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Fashion and Ethereality

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Katerina Pantelides

Ethereality, or the quality of unearthly lightness, is a dominant characteristic of much fashion output. This paper explores why makers of fashion imagery (designers, stylists, photographers, illustrators and video artists) continually create light bodies that are not quite flesh and blood. Katerina uses both current and historic examples to illustrate this, the paper covers the following themes:

Stuff of daydreams

Neuroscientists have proved that it is easier and more pleasurable to generate mental pictures of gauzy, bright substances than heavier ones, because such images resemble the nebulous ambiguity of thought and daydream. In Phantasmagoria Marina Warner demonstrates that ethereal images such as magic lantern reflections produce a similar effect. The psychological and aesthetic appeal of ethereal fashions such as the ballerina trend, pale skin and sheer fabrics will be discussed.

Fashion’s commercial success often depends on its ability to invade the fantasies of potential consumers and present them with images that they will want to possess and embody. For the most part, the stuff of its output: gauzy and shimmering textiles, feathers, luminous embellishment, and thin, glossy magazine pages, is insubstantial. Tall, thin and radiant, the bodies it privileges (and to some extent creates through digital technology) are also ethereal, as close to angelic as a flesh and blood constitution will allow. The phantasmagoric quality of fashion’s imagery is crucial to its success- it presents a desirable, unattainable ideal that can be allegedly achieved through consumption, whether through purchase or daydream.

Enchanting Identity

A narrative (nearly always fictitious and fantastical) often accompanies the fashion collection or image, thereby imbuing it with an aura beyond its material makeup. This imagined history can be created by the designer or stylist, e.g.: Rodarte’s Spring/Summer 2010 collection narrative about a girl who makes a dress from wallpaper and transforms into a condor, or imbued in the spectacle, e.g.: the pearlescent complexions and swept-up hair of the girls who modelled Erdem’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection based on the Ballets Russes, recalled photographs of Tsar Nicholas II’s daughters, thereby adding poignancy to a show accompanied by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ( a score about a sacrificial virgin). Sporting such narrative-rich collections, the model or consumer becomes part of the fiction and assumes an ambiguous, spectral identity - she conveys the history of someone or something other than herself. The notion of fluid identities will be explored in further detail.

Moving Ether

Fashion bodies do not so much walk as float, hover and pixellate, much like mental images. High heels, balletic poses and the invocation of dance are traditional means of achieving this end. The newer medium of fashion video is adept at defying the laws of gravity, using techniques including scanning and montage of graphic and photographic images to create ever more otherworldly bodies that are sometimes barely distinguishable from their surroundings. Here the boundaries between fashion, art and dream become nebulous.

Increasingly, the ethereal is intrinsic to fashion, working on aesthetic, psychological and consumerist levels.


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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported
This Work, Fashion and Ethereality, by zbeck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.