altering our predisposition of the models’ human-ness.

British designer Gareth Pugh often queers the idea of human-ness with exaggerated shoulders and silhouettes in strong, structural fabrics, his garments imbued with political commentary. For A/W 18, Pugh created stiff, metallic sleeves that ruched into fists as if human and machine had collided and then conjoined. Dirtied faces and barbed wire accessories seemed to nod to a technophobic dystopic future in which Pugh’s almost transhuman cyborgs challenge humanity with their metal-crushing appendages.

While both designers make comment on the technology race with the merging of human-ness and machine, designers such as Iris van Herpen welcome the introduction of new technologies and use their work as a celebratory tool in queering the body. Van Herpen has long challenged traditional form and fabric with her use of unusual materials, beginning her work with 3D printing in 2009. Her 3D printed creations are so incredibly precise that she essentially resurfaces the contours of the human body. A trailblazer in queering through technology.  

The brilliance of 3D printing is that it can take the human-form to places one couldn’t possibly engineer without technology; queering form by taking both silhouette and structure into the extraordinary. On the other hand, it can completely tailor to the individual, providing the potential for typical hetero human forms to be queered entirely. This creates a ‘post-human couture’ in which a variety of bodies, particularly transsexual bodies, can be tailored to. As humans, we possess a biological sex and a socially assigned gender. Machines, however, are void of such differences unless assigned so. Thus, the progression of robotics and A.I in fashion has the potential to take us to a new mass production and personalisation. Typically, some of today’s queer (in this instance meaning homosexual and transexual) bodies are considered post-human as they are queered with technology, altering stereotypically gendered forms with plastic surgery or hormones. 3D printing and potential mass personalisation allow for any individual to entirely queer the human form - throwing away with the typical gender norms and introducing a post-human future in which the concept of gender is redundant.

While not quite genderless fashion, Van Herpen’s S/S 18 haute couture collection was a post-human innovation in fabric development and 3D printing. Her printed designs were less than 0.3mm thick, mimicking the thinness of leaves and their topographical patterns with skin. This merging of plant species and human is a common thread of posthumanism in fashion. Much like van Herpen, many designers have used skins, hairs, and animalistic form to queer the human toward an alternate species - be that mammal or plant.

Throughout the A/W 18 shows many used this method to queer their idea of human-ness, not by using technology, but by creating a post-human rebuttal to the use of it. Japanese brand Noir Kei Ninomiya created floral masks to smooth over and cover the human face. These were dark and delicate and by hiding, perhaps one of the most recognisable human aspects, Ninomiya queered the human into a face-less mutation. The Cottweiler design duo, Ben Cottrell and Matthew Dainty, also imagined a post-human fashion with their cave diving menswear for A/W 18. Their torn wools, distressed leathers and globular appendages gave the appearance of man metamorphose with nature, submerging into the caves. Chinese menswear designer Xander Zhou’s final looks were kitted with clawed, oversized, bear-like feet. Here, these posthumanist alterations appeared to be a comment on the human future - will technology drive us to regress? Will we look to animals over technology as the next vessel for evolution? Is the next step toward a genderless future an integration of species?

Perhaps the most explicit reference to posthumanism throughout the A/W 18 shows was that of Gucci, whose show was a direct comment on the technology of today. Looking to Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto and theorist Michel Foucault, Creative Director Alessandro Michele had deconstructed gender types, playing comment on the posthumanist cyborg tendencies us humans partake in. By setting his show in a mock surgical suite, Michele commented on our post-human use of technology to queer the human - plastic surgery, injections, sex reassignment surgery, artificial limbs, organ transplants. Likewise, the use of prostheses and plastic mannequins, in Michele’s world a baby dragon and model’s holding versions of their own heads, eroticised the fake while queering the norm.

Typical gender cliches were queered too as long hemlines, headscarves, hoop earrings, silks, leather jackets and diamante crystals blended all typical masculine or feminine looks. One could argue that these models are cyborgs, creatures in a post-human post-gender world. Similarly, the use of balaclava masks removed an element of the human. Their oversized red knitted lips and stretched eyes seemed to mimic that of queer icon Leigh Bowery. Bowery’s work and legacy are one of post-gender, posthumanism as he consistently challenged boundaries of gender and human-identity with his mutated and malleable appearance.

Michele’s Gucci seemed to cement the notion that the human is a non-fixed and mutable condition and technology is the tool with which to implement. One hopes that challenging typical aspects of human-ness through technology (be that reactionary, as technophobia, or utility) in such a documented and visible platform as fashion can open doors for all things queer. Perhaps technology can create a post-human utopia by queering all human-ness - only time and tech will tell.