“Eccentrics raise the bar on the impossible.” Andrew O’Hagan
In the wake of ‘Fashion Galore’ the Isabella Blow exhibition at London’s Somerset House many fashion commentators have been celebrating the power of the Eccentrics. To many cultures the notion of eccentricity seems at best flimsy; in Britain it occupies the foreground of cultural life.
In a thoughtful article entitled ‘The Demise of the Fashion Eccentric’ – New-York Time Magazine, October 24, 2013 – Andrew O’Hagan, a novelist and editor at large of Esquire explains why. Of the real eccentrics he says: They really mean it, and they’re willing to suffer for it. Their social function is to explode our preconceptions about what beauty is and what good taste means. Eccentrics raise the bar on the impossible.
The pivotal role played by such real eccentrics is not lost on the section of the fashion industry that seeks to rewrite the rules of fashion and search for new ways to interpret apparel. Many aspiring fashion designers think themselves as one of them. In a world inundated by the visual, creating a strong and powerful image, one maybe with the power to shock, seems necessary to success.
In ‘The Demise of the Fashion Eccentric,’ O’Hagan goes on lamenting: “there are a few too many fake ones out there now. These are the imitators, the publicity scavengers, the ones who think it’s merely about fame or attention. They seem to be working not from a brilliant fund of ideas or from a conviction that their outer selves must be used to express a fascinating inner landscape. On the contrary, they’re just show-offs who dress up for the cameras. For people interested in our contemporary times, this is an important distinction: the true eccentric gives us more mystery, more wonder about being human, a new side to beauty, while the faux-eccentric gives us less of everything.
As Vanessa Friedman points out in ‘Blow for the unexpected’ – Financial Time November 15, 2013 – many who have recently written in praise the fashion eccentrics have also been quick to regret their disappearance while pouring scorn on today’s street fashionistas who they say, dress up to attract attention. This backlash against street fashion photography and some induced effect of fashion blogging has in fact been going on for a while. Its blanket condemnation is unfair; it is not the subject of these notes.
Twentieth century modernity from artistic revolutions to cultural upheavals, seems defined by an ability to shock. The centenary of World War I, its 8 million death and 15 million injured, will be commemorated next year. The pains and anger it caused, compounded with those of World War II may have been a catalyst. Or simply the need to shock may be part of the human DNA: as soon as some barriers have been broken down, whether social, aesthetics or of the order of taboos, we look for new ones to attack. It is the nature of shock to call for more.
Am I correct or simply showing my age when I feel that this process is coming to an end? Shock value went crescendo throughout the 20th century; today very little seem able to shock us. We were arrested for indecency, when I was a student at Central St Martin’s in the mid-eighties, for wearing ripped jeans. Of-course we revelled in picking further at them. Today, on the school modernised campus, a student Clayton Pettet, creates an art piece involving the loss of his anal virginity in front of a seated audience. I would like to think that there is more to this piece of performance art that what is being reported by the press. It is certainly getting Clayton exposure!
Is there much value left in the old shock trick? It has had its moment though. Between 1982 and 2000, Italian knitwear brand Benetton gave carte blanche to photographer Oliviero Toscani to run its ‘United Colors by Benetton’ ad campaign. The 1991 campaign remain its most memorable moment. It centred on a photo entitled the ‘Pieta’ taken by Therese Frare the previous year. The image shows dying AIDS activist David Kirby, embraced by his father with sister and niece at his bedside.
This arresting image not only brought to the forefront, in a very graphic manner the need to fight AIDS; it also fought a modern day taboo: the depiction of death. Used for a commercial purpose, it resonated with its times and deeply affected all. This powerful moment was unfortunately followed by much less effective ones and I believe the decade of controversy engineered by Toscani eventually tarnished a brand increasingly perceived as cynical.
I would have left the subject of eccentricity and shock value to rest if another article I recently read on style.com entitled: Jean-Paul Gaultier: “My Purpose Is Not To Shock” had not rushed back to mind.
The ‘Jean-Paul Gaultier: from Sidewalk to Catwalk’ exhibition is still touring, hence the additional promotional work by the Grand-Couturier. The man dubbed the Enfant Terrible of French fashion – yes the expression is tiring – asserts he never was out to shock. In fact when asked whether he thought that with the rise of the Internet it’s harder shock or surprise, he answers:
Is the purpose to shock? Maybe there are some who do that and think it is important to do that. … But I think in general I never tried to be shocking. I only did what I sincerely felt, what I was seeing. The spirit of what was going on, I wanted to reflect that.
Further he adds: I think that real fashion always comes from things that are happening in society. We are not, in reality, prophets. If we are prophetic too early, it’s not good. It has to be at the right time. When I did my punk things, punk was already there, but I did it in my way. And he affirms again: I thought that people could be shocked by what I was doing—but I didn’t do it because I had to shock. It’s a reflection.
I believe that seeking shock value for publicity sake will lead to little results and accusations of cynicism unless it also makes a fundamental statement about society. This statement was true yesterday, it is even more relevant today.