Only anarchists are pretty! Slogan in Fashion

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Shirt – Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren — 1976 (Costume Institute – Metropolitan Museum of Art)

by Rossella Locatelli


Being a part of the visual culture of a specific historical moment, fashion has always been inclined to make use of other languages since the very beginning. Over time it has absorbed and re-edited subversive or propagandist slogans, linguistic expressions based on instinct and angry protest.

In the early 1970s lead singer Richard Hell, during a performance of his band the New York Dolls, wears a white T-shirt with the words “Please kill me” written on it with a black marker and a nervous, almost childish handwriting. His manager Malcom McLaren, like many other young people in the years after the protests of 1968, can’t stand the ideological militancy. However he believes in the slogan, screamed out, without barriers of any kind, even performed by means of powerful images. In 1976 Malcom and his partner Vivienne Westwood take some basic garments, deconstruct them and put them together again in a revolutionary way: unfinished hems, worn or torn fabric, visible internal seams. But above all, they make use of iconoclastic collages. On an irregular grey striped background pattern – a terrible reminder about the ghosts of World War II — they put writings such as “Only anarchists are pretty!”, “Chaos”, “Try subversion” overlapping a portrait of Karl Marx made in China and a Third Reich Eagle. On another T-shirt the word DESTROY is printed above three symbols: a reverse crucifix, a swastika and a Queen Elizabeth II one penny stamp. Here words and symbols take on a different meaning.

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Shirt (details) – Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren — 1976 (Costume Institute – Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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“I groaned” — Vivienne Westwood — 1976 (Costume Institute – Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Similarly to Dadaism, the artistic and literary movement that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values and with its mottos and short poems wanted to destroy the prevailing standards of art, McLaren and Westwood’s expressions violently overwhelme the fashion system and its pleasing mass messages. The same applies to the T-shirt “I groaned with pain” (1976), on which an excerpt of the novel The School for Wives (1955) by Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi is written. This novel deals with women’s role in society in the 1950s in a sagacious and preposterous manner. It is no coincidence that the fabric has two cuts at the breast. Since then nobody has combined slogans and fashion with the same violence and courage.

Vivienne Westwood has always been concerned with new languages, not surprisingly she designs her Autumn-Winter collection 1983 together with Keith Haring, who makes use of his distinctive writing, characterized by fluidity and symbolism, to combine and mix letters all around his “radiant baby” (akin to the “Wild Boys” by Borroughs) on sweatshirts, sweaters, jackets and pants. Twenty years later two Enfants Terribles, fashion genius Franco Moschino and Jean Paul Gaultier, do something similar, though with less anger and more irony. In 1994, inspired by the famous Eisenhower’s speech on the military-industrial complex (1961), the French fashion designer creates some men’s suits with military-inspired style and colours, but then he covers them with obscene writings, graffiti, tags, and, by doing so, he destroys the iconic personification of the rigorous soldier. This transfiguration of the army is not a question of a pacifist stance but rather it represents Gaultier’s sarcastic and queer revisiting of the stereotypes of masculinity (his marines are well-known) over time.

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“Diablo” — Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and Keith Haring — 1983 (Costume Institute – Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Ensemble — Jean Paul Gaultier — 1994 (Costume Institute – Metropolitan Museum of Art)

With his 1995 men’s collection (one of his last collections) Italian fashion designer Franco Moschino revolutionizes men’s wardrobe even more explicitly. Trousers, jackets and shirts appear as a chaotic alternation of some erotic ads taken from pulp fiction magazines and the red writing on a black background “Safe Sex!” which eventually becomes an essential cry of desperation if we just think about the designer’s cruel fate. This is a series of men’s suits that publicly proclaims flamboyant diversity against sex discrimination.

The common thread running through Westwood, Gaultier and Moschino is not the same aesthetic but rather the aptitude for irreverence, which is not easy to have nowadays, and thus for several reasons: many fashion brands are increasingly lumping together into large luxury holding companies, so that they lose autonomy and freedom; Global markets get bored quickly and have great difficulty building the emotional components that give luxury status brands their value; And finally the new role given to words, which are now simple decorative signs (to serve as an example Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti for Louis Vuitton). Today in fashion bringing out an awkward narrative is a mission, perhaps already disappeared.

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Ensemble — Franco Moschino — ca. 1995 (Costume Institute – Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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