Past the galleries of Medieval art, with fairy tales narrated by the tapestries on their walls, and welcomed by a short glimpse of the most beautiful Chinese ceramics, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits the Costume Institute’s latest creation: Manus x Machina. The exhibition, which transformed the renown Lehman wing into the cupola of a Florentine Renaissance church, opens with the dress that inspired it. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld as the closing garment for his autumn/winter 2014-15 haute couture collection for Chanel, and made with synthetic diving-suit material, its surface soft as a whale’s skin, the dress extends about 6 metres backward, its train showcasing the most perfect intersection of manus and machina. The brocaded pattern was first hand-drawn by Lagerfeld, then pixelated with a computer aid. Rhinestones were inserted using a heat press, and the gold paint and pearls were embroidered by hand, taking the artisans no less than 450 hours of manual labor in the completion of this masterpiece. If the dress presents a pregnant figure, made specifically for the model who wore it down the catwalk a few years ago, it also presents the conception of the most recent creative vision of the curatorial genius that is Andrew Bolton, curator in chief of the Costume Institute.
With Colombiamoda (Colombia’s annual fashion week) just around the corner, I have been thinking a lot lately on the state of fashion both in the country and the broader region of Hispanic America. Although my thoughts on the matter have evolved as I develop a more critical, studied, perspective with my increasing knowledge of the field, two common threads don’t change at all: First, that Colombian (and Latin American) fashion has a great potential of appealing to cosmopolitan consumers from different places and of providing the international fashion market with world-class goods; and second, that there is a strong need to develop a more critical approach, in which we talk about fashion as a local phenomenon, within its own context.
Here are some of my thoughts, a short reflection on the topic I wrote about 18 months ago.
One of my favorite ways of researching fashion is documenting and reflecting on my own dress practices. In doing so, I undergo a process of introspection where I question not just the actual clothes I choose to wear—both on the day to day and on special occasions—but also the reasons that lie behind those choices. It is a process of self-ethnography that allows me to explore the relationship between my own body, its material extension in clothing, and the social context in which it lives.
One of my favourite months in the seemingly nonstop fashion calendar is July, as it celebrates one of its most beautiful, artistic facets: haute couture. In this occasion━and probably, surprising no one━Karl Lagerfeld’s runway show for Chanel included a whole performance revolving around the collection. But this time, rather than the eccentricities brought together by the Chanel brasserie or the quirky supermarket he brought to life in past collections, Lagerfeld revived a more nostalgic phase of fashion, constructing his performance around the whole atelier Chanel, and bringing some of his petites mains━the ‘small (I would say invisible) hands’ of the seamstresses that create the beauty of his designs━to light.
As I have mentioned before, my main emphasis in the research of fashion history focuses on the intersections between fashion, politics and identity. I am particularly interested in the late-colonial and postcolonial periods in Colombia and Latin America, and I am fascinated by the ways in which dress, and appearances in general, became central to the creation of an identity in the centuries where the “old” world was re-shaped into what we live today.
To study these intersections between fashion, politics and identity, however, is no easy task. In the case of Latin America, it is particularly difficult because most areas of cultural production have been understudied, especially in relation to fashion. Moreover, because collections of historical dress are virtually inexistent in the region—contrasting with the rich collections that abound in Europe and North America—as a fashion historian you have to become creative in the use of sources and borrow methodologies from a variety of areas of inquiry from different historical traditions.
Perhaps one of the first lessons I learned in my career as an Economic Historian was that, throughout the centuries, history has been created through the negotiation between traditional values and new emerging norms that evolve with changing societies. Constantly—and regardless of what we may think—most of the “traditions” we know are actually much more recent than we believe they are and, in most cases, as Eric Hobsbawm avidly explains, they are also invented. The Colombian 19th century saw the creation of the traditions that continue to rule the society from a balancing act between the new values of the independence and the old Colonial Spanish standards. Many of them, additionally, emerged from a current of thought heavily influenced by the French Enlightenment and by the writings of intellectuals such as Voltaire and Rousseau.
*This article was originally published in Spanish in vanessarosales.com