If fashion is about selling desire to the masses, when it turns away from orthodox notions of beauty and attraction we must question the reasons behind it.
There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in proportion, or so the saying goes, and indeed what stranger proportions have been seen in recent years than those proffered by Maison Martin Margiela, whose stock-in-trade seems to be calling into question those ideals of beauty previously considered irrefutable.
Take their 'Wig-Coat' from Spring 2009 - not insignificantly their twentieth anniversary of fashion and anti-fashion creation. Maison Martin Margiela delved into the archives, blatantly quoting from past collections and reinventing their work. The coat, inspired by 1995's 'Wig-Vest', is a product of the Artisanal line, reworking preexisting clothing by hand into new permutations. As each piece is crafted from individual garments, no two pieces are exactly alike – and hence can be seen as more art than article. In 1936, Meret Oppenheim created the ultimate Surrealist objet d'art by coating a tea-cup and spoon in Chinese gazelle fur. Tactile, perhaps. Aesthetically fascinating, certainly. But the thought of engaging with Oppenheim's Object as a functional utensil causes shivers of disgust. Equally, the idea of wearing Margiela's coat is cause for apprehension, even revulsion. If fashion is about selling desire to the masses, when it turns away from orthodox notions of beauty and attraction we must question the reasons behind it.
Margiela's 'Wig-Coat' represents a tussle in the designer's work, and in fashion generally, between the real and the artificial. Artifice is a standard tool of the fashion system, but Margiela is uniquely adept and willing to expose it for all to see. Just as Margiela turns a garment inside-out to flaunt its construction, so the artifice behind contemporary beauty itself is revealed and hence called into question.
It can be argued that artifice has always been knowing, that the seduction in those past images of fashionable extremity was in stripping away the trappings and revealing the true body beneath the corseted and bombasted façade, but Margiela's interpretation is less cut-and-dried. The 'Wig-Coat' simultaneously apes nature, whilst calling it into question. The garment is constructed of wigs, and defiantly so, the lace and wig-caps visible beneath the hems of the coat's taffeta lining. The hair itself is nylon, not human hair as used in the finest wigs - yet the coat has dark 'roots,' mimicking natural hair artificially dyed. The wigs are pieced together to make the hair appear to sprout from the torso: if this were true hair growing from a human body (specifically a female body), it would be repugnant. At the same time, the coat is reminiscent of fur, the ultimate timeless status symbol from the Renaissance to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Desire and disgust collide and collude in a single garment.
What does Margiela's coat mean? What is its significance in early twenty-first century fashion? It functions on the same level as that other Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte, who in 1928 created Ceci n'est pas une pipe - a painting of a pipe that denied it was a pipe. As an image of a pipe, the paradoxical inscription was true and in the same way, Margiela's 'Wig-Coat' becomes a paradox, a paradox of adornment, of seduction and of fashion. It mimics nature whilst choosing to be artificial; the workmanship is painstaking, costly, yet applied to cheap synthetics; it is adornment which repels and yet, oddly, manages to seduce. Finally, as a luxury good it manages to function on the least luxurious level possible.