Utility and utilitarianism - Does fashion only serve it’s purpose when it’s wearable?: Hussein Chalayan F/W 2000’s ‘Table Dress’ and Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, 1999
When we take a look at some of the greatest moments in modern fashion history, the concept of wearability is one which is not always present.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is the late Alexander McQueen, a man who is widely acknowledged for creating art as opposed to fashion due to his groundbreaking (and not always functional) designs. For example, his collection for Givenchy’s 1999 Couture line saw a model walk the runway in a full Perspex robotic body, yet backstage the designer said “If she sweats, she will electrocute herself. So tell her not to sweat”. Despite the fact that the garment was obviously unwearable it provoked an incredible reaction and pushed the realms of fashion design, yet the objective was never for this particular garment to be sellable – it was with the purpose of creating art.
Hussein Chalayan was another designer whose grandiose designs rebuked the notion of utility – his iconic “Table Dress” was shown in a short presentation, presented more as an art installation than a traditional runway show. In a commercial world clothes must be wearable, but the arena of high-fashion is one in which established designers have the resources to experiment and create true fashion – fashion which presents itself as an artistic statement, not fashion which is meant to be worn.
On the other hand, were we to take Bentham’s notion of utilitarianism in determining the ultimate goal for fashion, he would say that the short-term happiness derived from utility from clothing would benefit far more people, and this is the side that paradoxically perhaps the most conceptual designer of seemingly unwearable clothing has taken - Rei Kawakubo.
“Fashion is not art. You sell art to one person. Fashion comes in a series and is more of a social phenomenon. It is also something more personal and individual, because you express your personality. It is an active participation; art is passive.”
And yet, I would still argue that Fashion can be art, and that it can serve more than one person. With John Stuart Mill’s revised interpretation of utilitarianism, determining fashion as a 'high art’ would mean the long-term benefits of the ideas produced by these conceptual designers in moving fashion forward and in inspiration of the passions needed to create clothing on a regimented basis (due to the restrictive nature of the fashion seasons), perhaps Kawakubo was wrong in saying fashion doesn’t serve it’s purpose as art.
In the words of Karl Lagerfeld, "Fashion does not have to prove that it is serious. It is proof that intelligent frivolity can be something creative and positive”