Faye Hamblett-Jones, The Unspoken Language: Helen Storey’s use of Fashion as Social and Environmental Communication
Haute couture’s potential as a vehicle for meaning has previously remained overshadowed by its status as a disposable and transitory commodity, rendering it inferior to other forms of culture. This position dwindled as the postmodern condition of the 1980s and 1990s caused the liquidation of the boundaries between haute couture and art under the visual cultures sphere; thus leading to reveal the garment’s ability of acquiring and translating meaning in line with arts translation. Since this period, the garment’s complexity has been analysed and developed to assess its importance within contemporary life. Projects leading up and into the millennium have set out to prove that, akin to art, haute couture can act as ‘style “reflections” of a whole host of ideas & issues of our time, a time of economic political & aesthetic crisis’ (Gill, 1998: 496).
The garment’s newfound place in the hierarchy of visual culture practices has allowed for its potential as a form of non-verbal communication to be exposed. As Barnard (1996: 36) notes, ‘fashion, dress and adornment are now conceived as some of the signifying practices of everyday life … which go to make up culture as a general signifying system.’ Communication involves using a medium for one person to say something to another in order to effect change. Using this definition, this essay will explore how a garment can act as a visual medium transmitting messages to an audience to effect social and/or environmental change.
This text attempts to explore how Helen Storey’s practice from commercial designer to a hybrid between artist/designer, documents haute couture’s elevation and triumph within the hierarchy of visual cultures practices under postmodernism, which has allowed its surface to be adopted by other disciplines as a power for communication within the contemporary era. Through collaborative projects during the last two decades, such as Primitive Streak, Dress for our Time, Wonderland and Catalytic Clothing, the marriage of art and fashion has allowed for aligning visual disciplines to cross over boundaries into new fields of research and innovation. This unlikely partnership between science, fashion and engineering has changed the means by which we learn and comprehend each separate discipline.
In Storey’s autobiography Fighting Fashion, she suggests that ‘whether [fashion] is important to us individually or not; it is our unspoken language’ (Storey, 1996: 152). Fashion and clothing translates to all, as every individual covers their surface with garments. Unconsciously or not we read each other daily through our choice of clothing. Shortly after her book was published, she demonstrated fashion’s value as an educational tool in the field of science during a collaboration with her sister, developmental biologist Kate Storey, on Primitive Streak (1997); a collection exploring the first 1000 hours of human development. The 27-piece collection walks the viewer through the first stages of human development from fertilisation to the recognisable human form, and marked the start of the marriage between science and art, using the fashion garment as the method of communication.
However, this innovative combining of disciplines had not been accessible during Storey’s degree years in the early 1980s, as she states ‘Anyone entering Kingston’s BA fashion course considering themselves an artist was either moved two floors up to the Fine Art department or was redirected towards the province after the first year’s probation’ (Storey, 1996: 33). Her account documents the previous nature of fashion courses, designed to produce designers more akin to the perceptions of commercial producers than creative artisans. As the conditions of postmodern life started to unsettle fashion’s nature, fashion gradually overcame its subordinate placement within visual culture. Fashion today continues to offer a more art-based perspective with the efforts of designers looking to reflect innovation, design and creativity within their collections, as opposed to commercial gain. In addition to changes within educational models, projects such as the ones by Helen Storey discussed within this text, allow fashion students to realise the beneficial and radical potential for garments, outside a commercial market.
The change in educational models in the UK, alongside the inclusion of garments in museums and galleries has caused boundaries between haute couture and art to demise. Postmodernism has merged popular culture with high culture as a means of exploring meaning, identity and politics; in response to this, artists have utilised the garment as a means of addressing the complexity of social conditions. Although fashion and art exist on a equal level in contemporary visual culture, it has been argued that fashion may be better equipped for translating meaning, as it changes with the same rapid pace of consumption within contemporary society (Miller, 2007). In addition to its fleeting nature, fashion is an aspect of culture that many people are familiar with due to its integral role in our everyday life, therefore fashion can act to open an audience up to complex ideas and meaning. In a discussion with Michael Saunby, Storey suggests that fashion has the ability to open people up, allowing them to become ‘disarmed by beauty’ in order to make sense of more complex issues than the garment itself (London College of Fashion, 2015: online). Fashion’s neutral status invites people ask questions and discover, without overwhelming them, the complexities of academia and the political arena.
Both Saunby and Storey collaborated to produce A Dress For Our Time; more than the simple production of a dress, this project set to act as a vehicle for meaning aiding social awareness. The garment was produced from a decommissioned UNHCR refugee tent, which previously functioned housing a family of refugees displaced from their former lives into a refugee camp in Jordan. Dress For Our Time was created in response to both social displacement and climate change. Through a five-stage project the dress came to life within different situations in order to draw people towards its surface and open them up to two of the world’s most challenging and complex issues in order to ask promote learning and discovery.
The garment’s ability to shift between functions allows it to adapt to different situations in order to translate messages. During the first outing of its endeavor, Dress For Our Time was installed for four days at St Pancreas International station where it confronted a diverse audience of commuters and tourists with data exploring the looming condition of our planet that will result from climate change unless change is implemented; its digital surface collecting, displaying and sharing the everyday experience of climate change through a data projection by Holition. Here, the dress is an artifact exploring the state of our global climate unadorned by the body, in contrast, during a separate outing of the project, the dress was worn by singer Rokia Traoŕe for her performance at Glastonbury Music Festival, bringing the challenges of UNHCR and millions of displaced refugees to the attention of another diverse audience. In addition to these two venues, the dress was featured in Our Lives in Data, an exhibition held at London Science Museum, as well as worn at the UN Geneva as part of a live performance piece. During each social intervention, the dress adapted to its new environment to interact with an alternative audience, showing how the garment’s dynamic ability to shift states can make it a more serviceable visual communicator than traditional works of art.
In addition to enabling social awareness and aiding scientific discovery, clothing can also be used to unpick and deconstruct environmental concerns, which lie within the fashion industry such as water usage, consumption and waste. In 2008 the Environment Select Committee found that wastage of textiles had risen from seven percent to 30 percent in a mere five years on account of fast fashion’s effect on landfills (Shields, 2008: online). Through projects such as Wonderland (begun in 2007), fashion design, science and art combined in order to deconstruct the ecological impact of the fashion industry on plastic waste, from inside the industry. For Wonderland, Storey worked with leading chemist Tony Ryan and other collaborators to produce a collection of dresses, constructed from a clear polymer, which would dissolve when placed in water. The disappearing dresses make a profound artistic statement on the ephemeral nature of fashion, but also offer a solution to the problems implemented by our increasing consumption within the fashion industry. By presenting scientific textile innovations within the physical garment itself, the collaboration removed any stigmas in the audience’s mind that associate science and environmental discussion with disinterest and complexity.
After their series of dissolving dresses, Storey and Ryan discovered technology that allows us to purify the air around us by making the clothing we wear into a catalytic converter. The catalytic treatment latches itself onto our clothing during the washing process and then absorbs pollutants around us as we move around in our everyday lives. The project, Catalytic Clothing started in 2010 with Herself, a haute couture gown used to promote and reinforce the notion that the clothes we wear can actually improve our air and life expectancy. Both Wonderland and Catalytic Clothing communicate that environmental change is possible through advancing science and sustainable fashion, inspiring ‘the citizen action that is needed to realize the potential that science offers’ (Sustainable Fashion, 2012: online).
Baudrillard (1981) stated that fashion gains its meaning from its relationship with other signs within late capital, as it is freed from its position as a symbol, an instrument or a product. However, when the garment is removed from a cycle of consumption and used as an instrument or symbol for the means of other disciplines, it no longer gains its meaning solely from its relation to other objects of consumption. Instead, it attains new cultural meaning, dissolving the boundaries between fashion, science, art and engineering. This liquidation of distinction is a postmodern condition, which has lead some to use fashion as a tool for communication in what Sawchuk (1988: 65) refers to as ‘a fabric of intertextual relations’. Through collaboration on numerous projects, Storey and other innovators have removed fashion from its trivial status as a sign of consumption and have reinvented the garment to transmit greater social and environmental messages to diverse audiences in an attempt to create awareness and evoke change. These collaborations act to confirm that, akin to language, fashion and clothing are part of a complex play of differences with unstable, interchangeable meanings through which the conditions of contemporary life can be explored and expanded.
In order to confront and help to solve some of the world’s most complex social and environmental issues, the hybrid position between designer and artist has been further adapted. This position has proven haute couture’s capabilities as more than a mere commodity. Fashion has power, as an unspoken language within visual culture, to act as an image, which individuals can connect to. As clothes are part of the experience of human life in the West, our connection to clothes is deeply embedded in our experiences as humans, thus making fashion an ideal medium for communication. Through the efforts of collaborations akin to those of Helen Storey, fashion’s true force for social and environmental change has been realised in the contemporary era, re-conceptualising the capabilities of fashion’s boundaries.
Anon. (2012) Catalytic Clothing. Sustainable Fashion. [Online] [Assessed 23th June 2018] http://sustainable-fashion.com/projects/catalytic-clothing/.
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Gill, A. (1998) ‘Deconstruction Fashion: The Making of Unfinished, Decomposing and Re-assembled Clothes’. In: Barnard, M. (ed) (2007) Fashion Theory. Oxon, New York: Routledge, pp. 489-516.
London College of Fashion. (2015) Dress For Our Time: In conversation with Helen Storey and Micheal Saunby. [Online Video] [Assessed 23th June 2018] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co8fl17Ykv0.
Miller, S. (2007) ‘Fashion as Art, is Fashion Art?’. Fashion Theory. 11(1), pp. 25-40.
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Figure. 1 ‘Heart Tube Hat’, from Primitive Streak (1997) by Helen & Kate Storey, photographed by Justine; modeled by Korinna at Models 1, courtesy of Life on The Outskirts Archive [Online] [27 June. 2018] https://www.lifeontheoutskirts.org/theme/evolution/
Figure. 2 ‘Double DNA Dress’, from Primitive Streak (1997) by Helen & Kate Storey, photographed by Justine; modeled by Korinna at Models 1, courtesy of Life on The Outskirts Archive [Online] [27 June. 2018] https://www.lifeontheoutskirts.org/theme/evolution/
Figure. 3 ‘Dress For Our Time’ at St Pancras International (2015), photographed by Gretel Ensigina, courtesy of Life on The Outskirts Archive [Online] [27 June. 2018] https://www.lifeontheoutskirts.org/theme/society/
Figure. 4 Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoŕe wearing ‘Dress For Our Time’ backstage at Glastonbury (2016), photographed by Helen Storey, courtesy of Life on The Outskirts Archive [Online] [27 June. 2018]https://www.lifeontheoutskirts.org/theme/society/
Figure. 5 ‘Opera Coat’ from Wonderland (2007) photographed by Nick Knight for ShowStudio, modeled by Alice Dellal at Select, courtesy of Life on The Outskirts Archive [Online] [27 June. 2018]https://www.lifeontheoutskirts.org/theme/mobilisation/
Figure. 6 ‘Wonderland’ at London College of Fashion (2008), photographed by Alex Maguire, courtesy of Life on The Outskirts Archive [Online] [27 June. 2018] https://www.lifeontheoutskirts.org/theme/mobilisation/
Figure. 7 ‘Herself’ from Catalytic Clothing (2010), photographed by Ezzin Alwan for HSF & Kingston University (2015), courtesy of Life on The Outskirts Archive [Online] [27 June. 2018]https://www.lifeontheoutskirts.org/theme/mobilisation/