Ian Griffiths

Professional Fashion Design

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I have been told that I am a typical product of the British fashion-design education system, and to an extent this is true; I graduated from Manchester Polytechnic in 1985 and the Royal College of Art in 1987, and like many of my contemporaries became a designer working for one of the large Italian manufacturer retailers that flourished during the 1980s, in my case the MaxMara group. But my career took a more unusual turn in 1992 when I became Head of the School of Fashion, and Professor at Kingston University in tandem with my design role at MaxMara. With a foot in each camp, it was inevitable that I would be drawn to make the observations about the separateness of theory and practice which are the basis of this chapter.

As a student, my knowledge of the historical and theoretical aspects of fashion was informed largely by the linear chronologies and eulogistic biographies of Ernestine Carter, Prudence Glyn et al. Mildly soporific afternoons at the Platt Hall Gallery of Costume in Manchester reinforced the erroneous notion that the academy of fashion was a sleepy backwater largely concerned with 'hemline histories', not much connected to the more dynamic concerns of architectural and design history, and not entirely essential for the practice of fashion design. I think this was an opinion shared by many who were fashion students at the time, now fellow designers, and had I not returned to education as an academic, I might well have remained unaware that in the few years that had passed since I was at college, fashion had become the subject of such great and varied academic study.

I knew as well as anyone else that fashion had become a mass spectacle, its 'superstar' designers and models principal characters in the narratives of popular culture, but it was a surprise to discover that it had attracted equally frenzied interest from sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, cultural, social and economic historians and historians. Many of these develop arguments from studies which had existed long before I became a student, such as those of the nineteenth-century sociologist Veblen1 and semiotician Barthes2, but the volume of contemporary discourses has brought these formerly remote texts right to the heart of what now constitutes fashion's academy.

Inevitably, given the broad range of disciplines that have entered what Lou Taylor has described as the 'dress history ring',3 there has been some quite heavyweight methodological pugilism. With the principal combatants now in a more conciliatory mood, the consensus seems to be for a multi-disciplinary approach. Yet the reconciliation of historical and theoretical approaches does not complete the debate; there is a voice whose absence is overlooked, but which is blindingly obvious. Amongst the entire body of academic work relating to fashion, there is scarcely a word written by a practising designer, or giving a designer's perspective. Designers like myself are as invisible in the academy of fashion as they are in the glamourized celebrity designer profiles manufactured by the press.

It is scarcely credible, but nonetheless true, that of the many thousands of graduates and postgraduates that have passed through our celebrated fashion-design education machine, with its more or less standard diet of 80 per cent practice and 20 per cent theory, none has published work which makes a significant contribution to the academic understanding of their field.

Just as fashion is sometimes regarded as occupying the lowest intellectual rung of the design ladder, architecture is regarded as occupying the highest. With this in mind, I compared the general 'theoretical and contextual studies' reading list issued to first-year students of the first degree course in Fashion,4

1. Veblen, T., The theory of the leisure class: an economic study of institutions, London: Allen and Unwin, 1970.

2. Barthes, R., The fashion system (translated from the French by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard) London: Cape, 1985.

3. Taylor, L., 'Doing the Laundry: A Reassessment of object based Dress History: Fashion Theory, vol. 2 issue 4, Oxford: Berg, 1998, pp. 337-58.

4. The 'general' reading list for first-year students of Fashion at Kingston contains the following:

Ash, J. and Wilson E. (eds), Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, 1992.

Barnard, M., Fashion as Communication, 1996.

Barnes, R., and J. Eicher J. B., (eds), Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning, 1992.

Barnes R., and Eicher J. B., (eds), Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning, 1993.

Barthes, R., The Elements of Semiology, 1967.

Barthes, R., The Fashion System, 1983.

Bordo, S., Unbearable Weight: feminism, western culture and the body, 1993.

Bourdieu, P., Distinction, 1986.

Boynton Arthur L., (ed.), Religion, Dress and the Body, 1999.

Breward, C., The Culture of Fashion, 1995.

Brydon A., and Niessen, S., Consuming Fashion: Adorning the Transnational Body, 1998.

at Kingston University to the equivalent list issued to first-year students of Architecture.5 Of the thirty-nine titles listed in the Fashion School's bibliography

Butler, J., Gender Trouble, 1990.

Carter, E., The Changing World of Fashion - 1900 to the present, 1977.

Coleridge, N., The Fashion Conspiracy, 1989.

Craik, J., The Face of Fashion, 1993.

De la Haye, A., A Fashion Source Book, 1988.

Eicher, J., Fashion and Ethnicity, 1995.

Evans C., and Thornton, M., Women and fashion: a new look, 1989. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture

Featherstone, M., Hepworth M. and Turner, B. S., The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, 1991. Finkelstein, J., The Fashioned Self, 1991. Fl├╝gel, J., The Psychology of Clothes, 1930. Gross, M., Model, 1995.

Johnson, K.P., Lennon, S.J., Appearance and Power, 1999.

Kidwell, C.B., and Steele, V., (eds.), Men and Women: Dressing the Part, 1989.

Konig, R., The Restless Image: the Social Psychology of Fashion, 1973.

Kunzle, D., Fashion and Fetishism, 1982.

Laver, J., Style in Costume, 1949.

Lipovetsky, G., The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, 1994. Lurie, A., The Language of Clothes, 1992. Martin, R., Fashion and Surrealism, 1988.

McDowell, C., McDowell's Directory of 20th Century Fashion, 1984.

McDowell, C., Dressed to Kill: power and clothes, 1992.

McRobbie, A., British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry?

Peacock, J., Twentieth century Fashion - the complete source book, 1993.

Roach, M. E., and Eicher, J., (eds.), Dress, Adornment and Social Order, 1965.

Rouse, E., Understanding Fashion, 1989.

Solomon, M. R., (ed.), The Psychology of Fashion, 1985.

Steele, V., Fashion and Eroticism, 1985.

5. The introductory reading list issued to first-year students of Architecture contains the following:

Furneaux Jordan, R., Western Architecture. Jellicoe, G., The Landscape of Man.* Kostof, S., A History of Architecture. Nuttgens, P., The Story of Architecture.* Crowe, S., Garden Design.* Gombrich, E., The Story of Art.

Norberg-Schulz, C., Meaning in Western Architecture. Pevsner, N., An Outline of Western Architecture. Hellman, Louis, Architecture for Beginners.* Riseboro, B., The Story of Western Architecture.* Sutton, Ian, Western Architecture.

Pevsner, N., The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design.

only one author has ever practiced as a designer.6 Of the fourteen titles listed in the School of Architecture's biography, seven were written by practising architects or landscape architects.

Fashion Theory was inaugurated in 1997, described by its editor as 'the first journal to look seriously at the intersection of dress, body, and culture'.7 It has published contributions by distinguished academics in the fields to which it relates, its contribution to the understanding of the subject is undeniable and yet it has never to date featured an article written by a designer, nor indeed by anyone with an active role within the fashion industry or its related spheres. Architecture, by comparison, has a much longer tradition of refereed academic journals. Examination of a single issue of the AA Files, The Annals of the Architectural Association8 reveals that of the fourteen contributors, eight are listed as having current practices or having been engaged on design projects within the last five years. Similarly, Architectural Design's 'Millennium Architecture' edition features contributions by Stephen Bayley, Nigel Coates, Zaha M. Hadid, Eva Jiricna, Nicholas Grimshaw and partners, Renzo Piano and Charles Jencks, who was co-editor of the issue.9

Of course, fashion designers produce books but although their publications are much consulted by students of fashion, they carry little or no academic gravitas. In the self-laudatory style established by Paul Poiret, with his claim to have single-handedly brought about the demise of the corset 'in the name of Liberty',10 books by, or sponsored by designers do little to realistically describe the mechanisms of fashion. Colin McDowell refers to the endless designer picture books of the 1980s as 'the bimbos of the publishing world, beautiful but dumb'.11 The literature of fashion has no counterpart to, say, the architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen's Experiencing Architecture which claims as its object 'to endeavour to explain the instrument the architect plays on, to show what a great range it has and thereby awaken the senses to its music' and does so by giving examples of work by other architects, rather than a promotion of the author's own.12 Similarly, Bill Riseboro's The Story of

6. Colin McDowell.

7. Steele, V., 'Letter from the Editor' Fashion Theory vol. 1, issue 1, Oxford: Berg, 1997, p. 2.

8. AA Files 39, The Annals of the Architectural, Association School of Architecture (Autumn 1999) London: Architectural Association.

9. Architectural Design vol. 69, Millenium Architecture, London: Academy Editions, 2000.

10. Poiret, P., translated by Stephen Haden Guest, My First Fifty years London: Victor Gollancz, 1931, p. 73.

11. McDowell, C., The Designer Scam, London: Hutchinson, 1994, p. 52.

12. Rasmussen, S. E., Experiencing Architecture, Cambridge (Mass): M.I.T. Press, 1964, p. 8.

Western Architecture demonstrates the practitioner's insight and inside knowledge in exploring the social, industrial and ideological background to historical building.13 It is quite usual for successful architects, not only to teach, but to publish books and articles giving perspectives on historical and contemporary design issues or outlining personal manifestos; the tradition stretches back through history from Robert Charles Venturi, Philip Johnson, Le Corbusier and Palladio to the Roman architect Vitruvius.

Fashion can never match architecture's long pedigree, but comparison of the two disciplines' relative theories leads to some interesting issues concerning their dominion. Whereas in architectural theory, practitioners hold a significant or predominant stake, in fashion theory it is the historians and academics who are the custodians, if not proprietors. This chapter aims to invert custom; this time, a practitioner scrutinizes the work of those who have scrutinized fashion. The purpose of doing so is not to disparage or decry, but to demonstrate where extant work disappoints the student and practitioner of fashion, to suggest how the designer's perspective might allow it to be reconstituted as a complete entity, how it may advance understanding of the subject, possibly remove some of the stigma attached to it and even elevate the lowly professional status of fashion and fashion design.

The next section presents a series of salient and interconnected themes drawn from consideration of what is regarded as the academy of fashion. It concentrates principally on those works which appear in the general reading list already referred to, which includes Fashion Theory. Some texts and references to exhibitions which are not named in the reading list have been used where they shed further light on themes of contemporary interest. The final part of the chapter is a short case study from my own experience as a fashion designer, intended to reinforce some of the points made in the second section and to illustrate the kind of text of which there is a paucity in the academy of fashion.

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