In a cultural climate that prizes the new, the shiny, the young and the pretty, ugliness can become a political issue. When the way that we dress comes to reflect what we’re trying to be about, what does it mean to embrace the ugly over the endearingly pretty?
You could start by asking Christopher Kane. Ugliness on the whole isn’t new in fashion – Miuccia Prada, for one, elevated ugly fashion to an art form in the nineties, and various subcultures have been martyring themselves in the ‘Ugly’ in the name of identity creation since the beginning of time. But when a designer like Kane – a young buck, on one hand talented to the nth degree and in possession of a thorough vision of modern womanhood, but on the other, obviously obliged to make marketable It-items and surely keen on expansion and profit – embraces the idea of ugliness, it’s risky, radical and brave. Offering something that is, even in fashion terms, a little skewed or off, is dangerous. And like the presence of Chekhov’s proverbial gun, the moment we notice it, its volatility excites us.
But volatility and forced ugliness alone mightn’t be enough to generate the kind of hype and sales that Kane is capable of. So maybe we’re not talking about straightforward ugly, like the chintz curtains of the deeply passé café at the end of your street that you’ve never stopped into (its ugliness means it doesn’t even register on your radar). What designers like Kane and Prada are most adept at is the false ugly.
All ugliness is complicated, more complicated than the straightforward pretty, and while the press may rush to apply the Ugly tag to young London designers who work with challenging materials or silhouettes, what lies beneath Kane’s surface complexity is something deeply, endearingly pretty.
For A/W 14 this was in the book-leaf pleats, stacked and folded over each other and moving gently through the air. Pleats like these constitute a modern riff on a tell-tale motif of female prettiness, a 2014 update on the overhaul given to the humble pleat by Issey Miyake in the nineties. Kane’s take on the pleat is beautiful, undoubtedly, and contrasted with challenging, tough silhouettes and shapes throughout the collection. So this real, appealing prettiness throws up for us a question: how can you be two diametrically opposing things at once?
Enter the uncanny. Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay pinned down the notion in semantic terms, as that strange feeling that arises when we encounter something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at once, the object or person that represents both something that is known and intimate and something that is a threat. Humanoid robots are uncanny. So are porcelain dolls, or human scientists in panda costumes – they are close enough that we try to categorise them as one thing, when in fact they are more complex than that.
What Freud is getting at is that notion of contrasting layers, the cognitive unease we can feel when approaching that which is both one thing and its opposite at the same time. Pure ugliness is difficult to pin down, harder for us to form a general consensus on, but the uncanny is a little more universal, perhaps because at a fundamental level, it works by simple juxtaposition. While ugliness can involve issues of taste and opinion and morals, the uncanny hits us on a gut level.
And it’s not unlike those same contrasted layers of pretty and ugly that Kane has built an empire on. That’s the trick that draws you in to Kane’s oeuvre. It works for him because of the skill, the hard work and almost effortless ease on which he bases those complex layers. The result grabs us, yes, and maybe even shakes us a little, but we don’t fear it, because he knows what he is doing.
So it becomes more familiar, less scary. It becomes an extra layer of interestingness to cloak ourselves in. And now younger designers are catching on and capitalising on it, too. Spot the disconcerting effect of mistaken materials, like Kane’s experiments in rubberised lace. Sometimes, something you swear is one material when you see it on the catwalk or online turns out to be something else entirely - a trick beloved of recent Fashion East graduates, like layered chiffon where you see plastic, in the case of Louise Alsop.
In the work of another young London designer Faustine Steinmetz, denim jeans turn out to be blended rayon and copper, meaning the shape of the material takes on an entirely different form from what we expect from blue jeans. Maybe it’s that traditional denim isn’t enough for us, and we need something with a little extra frisson of the unheimlich to make us seem more interesting by proxy. Check too the recent street style craze for fun fur from Shrimps, beloved by cool girls and away from the dominance of the real stuff on the runways.
One could argue that there’s no point in the uncanny, in working in a world where nothing is quite what it seems. Why wear fur if it doesn’t broadcast to the whole bloody world that you’re wearing fur? But the real draw lies in the margins, that space between certainties, which gives us pause and maybe forces us to look again. In a world dominated by the fastest of fashion, a reason to slow down should be appreciated. Materials like that rubberised lace can take on a self-awareness fashion often lacks, or worse, parodies in the form of the kitsch.
This breed of uncanny ugly is far from kitsch. See J.W. Anderson working against, rather than with, the physical form, a classic ‘ugly’ technique. His shapes mightn’t flatter the body in a traditional, accepted way. But in the abstract these are beautiful forms and complex though they are, they are not impenetrable. Rather, the challenge they pose can attract us more. We look to gain comprehension, to bring it into our sphere of knowledge. And when it does, it pays off and we feel rewarded for our understanding of it. It’s not difficult to comprehend beauty, and at any rate, fashion surrounds us with it. There’s a reason why the likes of Anderson and Kane have been so successful in recent years. When we’re bombarded with such easy beauty, who can resist the allure of the off-kilter?