Avant-garde is used as a synonym for all ideas that are “unusual and experimental”. When an art piece challenges the way of how art is supposed to be done, in most cases it is an avant-garde piece. When it comes to avant-garde fashion, the term differs itself in its meaning. Again, it is most usually used to describe the unusual and eccentric pieces, but can all clothing pieces that seem a little different, or completely loses its utilitarian functions be classified as avant-garde fashion?
What does Avant-Garde mean?
Conforming to the general understanding of avant-garde, the dictionary meaning of the word is “introducing experimental/ unusual ideas”. The word “avant-garde” translates to “ahead of the guard”, as in ahead of the societal perspectives on art, life, culture. This doesn’t stand for avant-garde being a trendsetter, or foreseeing the future of where art will evolve to. On the contrary, in most cases avant-garde takes itself out of the context completely to give it a new meaning, and stems from a different aim.
In her book called “Against Interpretation”, Susan Sontag describes avant-garde art as “…experiments of form at the expense of content”. Her quote talks about avant-garde in all fields of art, not just fashion. Yet, her quote opens up a new opportunity to evaluate which art pieces can be avant-garde, and how.
Form and Content
When talking about an artwork, we process and evaluate it in two ways, through its form and its content. Form stands for the way the piece looks. The mastery behind it, the use of light and brush in paintings, the colors, shapes, textures…Anything visual and material about the artwork is in the form, it’s right in front of you to visually please, entertain, or repulse you. The content is about the subtext of the piece. What it’s about, what story it tells and what message it gives are what makes the content of the art.
In Sontag’s description of avant-garde, she talks about the way artists experiment with form and form only, without adding any contextual value to the artwork. Or, the artist may leave it completely open to be narrated by the viewer since the content is now up to anyone’s understanding, even theirs is not the only “right” one. Sontag argues that avant-garde art prioritizes form and lacks content.
Bliss Foster, a Youtuber and a fashion enthusiast, points out that when it comes to fashion, Sontag’s the understanding of avant-garde turns completely opposite. Because in most cases of avant-garde fashion, the form is sacrificed for the meaning, the context. When a clothing piece designed by an avant-garde designer is portrayed on the runway, it is usually not meant to be worn but to tell a story. It raises the questions of the utilitarian focus on fashion.
Wearability and Process
Bliss Foster divides form in fashion into two categories to evaluate even deeper, and they are wearability and process. Wearability is directly about the usefulness of the clothing. Can you wear it to dinner? Does it function as a piece of clothing or just as a piece of art? Also, when we limit fashion to art of wearables, do we reduce the art, the content behind? Through that wearability perspective, does the lack of usefulness make them fabric sculptures and not clothes? Or, is usability a vital necessity after all?
Most usually, designers give meaning to their designs and reduce the importance they put into making it wearable. The pieces now function to tell a story. To give an example we can think of the Iceland-based designer Sruli Recht’s glass slippers. They give the message to people about “the luxury items are not meant to be used so much”. The shoes are sold, only to be displayed on a shelf, just like the luxury items it criticizes. If you try to wear it, the glass will break under your feet, so wearability is out of the question. It is charged with meaning and content, and lacks the usability that fashion puts importance on.
Process is about the way the pieces are made. What thought goes behind to the ways of creating it is just as important as any other factor, when it comes to avant-garde fashion. Iris Van Herpen’s designs are constructed with detailed engineering and unusual ways of portraying a piece of clothing. The story behind them are either non-existent or more fantasy story-telling rather than a societal message. Though, the process of the way the pieces of clothing are made make all the difference, and puts her designs under the term title. Some of her designs conform to Sontag’s idea of “form before content”, but some don’t. Yet, they are all avant-garde. How?
Necessities of being “avant-garde”
If a designer’s work is both meaningful in it’s message, and doesn’t lack form at all, what happens? The factors don’t cancel each other out, and the piece can still be an avant-garde clothing, painting, building, sculpture… It is hard to define what makes something “avant-garde”, because even between generations the understanding of the term changes. Today’s gender neutrality and size inclusivity may be avant-garde for some, and for some they won’t. Some fashion shows of the past may look very wearable for us now, or maybe their meaning is no longer relevant. Art is ever-changing, and descriptions will probably never stay the same.