Functionality vs The Aesthetic: The Evolution
“L’architecture est le grand livre de l’humanité , l’expression principale de l’hommé à ses divers états de dévelopment, soit comme force, soit comme intelligence.” Victor Hugo
For those of you who were not present in the beginning, @WorkinFashion.me began with this article. My message is simple: I believe that fashion is art. All art is a form of human expression. If fashion is therefore a form of self-expression, I challenged my readers to be accountable for the message they were emitting through their own compositions. ‘Functionality vs The Aesthetic’ was my initial observation that when it comes to fashion, there is often both a correlation and a tension between the pragmatic and the beautiful. By posing the question ‘What is fashion for?’ I was able to open up the discussion away from the tired tropes.
But ‘Functionality vs the Aesthetic’ was never just about fashion, it was all about exploring the logic behind “purpose” and “form”. Manufacturing, design, art and craftsmanship are all the by-products of the imagination. Without humanity itself, flexing its muscles, making its presence known, we would have none of the art, literature and architecture we enjoy. So to celebrate the monuments, the products, “the aesthetic” – without pausing to consider the human cost – is a miscalculation of the value of the aesthetic in its relationship to the sanctity of human life.
I defer to my father’s instruction when I was a teenager to elaborate. While he educated me on the folly of fast fashion as a feckless investment, he also implored me to ‘consider the hands and the hearts of the people who made the clothes.’ That statement was effective because it immediately puts a face, a heart and an unknown name to the garments that were hanging in my wardrobe. Reconnecting consumption with humanity might sound like a grandiose task, but now I’ve had two years to think about it – that is precisely what I strive to do with @workinfashion.me .
When you delve into the aesthetic, self expression and personal accountability, you stray into a territory marked under ‘ethics’. How were these garments made? Who made them? Were they paid a fair wage? Have these designs been stolen? Is this the intellectual property belonging to someone else? Ignoring the back-story behind the elements people use to construct their self image is a disturbing thought. It reminds me of 18th century England, populated with coffee shops and chocolate houses and genteel clientele sipping sweetened beverages from their china teacups, oblivious to the pain, the suffering and slavery that had produced the sugar they were all enjoying as a new found status symbol. The symmetries of indifference chills to the bone, because it demonstrates how easily and quickly, self interest (in whatever form it manifests) can usurp a basic sense of humanity.
Part of the problems we face within the fashion world (with regards to exploitation, modern slavery and corruption) is in fact part of a wider cultural attitude towards art (in whatever medium it appears). We live in a world that has always worked under the premise that it reserves the right to worship, consume and indulge in the aesthetic and creative output without ever needing to acknowledge the creator itself.
My father’s instruction for me to keep humanity in mind when thinking about fashion can also be applied to architecture, music, fine art, literature and drama. Walking around some of my favourite spots in London, I often wondered who actually built these great houses, galleries and public spaces – and no – I’m not referring to the Wren’s and the Nash’s of their generations, I mean the stone masons who carved those stucco front pillars. The artisans who made those stain glass windows. The carpenters who crafted the beautiful woodwork and furniture that still adorns many of these buildings. There’s a reason we don’t know their names. And it’s the same reason why whenever a consumer asks the question #WhoMadeMyClothes – the shop assistant can only shrug. Society just doesn’t care.
22nd April 2013 – 16th April 2019
I stayed up all night on Monday evening, to watch the news, hoping that the firemen in Paris would be able to save what was left of the Notre Dame. I woke to the welcomed news that donations to rebuild the much loved heritage site were pouring in. The Notre Dame means different things to different people. For many, it has been a constant over a tumultuous 850 years. It has witnessed everything from the 100 Years War between England and France, to the French Revolution to surviving two World Wars. It truly would have been a tragedy to lose touch with a cultural conduit that has survived so much, and had been a muse for countless painters, photographers and film makers. I felt relief that even as the embers glowed, a sense of community and patriotism had compelled some of the wealthiest fashion conglomerates to dig deep into their pockets in donating €300 million in less than 12 hours. Within 24 hours between the families that owned LVMH, Gucci, L’Oreal and Saint Laurent, €1 billion had been donated to the rebuild. Isn’t it brilliant how effective people can be when they all work together for a cause?
But before I could get complacent in my own desire for some sense of resolution, continuity and stability, an Instagram post from @cleanclothescampaign (an ethical fashion activist) – shook me by the shoulders as they reminded their readers that this month marks the 6th anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. In April 2013, early one morning, the floors within a textiles factory in Bangladesh began to collapse. Within 90 seconds, 1,134 people lost their lives. There had been ongoing protests concerning the unsafe working conditions, but the factory owners ignored them, knowing their European fashion clients wouldn’t care about worker’s safety at that end of the supply chain.
It has taken years to pull together compensation for the victims, and the local government have been slow to draft and implement regulations for safer working conditions. This January saw over 1,000 women sitting in the roads of Dhaka bringing traffic to a standstill to protest the unsafe working conditions, the abuse, and the exploitation that is still a stain on the global textiles industry.
The juxtaposition of the destruction of two very different edifices is not entirely abstract. They are connected by the stakeholders’ response. Francois-Henri Pinault (Kering: Gucci, Balenciaga, YSL) and Bernard Arnault (LVMH) have built/inherited organisations that profited from an industry that created the conditions for the Rana Plaza disaster. Where were these billionaires in April 2013? Why have their own organisations been so slow in shifting corporate culture and influencing industry practices to recognise the need for transparency and the removal of exploitation from their supply chains?
As my own understanding of ‘functionality vs the aesthetic’ evolves, so too must the @workinfashion.me manifesto: My sincerest hope is that out of the rubble, out of the disarray, we all find a way to rebuild and redefine the tangents that hold functionality and the aesthetic together. I hope that, the beauty of the aesthetic won’t simply be the form itself, but in its purpose – in its origins. In the future, I hope that the aesthetic will be the product of ethical production and cherished creativity. The aesthetic won’t be acquired as a status symbol – but will be celebrated as an accessible platform that elevates, educates and embraces the community that surrounds it.
Whether it’s fashion, architecture, fine art or music – this is my dream.
Until Next Time…
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