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Time: How Does it Affect Fashion?

French philosopher Henri Bergson's theory influences fashion in an interesting way.

It has been almost a year since The Costume Institute hosted the exhibition About Time: Fashion and Duration highlighting the similarities and differences between designers and their clothing over time. The exhibition was opened on October 29th, 2020 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to February 7th, 2021. The French philosopher Henri Bergson heavily inspired the exhibition.

What does time have to do with fashion?

The concept of time is the main influence on this exhibition. The French philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of duration helps the curator to explore how clothing’s shape, material, pattern, and other features of clothing reflect manifestations of past, present, and future. Bergson’s concept of duration (French: la durée) is a theory of time and consciousness where the moment one attempts to measure a moment, it would be gone. About Time plants this concept into your mind as you peruse the different styles that date back 1870 to the present. Using Bergson’s theories helps us explore why fashion tends to repeat itself and how past styles are reincorporated into new ones almost as a sort of motif.

How does this show through the exhibition?

Many different designers were featured throughout About Time. Some of them including Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Commes des Garcons, and John Galliano. One of my favorites is the comparison between an 1885 Walking Dress made by an unknown designer and Yohji Yamamotos coat from his 1986-87 fall/winter collection.

(Left) Timeline: Walking Dress, probably American, ca. 1885. (Right) Interruption: Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese, born 1943). Coat, fall/winter 1986–87.

These images show perfectly how past styles influence the future. As you can see in the Walking Dress, the back protrudes. In Yamamoto’s, he has interrupted this style by colliding it with different material and accents of his Japanese heritage as the hemming has a similarity to kimonos, and tulle puffing out the back, almost in the essence of a wedding gown. Another comparison piece was Christian Dior’s “Bar” coat (on the left) of his 1947 spring/summer collection and Junya Watanabe’s coat from his 2011-2012 fall/winter collection.

(Left) Timeline: Christian Dior (French 1905–1957). “Bar," spring/summer 1947. (Right) Interruption: Junya Watanabe (Japanese, born 1961). Ensemble, fall/winter 2011–2012. Courtesy of Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons

You can see how the shape of the coats has been repeated, but Watanabe has transformed it with different material--leather--almost a way of combining punk fashion with the 40s, as when Dior’s coat was made.

(Left) Timeline: Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938). “Flying Saucer” Dress, spring/summer 1994. (Right) Interruption: Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (Spanish, 1871–1949). “Delphos” Dress, ca. 1930.

Miyake’s piece has a much more abstract look compared to Mariano’s dress as seen above. Here you can see that they might look completely different to each other, yet the similarities are there. The material that Miyake’s has shows a vertical highlight against the black fabric, and we see this in the Mariano dress as well. They both accentuate the waist as well. And if you look closely, you can see the sleeve on the Mariano dress has ruching accents--like a toned down version of the Miyake dress.

(Left) Timeline: Iris Van Herpen (Dutch, born 1984). Dress, fall/winter 2012–13 haute couture. (Right) Interruption: Charles James (American [born Great Britain], 1906–1978). Ball Gown, 1951.

Here we have Iris Van Herpen, a haute couture designer, and Charles James, a revolutionary designer of the 20th century well known for his ball gown dresses. You can see Herpen’s inspiration from James’ piece with the shaping of her dress, the way it billows out from the hips just like James’, as well as how Harper’s dress comes down in a V shape, accentuating the hips more. James’ ball gown dress is very elegant and pristine--something is very pure about it. It almost makes Harper’s piece have a sinful essence, with the latex-like fabric, almost promiscuous. The fact that the curator chose these two pieces with contrasting colors (one all black, one all white) proves that they may be pushing for the audience to grasp that idea of sin vs. pure, dark vs. light, the general concept of yin and yang.

(Left) Timeline: Viktor & Rolf (Dutch, founded 1993). Ensemble, spring/summer 2005. (Right) Interruption: Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975). Evening dress, 1939.

Lastly, we have Viktor & Rolf’s 2005 ensemble and Madeleine Vionnet’s 1939 evening dress. Another collection of abstract vs. elegant pieces chosen by the curator. With Viktor’s ensemble being very avant-garde, the bows are exaggerated across the body, almost in a wind-like motion. You can feel that there is a purpose for the way they are placed and it helps guide the eye down the body of the model. With Vionnet’s, a very different style, the only similarity here is that the bows show up as a print on the dress. Comparing these two, you can see Vionnet’s bows don’t fulfill a purpose unlike Viktor’s, they are there as a print.

The curator Andrew Bolton has done a wonderful job exhibiting different styles and looks of the past vs. future of how fashion repeats, inspires, and modifies in time. Exhibitions like these help fashion students understand the industry more and even helps those just interested in fashion in general as you learn to pick up motifs that were repeated in the past.

Watch a guided tour of the exhibition here:

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