‘Touch Me: Feeling Fashion’ show at William Paterson is full of imaginative creations

feeling fashion review

“Gairai Dougui,” by Susanne Goetz and Theanne Schiros, is part of the “Touch Me: Feeling Fashion” exhibition at William Paterson University in Wayne.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is an entire room devoted to suits of armor. It is a firm and shiny reminder that there have been times when human beings felt it would be best for them to wear metal plates on their bodies. Steel garments may not be comfortable or flexible, but they shield the wearer from misfortune — just as a raincoat would, or a parka in the freezing cold, or a fiberglass helmet on the head of a bicyclist, or a visor on a scorching day. Before style, before sharpness, and before social capital, the first purpose of clothing is protective.

The vests, shirts and petticoats on display in “Touch Me: Feeling Fashion” — a brave, imaginative show that will be at The Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts at William Paterson University in Wayne until May 3 — appear avant-garde. They incorporate materials unlikely to show up on Uniqlo racks: thermoplastics, brass tacks from upholstery, mycelium from mushrooms, smashed Concord grapes and shattered eggshells. Many of these designs are meant to be interventions in the outsized ecological footprint left by the fashion industry. Others, like Ani Liu’s light-blasted, see-through silk suit designed for a pregnant man, are clever sociopolitical provocations.

Curators Casey Mathern and Laura Di Summa have assembled two roomfuls of audacious wearables (and pure hypotheticals) meant to challenge what we think we know about couture and how clothes are made. Di Summa, a philosopher who has studied the interaction between clothing and the human body, encourages readers and designers alike to pay better attention to the way fabrics feel.

Yet as forward-looking as their show is, its underlying tone is defensive. The pieces in “Touch Me: Feeling Fashion” are reactions to trouble: These designers take it for granted that the world is a problematic place. They see clothing as something that can be interposed between the wearer and that which threatens her. Suits of armor are no longer in style, and they’re not too helpful against what currently besets us. But clothiers still aim to shield us against the slings and arrows of injustice — and shield the world against environmental degradation and social turmoil.

Erika Diamond’s “Eggshell Shirt — Business Casual.”

Sometimes this is downright literal. Erika Diamond contributes four protective vests to “Touch Me: Feeling Fashion,” each one tailored to suit the body of a particular person she admires. Her “Queer Collection” is loud, gold-colored and laser-etched. The pieces also incorporate Kevlar, the material commonly found in bulletproof clothing. Diamond is girding her LGBTQ subjects for survival. In “Eggshell Shirt — Business Casual,” she attaches shells to a mesh like an armorer fitting plates of iron to a chain mail suit. She who would wear this shirt is getting ready for a different kind of battlefield than the ones that knights were accustomed to: the corporate workplace. There, amid unwanted advances and sublimated aggression, she is telling her colleagues to tread carefully.

The eggshells return in the work of Kristen Kaas, but hers have been pulverized to shards. In an expression of implied violence, she has tucked the shells between layers of loose double-woven linen, where they are trapped, and cracked, like something left in a pocket and sat on. She has done the same with grapes. The fruit has been crushed, reduced to circular stains, and its reddish juice has bled suggestively into the fabric. We are encouraged to identify with the wearer of these pouches, whose marks of trauma are visible, and also with the items that have been flattened. That which is delicate — linen and silk — certainly is pretty, but beauty alone does not confer the protection that a combative world requires.

Leather is tougher stuff. It, like steel, was a favorite of armorers, who sometimes used it as an under-layer for heavier mail, and sometimes studded it with metal to deter attackers. The large leather drapes in Jean Shin’s “Second Skin” series look as if they have been depleted by conflict: they are slung like the pelts of animals over thick branches and decorated with rows of steel tacks and buttons. They look as if someone has hunted and flayed an old sofa. The apertures in Shin’s assembly of leather pieces encourage us to imagine what it might be like to sling them over our heads like ponchos — and face the world with a protective suit redolent of memories of suburban dens and school sleepovers.

Jean Shin’s “Second Skin #1.”

If “Second Skin” suggests something prehistoric, its primitivism is filtered through the specifics of modern life in an industrial era. It is, simultaneously, a trophy of the hunt and a reclamation project from the thrift shop and the landfill, in touch with the primal roots of fashion and design, but translated into a contemporary visual idiom. Something similar can be said about the show’s most fascinating piece — “Gairai Dougui” by Susanne Goetz and Theanne Schiros. This child’s jacket, colored in pastels and pleated like an anorak, incorporates natural plant dyes made from discarded food and mycelium from a trash heap. Novel as these techniques may seem, they have been used in West Africa for centuries. This shirt feels grown, not sewn.

Yet the way it has been sewn is not evocative of the free-flowing chaos of the forest. The patches are squares, the interior of the shirt is lined like an Oxford, and the cut is intentionally stiff. A child in such a shirt would not be comfortable. She would feel as if her body had been asked to conform to her clothing, its angles, and its rectangularity. When the making of a garment is as driven by worry as this one is, with all choices informed by concerns over sustainability and biodegradability, could it have been any other way? “Gairai Dougui” does not feel like a future wave; it doesn’t feel like a wave at all. Instead, it’s a freaked-out rationalist’s reaction to planetary peril and the vulnerability of children — a small, wearable expression of anxiety about where we’re all headed.

This is the irony of increased attention on the haptic elements of what we’re wearing: sensitivity does not always lead to comfort. It is one of the peculiar properties of skin that it does not like to be meditated upon. The more a person thinks about his collar, the more likely it is that it’s going to itch. In prior eras, obsession with the social signification of clothing led directly to the fashioning of some of the most restrictive garments ever to squeeze a poor woman’s waist. Contributions to the show from the Cora Ginsburg Collection of clothing from the early 19th century represent a loosening of strictures and a turn toward the quotidian and relaxed, but her “Corset” from 1830 still incorporated a whalebone meant to keep the wearer scrupulously upright. Our modern scrimshaw busks might be ideological ones, but they’re still doing firm corrective work.

Nadia Liz Estela’s “Untitled (Camisa).”

Rectangularity and discomfort return in a terrifying manner in Nadia Liz Estela’s sculptural installation “Untitled (Camisa),” a vicious deconstruction of men’s dress shirts. The artist has flattened them, torn them, compacted them and encased the slashed sleeves and pressed collars in thick, waxy, translucent plastic. Then she has laid these shirt-filled slabs atop each other to form a pallet full of threads, snaps and buttons, textile patterns and sewed logos, bunched-up sleeves and torn swatches. Naturally, these will never be wearable again. But in their conformity and their regularity, how wearable were they in the first place? Estela is merely taking the squared-away contours of business attire — itself a kind of military garb — to its logical extreme, rough-edged and right-angled, fraying but still clinging to its form. Much like patriarchy itself is.

Armorers often stamped insignias and branded fearsome symbols on their plate mail in order to inspire wearers and ward off malignant forces. As “Touch Me: Feeling Fashion” demonstrates, our modern protective gear is much the same. Diamond’s exercises in Kevlar fabulousness, for instance, are full of small communicative touches. Irmandy Wicaksono has festooned his “Living Knitwork Pavilion” — a ceiling-to-floor, teepee-like drapery — with nautical and animal prints and images of regrowth. The motifs in blue on the recycled polyester feel ancient in their signification, but they are stitched into the recycled polyester in spandex and photochromic yarn. The feel of the piece is optimistic, but it’s also protective, full of sigils against misfortune, and quiet prayers, and full of ancient faith in the magical power of art to bring about the better things it depicts.

Like the rest of “Touch Me: Feeling Fashion,” it is less of a bold step into a post-fashion future than it is a pained exploration of a difficult present — one we had all better be well-armored for.

The Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts at William Paterson University in Wayne will present “Touch Me: Feeling Fashion” through May 3; visit wpunj.edu/coac/gallery/Exhibitions/current-exhibitions.


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