Fashion, Function, Conformity & Irony…

Jumpsuit with side button closure

Fashion and function:  can the two live together in peace and harmony?  If the two “F’s” were on a dating site it’s probably safe to say that they would never be matched together.  I had this epiphany recently, when an article of clothing that had caught my eye in a store window and had been in the back of my mind ever since finally got tried on.  It was not the most practical of items in the first place:  a black lace, one shouldered jumpsuit with skinny legs almost resembling a catsuit –at my age–Really?

Yes, I went there, middle age be damned and all, however this item of apparel was made for a person with an innate ability to button up countless little buttons (think back of a wedding dress) but placed to one side. Even the young saleswoman was having trouble fastening it on me so  definitely not an age related issue.  Was this garment intended for a superhero, an angel or someone who, if they were able to fasten it up in the first place, would never need to use a restroom during the course of its wearing?  Even the unbuttoning would be extremely challenging as most of us humans don’t have eyes at the sides of our heads to be able to see each and every small button and even smaller loop let alone the manual dexterity required to “thread the needle.”

I started thinking that a man must have designed this contraption under the assumption that women are meant to look sexy but have no real need to get through their day or night with any practicality.  The same concept must have been behind stiletto heels, corsets, hoop skirts, tight pencil skirts or any number of other injustices throughout history that women have been asked to don in the name of fashion and beauty.  The saleswoman admitted that the last person who purchased the jumpsuit had added snaps but I was still confounded.  I asked if a zipper could be sewn in leaving the skeuomorphic (pronounced “skew-morphic”) buttons in all their glory to be rendered strictly decorative which they should have been in the first place!  I am still waiting to see how it turns out but would love to ask the designer “What were you thinking?”

Pebble watch

All of this got me to ponder not only non-function in fashion but also fashion terms which have been bandied about recently: “skeuomorphic” being one of them.  It seems that a lot of design terms are coming from the tech world and are eventually applied to fashion.  Skeuomorphic, as I understand it, means something vestigial that was once necessary to an item but is now completely ornamental.  Some examples could include woodgrain panels on the sides of cars (they now use faux wood to achieve the look on car dashboards) and rivets on jeans (denim is now stitched together not riveted however the rivets still exist as embellishment). I would be tempted to add to this ever-growing category watches that have so many dials on their faces that the wearer can’t even determine the time.  I’ve noticed a number of Pebbles lately (a watch that was originally funded on Kickstarter that runs apps) which has a very clean, monolithic design, perhaps as a reaction to the previously over cluttered timepieces.

VW with skeuomorphic woodgrain

Of course, many of these terms would not exist without “hipsters” (to me, anyone young who lives in Brooklyn) who can be credited with coining the concept of wearing an item ironically.  For instance, my college freshman son who doesn’t classify as a hipster and in fact, makes fun of them, had an integrally important zipper fail on his coat in the middle of this brutal winter in Cleveland and could not close his coat.  With the zipper challenged jacket he had been complaining about the fact that his legs were always cold so, ever the concerned mother I purchased, and sent him a somewhat longer down coat.  His reaction was priceless: “Why did you send me a dress?” he queried.  “Too long, too wide. When I tighten the waist it makes me look like a Bavarian beer garden wench.”  While I LOL’d and suggested he send it back; he did agree that it was warm and finally sighed and said that he would “wear it ironically.”  I can only guess what that means, although The Onion ran a hysterical article back in 2005 in which the author wears an expensive business suit “ironically” and can’t understand why people weren’t “getting it” and why he kept being promoted at work. (Click here for article).   I have not seen my son in his “coat of irony” so I’m unable to report on whether he has fared any better in his quest than the satire writer.

Jerry Seinfeld epitomized normcore

In case you aren’t confused enough, there is also a trend known as “normcore” which completely baffles me.  From what I’ve been able to gather, this is the wearing of very bland, generic clothing (think “Seinfeld” but not the puffy shirt or the suede jacket episode) worn by normally trendy youth (I won’t use the hipster word).  It is heavily reliant on  ’90s brands like Adidas, Levis, gray Nike sweatshirts;  items that one would see on mall goers in the heartland of middle America but somehow on the cool younger generation it became a fashion statement or  anti-fashion statement.  Normcorers want you to believe that they are too cool to be slaves to fashion and are so over it.  Have they considered that they risk falling into Try-hard territory; someone trying to create an image as the polar opposite of what they really are so that it’s obviously contrived?  Urban Dictionary defines an example of a try-hard as an affluent suburban dweller who covers themselves in piercings and tattoos.   We used to call them posers or wannabes.

Madonna at Costume Institute Gala 2009

With true normcore, if you are walking behind a proponent it should be near impossible  to tell if the wearer is 18 or 50.  Interestingly, President Obama has been touted in the press as our “normcore” president because, in his precious little bit of downtime, he wears windbreakers, mom jeans and white sneakers.   Unless you are POTUS or a scientist working on the cure to cancer, there really is no excuse for embracing normcore as a fashion statement. As Cathy Horyn has espoused, only the young can pull off fashion irony whether it leans to excess or banality.  Ms. Horyn’s 2009 The New York Times article entitled “Irony and The Old Lady” (click here for article) which was written as commentary after Madonna wore a hair ribbon that suggested bunny ears, thigh high swashbuckler boots and a bubble dress to the Met Costume Institute Gala that year, begins “First go the knees, then goes irony.”  And clearly if Madonna can’t pull it off, there’s little hope for the rest of us over the half century mark. That being said it’s not going to stop me from wearing my racy jumpsuit assuming I can get it closed.   I’ll leave the lapin ears to the cottontails.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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