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runway comparison: historical pastiche 

By Serafina Lee and Patrick Benson 

Using historical pastiche as inspiration, Helicon's fashion editors discuss their favourite looks from two different runway shows. Delving into costume, narrative and parody, the fashion of the past is continuously recycled. 

'Café Society': Vivienne Westwood S/S 1994

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Combining sex, theatrics and historical pastiche, this image contains the fundamentals of Westwood’s 1994 collection ‘Cafe Society’. The show was almost like burlesque as models in elaborate tailoring (and shoes made out of rubber vibrators) playfully disrobed themselves and gestured towards the audience. It is a provocative satire, transforming the models into a parodied male fantasy. The abundance of historical influences is dizzying and lends itself to such fantasy and theatricality; the references are freely lifted from any form of realism and therefore radically installed within a contemporary context. Ingrid Loschek writes that ‘Westwood luxuriated in historical and ethnic testamentary details, which were perverted, alienated and assembled into a new whole, that is, into something that was entirely up to date’. Most of the models have striking white painted faces, drawing on Elizabethan ceruse (16th century cosmetic used a skin whitener, usually made from water, vinegar and lead) that is also evocative of a masquerade mask. The dusty white hair skips forward about two hundred years, more reminiscent of  Georgian wigs that were powdered with flour or starch. Alongside this is the almost sheer mini dress that eroticises the body like an ‘Elizabethan showgirl’. The various historical sources are collaged and parodied into a look that is ultimately centred on erotic theatricality, critical of the domineering influence of the male gaze within the history of women’s clothing. In fact, the standards of the male gaze itself becomes the subject of parody through the drama, ridicule and excess of powdered wigs and lead face paint. 

‘Cubism’: Comme Des Garçons S/S 2007

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Rei Kawakubo, founder and designer at Comme des Garcons, was designing her SS07 collection during significant political change. In 2006, Shinzo Abe had just taken over as prime minister, pushing a hardline right wing nationalist stance which consumed media discourse; and it’s hard not to see this straight away. The red sun of the Japanese flag, described by Kawakubo as “the purest form of design in existence”,  was over many of the looks, often with slogans like “grace and nature”. 


The most immediate thing about the show is the all white modelling cast, in even whiter face paint. The makeup is a clear reference to the Japanese Geisha, prominent cultural figures in Japanese history. The Geisha were female entertainers or performers of some sort who would be employed by the nobility class. It is an unflinching tradition that the Geisha wore this makeup, for beauty purposes (to give the skin a porcelain-like effect which was desirable at the time, a trend imported from China) and secondly to exaggerate the facial expressions of the woman whilst they were acting. The choice to use this in the show was likely just to present more Japanese iconography. However, it may have also been to make a comment about how the white models of the western fashion scene have to paint themselves with the ideas and ideals of Japanese culture when walking for a show designed with those ideals in mind, but presented in Paris for a worldwide audience. Equally, the white face paint used the same way as the Geisha (to exaggerate expression) is not too much of a deviation from the hyper-natural state of being the models have to inherit when walking for shows as experimental as Kawakubo’s, with everything being carefully crafted and amplified to achieve a very specific demonstration of abnormality, whilst still being physical and present.


Lastly, the show title, Cubism. In the look I’ve selected, the model’s skirt depicts the Japanese sun broken and half covered by black lines and blocks. Not perhaps a direct homage to Picasso or Braque, but surely the use of Cubist ideas to break up the still recognisable symbol, whilst making it palatable to the view of a Western audience. This distortion means that the sun can be viewed in the two contexts the show gives it: a symbol of the Japanese ideas it arose from and as a chic design feature for the wider audiences to consume. Japan is often seen by much of the world as a leader in oddity, and putting the one symbol that is iconically Japan on clothes makes that idea marketable.

My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.

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