Fashion is, when you laugh despite it all

frauke berg

Fredericke´s latest article for J`N`C Magazine. Illustrations by Frauke Berg.

If there’s one thing we’re not trying to do with our outfits, it’s make people have a laugh. Fashion can be all things: provocative, scandalous, surreal, strange, yes even unacceptable. But funny? No thank you.

Cheerful clothing is so provincial. If an outfit is described as funny/amusing, then that a nice way of saying “badly done/tasteless”. If a certain fashion makes you giggle then its best times are done and dusted. But at the same time, according to psychologists and medical experts, it’s humour that ups the satisfaction factor in our lives, makes us smarter as well as more attractive. So why does fashion take itself so seriously? Or are we just not getting the joke?

Recently I took on the honourable job of being part of a jury/panel judging work by fashion students. Some were good, some less so. But one collection in particular stuck out in my memory, due to the fact that it was impossible to top in terms of thoughtless ugliness. Textiles that had started their lives as cheap and inferior were sewn together into textile creations that seemed neither wearable nor meaningful in any way. And while I tried my best to control my facial muscles, I listened to the deeply serious discourse/chalk talk of the intellectual superstructure of the work/project, which the student delivered with panache and grandiloquence. The situation was by far the most comic I had experienced for a long time. And it was funny because what was being said and what was being shown were so completely dissonant.

“Humour is the opposite of exaltation. It demeans the great, in order to take the small, and elevates the small in order to place the great at its side,” writes Jean Paul in his plea/entreaty to see things with more humour. When a situation seems bad, we try to put things in perspective along the lines of ‘it could be so much worse,’ and in this way almost everything suddenly appears manageable.  Even when the presentation mentioned above is a classic example of unintentional comedy: the in the best sense of the word absurd idea of placing an obviously dilettantish collection on one level with genuine quality work nevertheless fascinated me. Why? Because it challenges the basic tenet of the exaltation of fashion.

The situation reminded me of a comedy sketch by Hape Kerkeling for his television programme ‘Total Normal’. In it, Kerkeling plays a Polish opera singer doing an experimental musical piece which ends with a loud “Hurz”. The particularly clever zest/kick of this successful parody of the (pseudo) intellectual art scene: the audience listens to the cultural offering with

benevolent recognition. If my student had ended his presentation with a loud “Hurz”, his work would’ve received the best mark. But not as a fashion collection but as an artistic work, whose achievement consisted in the creation of a persiflage on the excessive seriousness of the fashion business. Because after all, the main purpose of fashion is to complement the body and shouldn’t – for whatever reasons – belittle.

Bright outlook turning fashionable later

As the henchman of the dominant ideals of beauty, fashion is not allowed to endanger its exalted position. Because it only works thanks to the human instinct to imitate the “superior”. At least that is the conclusion one comes to after reading Immanuel Kant’s ‘Anthropological Notes on Taste’. An essay by Georg Simmel ‘On Fashion’ also supports this notion/ interpretation. Roman Meinhold describes this quest for improvement in ‘The Fashion Myth: Lifestyle as the Art of Survival’ as an act of “melioration” combined with the aim of the aesthetic upgrading of the human body.

With the help of clothing, humans can optimise themselves and enjoy increased social recognition. In order for fashion to fulfil its purpose, the wearer must have the option of prettifying themselves, according to the norms of their environment.

One of comedy’s basic tenets, however, is to break the rules, and an active distancing from accepted norms and expectations. A funny person doesn’t want to improve themselves, they want to set a counterpoint. By means of language and other forms of expression on what they deem to be of interest. They have fun with the senselessness of it all and discover a new purpose. They bring things together that, on first sight, have no connection, and then reveal small truths within these abstruse creations. According to the Duden Dictionary, humour is an attitude of “cheerful equanimity”. Equanimity toward the vicissitudes of life.

In short: humour reveals the imperfect in the world and helps the humorous person to deal with it in a cheerful way. Fashion, however is always striving toward perfection. Its job is to conceal flaws and to steer the attention to more advantageous parts of the body. With these contrary assignations: how, I beg, an these two principles of presentation come together?

Life is too short for size zero

Firstly we must differentiate between the subject, which finds something amusing and the actual object of amusement. So it is not a prerequisite that fashion itself must have humour, in order for us to find her amusing in a certain context.

On the contrary, experience shows that above all the overly serious is screaming to be made fun of. So whose fault is it that fashion seems to be missing the laughs? The wearer of course. Because fashion certainly fulfils its purpose of optimisation, if you try and find a spot of ironic potential here and there and get in the punch line.

“All higher humour starts from the premise that you don’t take yourself too seriously,” Hermann Hesse had his character Pablo say this in ‘The Steppenwolf’. Before you are able to have a hearty laugh about others, you also have to learn to laugh at yourself. The crux with the self-irony? It is easier for a Steppenwolf, or, put another way, it is easier for a person from a fringe group, than people who see a realistic chance of riding on the wave of the mainstream for themselves. Women with higher than average body weight/mass aren’t risking their chance for melioration by sporting a T-shirt with the slogan: ‘Life is too short for size zero!’. On the contrary. By ignoring visibly recognised ideals/maxims of beauty and ensuring that they are invulnerable when it comes to sizing – not without the subtle clue that they are able to shine with other qualities. In this way, they are still attached to the principle of fashion, which is always an interplay of revealing and covering up. However the attribute of mass compatibility is missing. First of all, a prerequisite is a certain amount of curves for the T-shirt even to make any sense. Second of all you have to find the message amusing in order to buy it, and thirdly have the guts to wear it. The group of those who fulfil all three of these criteria are simply to small to be able to constitute a fashionably significant phenomenon.

Textile fun can therefore only then come about when a group of people share a common style and have a similar sense of humour as well as finding someone who can knit a collection out of it. And if the recognition value is there, one can succeed in delightfully distancing oneself from perceived deficits in the comfort of collective company. When the eco-fair trade label bleed produced a T-shirt with the slogan ‘I can dance my name’ onto the market, it was poking fun of the cliché image of alternative lifestyle-affected eco-activists of the younger generation/hippie kids (keywords: eurythmics lessons at the Waldorf school). The T-shirt is an absolute hit for the young label, which would suggest that there might really be some truth in the cliché, as well as also suggesting the ability of this demographic to laugh at itself/.

“In so far as fashion attempts to imitate ‘the inferior’, it becomes a comedy. This certainly doesn’t happen often, but it does for example apply to classic carnival attire when people choose to dress up as criminals, prostitutes, clowns or tramps. However one should ask oneself the question of whether the mentioned icons/characters do perhaps seem ‘superior’ from a certain point of view, for each costumed individual, why else would that person have dressed themselves like that? Because within each social contact and within the ‘rationality’ of the individual forethought, the “inferior” nevertheless appears as the ‘superior” is how Meinhold describes the phenomenon of fashionable self-ridicule.

Perfectly imperfect

If the imperfect is part of the aesthetic leading principle of a certain group and the humorous handling of it is part of their communication culture, then fashion must have an ironic undertone.  It must be able to find the perfect in the imperfect, so that one can be perfectly adorned by it. That at least would be a fantastic explanation for the success of brands like Comme des Garçons, Jean Paul Gaultier and Gareth Pugh. They are known for their exaggeration and deformation of the human silhouette. It is a stylistic method with which they challenge generally received concepts of ideal beauty.  And how exactly is Emma Hill’s beautiful but somewhat shaggy collection for Mulberry from last autumn/winter to be interpreted, when, according to the designer herself, it was inspired by the children’s book classic “Where the Wild Things Live”?

In order to be aesthetically recognised, a collection certainly doesn’t have to stick to all the rules. It doesn’t have to adhere to physical ideals of beauty, seasonal colour schemes and demands on wearability. So why not use that freedom in order to tell a good joke?  If the designer Franco Moschino, who, before his early death in 1994, was considered the biggest ironic of high fashion, is to be believed, there is really only one rule to be followed: “Funny clothes have to be extremely well made because that is where you find the chic. It’s easy to be funny with a T-shirt, but it’s much cleverer with a mink coat. After all, if caviar was cheaper it would taste much less interesting.”

When Franco Moschino talks about ‘well made’ he isn’t merely referring to the quality of the finishing and the material but also to the design. Because even if a joker is concealed in its folds, it still has to fulfill its purpose.  It can neither come across as laughable nor sarcastic, but has to be open to the wearer and charmingly fulfill the wearer’s needs in terms of melioration. Otherwise fashion would become separate from the wearer. But fashion is parasitic. Once it loses its direct contact to its host, it shrivels like a primrose. A problem that the high-fashion label Prada deals with full on in the short film ‘A therapy’. The four-minute spot (director: Roman Polanski) is about an upper-class lady (Helena Bonham Carter dressed to the nines in Prada), who goes to her therapist (Ben Kingsley) lies down on the sofa without looking left or right and starts talking. So she doesn’t notice when her therapist becomes more and more fascinated with her Prada fur coat hanging on the coat rack. In the end he simply can’t resist and slips into the coat himself – an ecstatic moment that is accompanied by the dry commentary: ‘Prada suits everyone’. The film exudes charming self-irony, but nevertheless remains at all times ‘pradaesk’ elegant and so was received with acclaim not only the customers of the fashion label but also by the audience at Cannes Film festival.

Karl Lagerfeld also manages a light-handed distancing from his own weaknesses by regularly poking fun at himself: “Thank God I am able to make fun of myself. Which doesn’t however prevent me from also poking fun at others,” he explained in an interview in ‘Stern’ in December 2006 (No.51). At the very latest since his last appearance on ‘Wetten, dass …?’ (a popular German TV show. Note from Ed.) in October 2012 has he become known and loved for his talent for spur of the moment self-parody. That’s where he uttered the words. “ Its not that I think I’m great…but it could be worse.” We can certainly only nod in agreement, because despite his dry-as-a-bone bitchiness, everyone enjoys laughing about King Karl even those he is making fun of. In an interview with the BZ (tabloid newspaper in Berlin) from 28 May 2013 he expressed his surprise at the benign nature of public opinion on him, although he is known for his “critical words”. He feels he has a kind of poetic licence, to be able to say anything but still be liked for it despite it all. Despite? Perhaps it is exactly that – after all, the master doesn’t exactly beat about the bush when it comes to his own work either.

It would almost seem as though Karl Lagerfeld had read Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘Humour ’ written in 1927 where on the topic of purpose and sense of derisive behaviour, Freud writes: “The truly great seems to lie in the triumph of narcissism, in the triumphantly proclaimed invincibility of the self. The self refuses to be offended or hurt by the motives of reality, it persists in refusing to be affected by the dreams of the rest of the world, whilst demonstrating that these are merely opportunities for an increase in pleasure. This latter trait is particularly pertinent for humour.

In the year 1905 Freud had already spend a fair amount of time researching the concept of humour. ‘The joke and its relationship to the subconscious’ was the title of a work in which Freud examined this strategy for increased pleasure and conflict avoidance more closely. With jokes we overcome our inhibitions, free ourselves of shame and decorum and can for short moments dedicate ourselves to the boundless but nevertheless socially acceptable pursuit of pleasure. We reduce tension and build solidarity with our counterpart, who understands our humour and shares in the increased pleasure.

In other words: humour creates intimacy between like-minded people and protects us from attacks on our personality through outsiders. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful definition for fashion? In this sense I congratulate the brave creatures, who are not too arrogant/holier-than-thou despite all seriousness to indulge in the odd ironic nod when dealing with the topic. A special shout-out to all the labels that support their fans in trying to face life with cheerful equanimity. For everyone else all I can recommend, is that they shout out “hurz” really loudly. If there’s one thing we’re not trying to do with our outfits, it’s make people have a laugh. So at least let’s have a laugh ourselves.