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Living in a “Material World”

With every coming season, we’re bombarded with the latest “trends” and innovations the fashion world has cooked up for us. We’re always led to believe we’re seeing the newest, freshest batch of chicness – but is any of it really new?

Not exactly. The old saying “history repeats itself” can be applied to fashion without fail.  Save for those unexplainable and unsettling fads (i.e. jelly shoes and acid wash denim), nearly everything in fashion can be traced to a previous trend or inspiration.  The long-sleeved mini dresses on the Azarro and Jil Sander runways? Direct 60s references. Prada looked back to the 50s with knee-length skirts and feminine hues. On countless runways, polka dots – one of the most classic prints – were given a fresh, modern spin.

While none of this is “new,” we’re definitely seeing it in a new way.

Luckily, fashionphiles like me have an advantage when it comes to tracing trends: the IMA’s very own Material World exhibition.  From crystal-encrusted Dior gowns to ornate Cambodian pieces, Material World is chock full of the clothes that started it all. Seeing the exquisite craftsmanship, rich colors, and tiny details up close means spotting fashion influences is both easy and fascinating. In particular, a feathered Chanel cape, a Tibetan regalia, Chinese imperial robe, and a two-piece Chanel suit stood out to me, and to demonstrate their timeless appeal, I compared them to Fall/Winter 2011 runways:



The 1920s was an age of excess and luxury, exuberance and joy.  This feathered, camel-colored Chanel cape exhibits all of these sentiments, with the addition of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s exquisite tailoring and craftsmanship, of course. Wearing feather-adorned clothing was both an exotic new design idea and a shameless display of wealth for upper class Americans of the Roaring Twenties.  Naturally Chanel, the premiere couturier, was among the first to turn out magnificently feathered pieces.  The dense application of feathers gives the cape a soft, plush feel, yet true to form, Chanel kept the colors natural and the shape sleek and simple. Nothing too gaudy or over-the-top for the original minimalist.

Today, we’re seeing modern interpretations of the feathered trend – and not just feathered pieces, but opulent fur pieces as well.  But modern styling and shapes make all the difference in the world; take the Valentino feathered jacket, for example: ultra-naturalized feathers on a 60s-inspired swing coat, complete with cropped sleeves and a rounded collar. The juxtaposition makes an impact far greater than the original shapeless Chanel cape. Similarly, fur has held its ground as a fabric of luxury, and the past few seasons have shown a fur resurgence.  Designers are playing with different treatments of fur; think full sleeves, thick textures, even psychedelic dyes like turquoise, red and pink.



The Tibetan tradition of the oracle’s regalia is to emphasize his connection to the spiritual world, just as the Chinese imperial robe expresses an emperor’s oneness with God. And while fashion today isn’t exactly spiritual, it’s arguable that our ability to see runway shows online connects us to the fashion gods (aka designers). Religion aside, the inspiration of Tibet and China is unmistakable on some of today’s biggest runways, including Dries Van Noten, Mary Katrantzou, and Etro, which featured looks with boldly mixed patterns, draped fabrics, ornate decoration, and metallic threads.

While the prints and fabrics on the regalia and robe were partially chosen for aesthetic reasons, they serve a greater symbolic meaning. The multi-piece regalia was made with imported silk and metallic threads to create a sense of opulence, and the three eyes on the headpiece show the oracle’s two physical eyes and his third “inner eye” that symbolizes enlightenment and wisdom.  In the modern Dries Van Noten, Kantratzou and Etro looks, the styling errs on the aesthetic side – but the bold colors, collage of mixed prints, and luxe fabrics communicate a more complex, multifaceted woman.  By rejecting convention, they project a sense of luxury and beauty in a way that mimics the glorification of the ancient Tibetan oracles and Chinese emperors.

Katrantzou referred to her fall collection as being created for a woman surrounded by beautiful things, and to do so she “pushed prints to the limit.”  Similarly, Dries Van Noten used a collage of patterns from different time periods to create a type of synoptic image. Dries also executed an extreme attention to detail, using bright snakeskin or shimmery gold threads to add subtle impact and definition to the large patterns.  Etro’s look most resembles the Asian pieces, with a tapestry-esque pattern printed on a conservative two-piece ensemble.




From the very beginning, Chanel emphasized elegance and polish on simple shapes, constructed womenswear with jersey fabric, and turned out innovative, striking designs for every day.  The women’s pantsuit was a premiere example of Chanel’s expert craftsmanship and thoughtful designs; what was once reserved for businessmen was now available to women who wanted a sleek, professional, and modern new look.  By using unexpected materials like brocade or boucle, Chanel was able to give women the “new uniform” of the ’20s while maintaining a sense of femininity.  This gold suit from 1964 displays the idea flawlessly: a fitted collarless jacket and slim pants becomes even more feminine when done in shimmering gold, silver, blue, and purple threads.  Luxurious details like braided edges and expensive fastenings also add to the elegant feel, while maintaining that sleek and unfussy look.

The fact that suits aren’t inherently feminine is perhaps what makes them so unexpectedly womanly, and we can certainly see this idea repeated in modern suits.  Women today still consider suits one of the most stylish ensembles (when done right, of course) and it’s those slight details that make all the difference.  In the drapey Kors suit, a deep V-neck, flowing jacket, and super-skinny pants lend some edge; YSL’s snug black suit features nautical buttons, puffed sleeves and cigarette style pants to enhance the female shape; and Pucci’s all-white look is both crisp and relaxed, for the fashion-forward, minimalist woman.  Suits are the original classic, and clearly they’re far from fading out.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Textile & Fashion

3 Responses to “Living in a “Material World””

  • avatar
    Emily Says:

    I love to think about the ties between historical costume and today’s high fashion. It is a talent to take something old and make it look new again! This exhibition is really stunning and i think emphasizes a human being’s intrinsic attraction to richness in texture, color, pattern and form. I think it is also a testament to human creativity and ingenuity. The fact that we think something hundreds of years old is still beautiful is really an amazing idea.

  • avatar
    Amy Says:

    It’s so interesting to see design elements reinterpreted throughout the years. I love that you pulled examples from recent runways to show how certain shapes and textures have always remained in style. I’ve walked through the exhibition multiple times and have noticed new details in every piece!

  • avatar
    Jessica Says:

    Thank you for the great insights into the Material World exhibition, and for highlighting current trends as they have been reinterpreted over time. Well written!

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