Figure 4.1. Portrait of Shirin Guild 1999. Photograph by Christian Cunningham.
The founding principles of the Rational Dress Society, established in 1881, were to: 'promote the adoption, according to individual taste and convenience, a style of dress based upon considerations of health, comfort, and beauty, and to deprecate constant changes of fashion that cannot be recommended on any of these grounds'.1
In many respects Shirin Guild's philosophy embodies these same objectives. Her signature look is oversized, square-shaped garments informed by the styles, flat cutting and layering characteristic of ethnographic dress, particularly Iranian menswear. These are interpreted with a modern, reductivist aesthetic and are made using the finest European fabrics and yarns.
Shirin Guild was born in 1946 and grew up in Iran. Before the revolution of 1978, she moved to Los Angeles and then to London. Her career in fashion, like that of many designers, took off when, unable to find clothes she wanted to wear, she started to design her own. Friends admired them, orders were placed and in 1991 she launched her own label collection. In common with many UK designer-level companies, Shirin Guild is in independent ownership and exclusively produces womenswear. With the support of her husband and business partner, the interior designer Robin Guild, the business supplies an
1. Newton, Stella Mary, Health, Art and Reason, London: John Murray, 1974, p. 117.
international market. Major outlets include Saks Fifth Avenue branches throughout America, Petra Teufel in Germany, and in London, Shirin Guild has been Liberty's top-selling fashion label since 1997. Nonetheless, few know her name.
Shirin Guild believes that certain styles of dress possess a time-honoured functionality and enduring beauty and thus her collections subtly evolve from season to season, whilst the basic square shaped silhouette and layered approach remains the same. Function and comfort are a priority. Styles are loose (many tops are made in just one size and skirts and trousers in small, medium and large), hang from the shoulders and engulf - but never shroud - the wearer. Unusual within the high-fashion industry, is the designer's pride in the fact that her clothes appeal to and flatter women of various ages, shapes and sizes. When worn in European or American urban contexts clothes bearing the Shirin Guild label can transcend distinctions between day and evening, formal and leisurewear. However a judicious variation in textiles and yarns can render garments of the same or similar cut ideal for specific purposes and occasions.
The most luxurious fabrics and yarns, often those associated with the masculine wardrobe - pinstripe wool, soft flannel, crisp cotton shirting, Scottish cashmere, grainy tweed and Irish linen - predominate in Shirin Guild's collections. However, she also actively embraces new developments in textiles: recent collections have featured a modernistic, gleaming yarn of steel encased within silk. Unusual materials accent the collections and include paper fabric and yarn and, since the decriminalization of hemp for textile purposes, the designer has made much use of this environmentally friendly and versatile fibre. The palette is predominantly dark and neutral, with injections of indigo, vibrant orange, yellow and muted spice tones. Where decoration appears it is geometric - printed and woven striped and checked designs and blocks of textured knit.
The ethnographic styling and practicality of Shirin Guild's designs can be assessed within the historical context of 'unconventional' (sometimes described as 'eccentric') dress - that is, styles selected by those who actively spurn high-fashion trends. In the post-war period fashions became increasingly diverse and open to individual interpretation, as well as a host of sub-cultural alternatives. Certainly before the 1950s, the evolution of fashionable style was strictly linear and to deviate from this was to risk ridicule and even social ostracism. Prior to the Second World War, it was therefore primarily the most daring members of the aristocracy, artists and intellectuals who dared to flaunt their rebellious attitudes via their mode of dress. Unconventional dress has an international context but has always found especially vocal expression in Britain.
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