note: don't read or read knowing this is imperfect and unfinished
My relationship with art and clothing sings on, a lifelong melodic ballad of mystic revelations and cynical criticism. Imagine a 13,665,600 minute song that still plays, right now, and will continue to pulse until my last breath escapes me. Some, like me, consider fashion an art form, architecture of the human body, textiles of canvas to paint and write on, and artifacts of innovation to gift and to wear. I wake up and approach my closet with fresh eyes, looking for garments that might reflect my morning-self’s disposition and ephemeral mood. My bodily presentation houses powerful nonverbal statements that proclaim “here I am.” This layer of skin, sandwiched between who I am and who I want to be, crafts my first impression. It speaks for me. It chats with you before I introduce my tone of voice or even utter my own name. With age, I learned laymen disagree. They see fashion as a commercial enterprise bereft of any personhood. To them, garments merely provide functional bodily covering so aesthetically homogeneous garments and garments worn with intention, maybe even handmade by the wearer, hold the same value: no value at all. This missed opportunity to engage in potentially valuable conversation is a tragedy. As an artist, it is my mission to create innovative clothing that will offer wearers a chance at individuality.
It all begins in the studio. You’re young, you’re nineteen. The crisp fall breeze swims in through the open windows as the morning sun combats the long fluorescent beams hanging from the classroom ceiling. Once-white, translucent rubber mats lay atop each seven-foot-long drafting table. Feast your eyes, soak it in, it’s the last day of your fashion fairytale. Today, the work begins. Welcome to Apparel Design.
Rhode Island School of Design’s tailoring professor, Maha Barsom, is a woman of perfection to the highest degree. Her hair is always blow-dried and her nails are always manicured, never chipped. Simple diamond studs grace her lobes and she sports slim-fitting trousers paired with an impeccably ironed Maha Barsom dress shirt, buttoned two buttons above where cleavage might begin. This woman taught us the craft of pattern-making that lives at the heart of fashion education. In sewing and fashion design, a “sloper” is a type of basic pattern that is used as the building block for all patterns. Slopers are drafted based on specific body measurements and do not include any design elements. They mathematically fit the human body and serve as the jumping off point for all sewing patterns. During the design process, the sloper is traced on paper then altered to achieve a “new” design, resulting in a “pattern.” Patterns are then traced onto fabric before they are cut out and assembled.
Under Maha’s instruction, we drafted several slopers on paper before we were allowed to officialize them. She measured each student’s every line, docking points for every imperfect 90° angle and each missed one-sixteenth of an inch. Weeks later after numerous failed attempts, we each had a set of identical slopers. Permanent and indestructible, drafted in pen on cardstock or acetate, these slopers were designed to endure the test of time and studio battles. Slopers did indeed serve as “the jumping off point” for all of our garments. This “block pattern” calls to mind the origin of clichés. Writer Betty Kirkpatrick explained stereotypes and clichés were originally
cast metal printing plates. (Etymologist) John Ayto explains this allusion further. ‘Originally, French clichér meant literally “stereotype” – that is “print from a plate made by making a type-metal cast from a mould of a printing surface”.’ He goes on, ‘Hence a word or phrase that was a cliché had literally been repeated time and time again in identical form from a single printing plate.’ In non-literal terms a cliché came to describe an expression that was repeated so often that it lost its freshness and became hackneyed (Kirkpatrick, 1996, 16).
The sloper is exactly this: a single plate to be repeated time and time again in identical form.
There Is No “I” in “Team”
There is some beauty and a lot of use in uniformity. We can begin to understand slopers, the cliché of apparel design, by visualizing them as sports jerseys. I adopted the Dallas Mavericks as my team at a young age, because everyone did. Who was a Texan without her sports teams? I watched my then-heroes run the court… Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Jason Terry, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd… they amazed me. Their individual athleticism and giant proportions felt superhuman. Their vertical jumps reached forty inches and epitomized human potential. Their alley-oops illustrated the power of teamwork, intense focus, and diligent practice. I felt like their sixth man in the stadium in my Mavericks tee, I was one of them. My cries echoed and evolved into the final gust of wind that pushed the ball through the rim. Swish. They needed me. Mavericks jerseys were not just garments, they were uniforms that pulled us together. We stood for my hometown, Dallas. To be a sports fan is to be a supporter of physically earned excellence. Becoming a member of a collective, collaborative dream is as simple as putting on a jersey.
Same Hero, Same Boots
For professional athletes and superheroes, uniforms become emblems of recognition. In just 56 years, Steve Jobs accomplished more than cross-cultural civilizations could even dream of. Most well-known for co-founding Apple and gifting humanity the beloved iPhone, humanity wonders if the world will encounter a genius of his caliber again. Can you see him clearly in his black turtleneck, round spectacles, and blue jeans like I can? The artifacts that adorn our heroes are interlaced with their identities, leaving the individual at times unrecognizable without them. In Dave Chappelle’s 2017 comeback, he speaks to this uniformity with his superhero movie pitch: “He saves everybody and the whole city just falls in love with him. The only problem is, no one remembers him when he saves them.” [Role change] “Well, I don’t understand, why wouldn’t they remember him?” [Role change] “Because, dummy… he keeps changing his outfit. Same Hero, New Boots!” Similarly, Superman’s disguise is not a mask, but the exact opposite. His secret identity is a plain civilian, just another one of us without the S. Isn’t it funny that we often remember our heroes by aesthetic before their physicality?
In sports, cloned-garments better known as jerseys exist to erase the individual. After all, “teamwork makes the dream work.” If jerseys and uniforms can be so successful in melting individuals into one single entity, garments must be powerful. Where jerseys represent one shared vision for physical excellence and synergy, what does sloper-apparel stand for? The danger here is that fashion can grant wearers allegiance to people they’ve never met and acceptance into communities they never actively chose. Just as a Mavericks fan would never wear a Spurs jersey, the act of dressing should not be taken lightly. It is important to reclaim this agency by approaching fashion as an opportunity to express ourselves and consciously contribute to the dialogue between us and the world.
The Danger of Uniformity
It’s uncontested, clichés are effective. James Parker’s article about clichés is full of definitive statements like: “A cliché is intellectual disgrace.” He goes on, “A cliché was a piece of language encountered so often in the course of their work that it had earned its own printing plate – no need to reset the individual letters, just stamp that thing on the page and keep going. So the cliché was an object, and a useful one: a concrete unit of communication that minimized labor and sped things up” (Parker, 2009). Clichés swiftly communicate, quickly; they are linguistically perfect. So what’s the problem? Parker encapsulates the issue: “Politicians are almost obliged to speak in cliché, for fear they will stray into that zone most terrifying to the electorate – the heady and unpredictable zone of original thought.” Ah, original thought… At long last, here it is, the heart and the stakes.
The war against cliché was never about perfect craftsmanship or communication, but rather the land of “original thought” it never roams. Writer Ryan Cooper also warns us about all things accepted as “good” – “Good writing can make bad, even dangerous, ideas more convincing… If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’” (Cooper 2014). I imagine Parker and Cooper would find Maha’s perfect tailoring unimpressive. Well crafted, but devoid of creative effort. Beautiful, but dry. A cliché may tickle everyone’s pinky toe with its relatable allure, but it never incites passion in humanity’s murky, terrifying, unpredictable zone of original thought. It is a soft lullaby that stretches out the kinks of life into seamless flatlines. I crave work that screams, “WAKE UP!” I want to see the pain and struggle that come with the process of innovation while I too work to create a better world anew.
Back To The Studio
As the semester progresses after your slopers are made, you are asked, “What do you want to make? What do you wish to say?” In writing about painter Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze accurately describes the creative process. He says, “It is a mistake to think that the [artist] works on a white surface… The [artist] has many things in his head– now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas… before he begins his work” (Deleuze, 1981, 71). Whether it be Maha Barsom, another professor, a boss, an angel investor, or a friend, you are asked to explain your vision and intention. They want to see what you see. Deleuze says, “There are so many images, that the [artist] does not have to cover a blank surface but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it…” (Deleuze, 1981, 71). Never mind the images in an artist’s head, there are hundreds of literal images printed on paper and tacked up on the walls of any design studio. The first design meeting consists of your concept in writing, your color story in fabric swatches, and your mood board. Often, you show your initial sketches alongside photographs of garments you’re referencing. “The box pockets of these cargo pants (points to sketch) will be three-dimensional, like this (points to photo of existing garment). Of course, mine will be different because my pants will be covered in that pocket. Ten pockets per leg, in this fabric I swatched just last week.” In this process of communication, we desire to be understood and validated as artists. In professional settings, explanation is mandatory. Artists are left little time for hands-on experimentation or excavation as Deleuze mentions. Instead of focusing our efforts on designing intuitively, we are weighed down by the expectations of others. Perhaps this standard process, learned through formal education, predestines us to creative failure before we even begin.
Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garçon finds these conventional methods useless and practices a different approach. She invites us into her quest for something new:
“Going around museums and galleries, seeing films, talking to people, seeing new shops, looking at silly magazines, taking an interest in activities of people in the street, looking at art, traveling; all these things are not useful, all these things do not help me, do not give me any direct stimulation to help my search for something new. And neither does fashion history. The reason for that is that all these things above already exist. I can only wait for the chance for something completely new to be born within myself. The way I go about looking for this from within is to start with a provisional ‘theme’. I make an abstract image in my head. I think paradoxically (opposite) about patterns I have used before. I put parts of patterns where they don’t usually go. I break the idea of ‘clothes’. I think about using for everything what one would normally use for one thing. Give myself limitations. I pursue a situation where I am not free. I think about a world of only the tiniest narrowest possibilities. I close myself. I think that everything about the way of making clothes hitherto is no good. This is the rule I always give myself: that nothing new can come from a situation that involves being free or that doesn’t involve suffering” (Rei Kawakubo, 2013).
Let us first latch onto the most solid object offered here, patterns. As aforementioned, nearly every garment that exists in the industry begins with a sloper. The design may undergo several changes, birthing new patterns along the way, but often the final design can be traced back to the standard industry sloper. What Rei illustrates here in sharing her rapport with patterns already breaks the idea of clothes. Her whimsical designs do not adhere to any sloper, the sloper is untraceable because it was never her starting point. In fact, most of her garments don’t even adhere to the human body. Comme Des Garçon garments do not adorn bodies. Instead, they grow out of them like sprouting fungus and hug hips as if they’ve developed with the wearer through puberty and into adulthood. Often, the garments stand alone – sculptures – fulfilled without the need of a body.
“Within myself… I close myself…” everyone in this digital age can imagine how difficult this goal alone can be. Can true solitude even exist? This romantic notion tempts me to fall again, head over heels, for the genius that is Rei Kawakubo, but she too must be carefully considered. The rhetoric that “something completely new [can be] born within myself” and the dominion over her ideas, “I make an abstract image in my head” calls me to question selfhood and originality.
Even pioneering innovators like Rei Kawakubo face skepticism. Some of her work has been compared to that of French-American artist, Louise Bourgeois, who lived 1911-2010 while living artist Rei was born in 1942. Benjamin Jackson wrote, “Louise and Rei’s work had very strong parallels aesthetically, psychologically, and emotionally—even though one was an artist and one was a fashion designer and neither one was looking at the other’s work in any way for inspiration” (Jackson 2017). As fashion jargon goes, the comparisons tiptoe around the possibility of offending either party. I would argue that both Louise and Rei most likely did look at each other’s work and engaged in artistic dialogue. The evidence of artist-heroes referencing may tear down the fantasy of artistic genius for some. But for me, it offers salvation to the otherwise sad notion that pure originality does not exist. Alas, we are all human: products of our time and culture. We can invent new concoctions and delicious recipes, yes, but with existing ingredients.
Despite the criticism that Rei Kawakubo is not “original,” why does her work deserve such praise while the sloper deserves the axe? In the pursuit of originality, half of the battle lies in unlearning hegemonic values and artistic methods. Anne Carson speaks about Francis Bacon’s arduous excavation process: “a white canvas… is already filled with the whole history of [art] up to that moment, it is a compaction of all the clichés of representation already extant in the [artist’s] world, in the [artist’s] head, in the probability of what can be done on this surface” (Carson 2008). Deleuze expands on the mission at hand, “if the [artist] is content to transform the cliché, to deform or mutilate it, to manipulate it in every possible way, this reaction is still too intellectual, too abstract. It seems little… but it is the first step that counts” (Deleuze 72). This act of carving away all that is expected is the most noble act. If physically designing a garment begins long after the excavation and creative process begins, falling back on the sloper, which represents the antithesis of originality, would simply not make sense.
I’ve disposed of Maha’s perfection. I’ve thrown away my slopers. I have decided not to explain myself during my creative process while suppressing my inherent desire for validation. I’ve scraped the cavernous entity within me clean. I hear the ballad play louder than ever, sharply bouncing off the pristine surfaces that once, covered in mulch, muffled the sounds of purpose. The music from my earphones plays at the same time, I hear glasses clinking, some chatter, the words I read with my eyes lift off the page and transform into sound in this cave– it’s a cacophony of my thoughts mixed with sounds of the outer world, I hear it all. I sit in the middle of this floor with my legs crossed and look up, star struck. It’s brighter than the Northern Lights. In this state, I “wait for the chance for something completely new to be born within myself” (Kawakubo 2013). I am ready to begin.
As a clothing designer without slopers, the risks of self-defamation and financial debt are great. There is no template to follow. I imagine this fear is what birthed conformity at large to begin with, leaving a trail of dated slopers, identical garments, recycled trends, and forgettable “good” collections behind. As critic Ruth Amossy would say, these “indicate a wasting away, a lack of vitality, the languar or sadness and boredom” (Amossy, 1982, 41). Without my slopers I am alone, terrified, and free. I feel closer to the version of myself who scribbled on bedroom walls with crayons and sharpies without a single inhibition. I’m ready to create reckless fun again. The prospect of making something new outweighs my fear of producing something “ugly.” Perhaps “ugly” should be the goal. The problem with “perfection” is that it’s someone else’s ideal. “Beauty” matches someone else’s standards. Maybe failing in mass culture’s eyes is a healthy indicator of personal, innovative success. “The more people that are afraid when they see new creation, the happier I am… If I do something I think is new, it will be misunderstood, but if people like it, I will be disappointed because I haven’t pushed them enough. The more people hate it, maybe the newer it is. Because the fundamental human problem is that people are afraid of change” (Rei Kawakubo). Striving for ugly failure is invigorating, because we cannot lose. All bets are off, let’s play.
WRITTEN MAY 2018
Written in Ben Ratliff's MA course: Critic versus Cliché
Betty Kirkpatrick: “Clichés: Neither a Defense nor a Condemnation”
Chappelle, Dave. “The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at the Hollywood Palladium.” Netflix, Netflix, 21 March 2017.
Parker, James. “Let Us Now Praise... the Cliché.” Boston.com, The Boston Globe , 18 Oct. 2009, archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/10/18/let_us_now_praise_the_cliche/
Cooper, Ryan. “In Defense of Clichés.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 11 Apr. 2014, www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/04/11/clich_s_despite_what_orwell_and_the_washingtion_post_say_overused_phrases.html.
Gilles Deleuze: “The Painting Before Painting,” from Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation
Ruth Amossy, “The Cliché in the Reading Process”
Carson, Anne. “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent.” Poetry Daily, 2009, poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_carson.php.
Benjamin Jackson: “Rei Kawakubo and Louise Bourgeois Come Together In Our Newest Window Installation,” May 2017
Shapton, Leanne. “Rei Kawakubo, Interpreter of Dreams.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/magazine/rei-kawakubo-interpreter-of-dreams.html.