Consider: the ion is to science what the wardrobe is to fashion. Full of transformative potential. From a pragmatic point of view, fashion and science have long been entwined, the physical properties that make up clothes dependent on the technology of fibres to create their very fabrications. But their inextricable relationship extends beyond that. And as analogies go, the ion as an embodiment of the behaviour of fashion couldn’t be more appropriate.
In technical speak, an ion is an electrically charged atom or molecule riddled with an equal number of positive and negative protons and electrons. Therefore, when these are out of balance, its energy levels change and there comes the ability to alter something from one form to another. It reacts to its environment, to other atoms and molecules around it, those similarly charged or non-charged, depending on its own attributes (sound familiar?). It’s when the balance changes that something happens.
Fashion as a chemical reaction neatly sums this up. 'Fashion is a space in which people are negotiating between individual and group identity,' says Jay McCauley Bowstead, associate lecturer in cultural and historical studies at London College of Fashion. 'You can see that in youth cultures and subcultures, people are defining themselves, values and interests.'
Displayed via visual metaphor, Christos Papadopoulos’ Ion does just this; the dancers engage with each other, magnetised and repelled just as style, fashion and trends bring us together or pull us apart. In seeking and defining our identity, we go through our own ionising process. 'What you wear is a sartorial code that someone understands,' defines Tory Turk, an independent curator specialising in style and popular culture, and head archivist at the Hyman Archive, the world’s largest magazine collection. 'It’s a way to read someone, you instantly know what they are about – the music they listen to, the places they shop.' Essentially akin to those protons and electrons sending out messages.
And this is something we’ve long been doing, identifiably since the eighteenth century at least. Look at the Dandy in London and Les Incroyables in Paris, aristocratic subcultures defined by their desire for decadence and ostentation. 'They signalled a rupture in the culture,' explains McCauley Bowstead. Later came the Bright Young Things of the twenties and thirties. Bohemia aside, the common ground of all was their affluence, which enabled them to behave a certain way and live a certain lifestyle – one which distinctly kept the numbers down to those of sub proportion, and thus distinguished them from the masses.
Contemporaneously, while wealth in its monetary form is not necessarily a prerequisite for any kind of fashion group identity (though one could argue, potentially, the money-doesn’t-buy-you-taste category), the concept of 'wealth' in the broader sense does remain central. In that by being a part of a certain group, tribe or collective, you are in some way enriched, be that culturally, socially, politically, sexually; or that you have enough wealth of knowledge – again be that culturally, socially, politically of sexually - to be a part of it. There’s a level of idealism, hedonism and aspiration beyond the everyday, beyond necessity. Which is what fashion has always been about.
'Trainers were the first item of clothing I can remember actively really wanting, rather than just wearing,' recalls Andy, who works in advertising. 'Nike were always top of the list, either the Air Huarache or Air Max were the ones to get. They looked amazing, unlike anything else – the Air Max had visible air bubbles on the sole! As I progressed into my teens the list would change to incorporate trainers I felt embodied more of an alternative lifestyle.' In walk the One Star by Converse. 'A pair I can remember wanting because every grunge and indie band I was into wore them. If you’re into the music, you’re into the shoes, then the rest.' Exactly. It’s about identification and wanting to belong - to something cool, which has always been a governing body of fashion. Always.
As, to a degree, has music. Turk points out: 'Style is a component of identity, music often comes first with subcultures.' What’s interesting about music as a tool in fashioning the body is it is at once liberating - as per the above anecdote, and countless music-related scenes throughout the past from Punk to the New Romantics and beyond - as it potentially isn’t.
'The notion of authenticity is problematic. Think about the places they [subcultures] appear and it tends to be commercial spaces, people making identity by buying music, going to night clubs or record shops. There’s a tension because subcultures are always reliant on commercial cultures,' points out McCauley Bowstead. In so doing, he taps into the point made by Christopher Breward in his book, Fashion: 'There is of course an inevitability about the ability of the fashion trade to incorporate its critics and market their rebellion as the next commodity.' (2003, p.166)
It’s a question of context. Take the fashion flock of today as they peacock around outside the international catwalk shows; their attire shrieks of any number of possible zeitgeist uniforms or standard fashion sub-genre garb; it tends to be directional, makes itself known. On any other day than fashion week, they’ll court attention because of this, stand out in a crowd. But come fashion week, they blend as one. And it becomes she or he whose clothes slip into the streets unknown on any other given day whose style in fact shouts the loudest.
But even the fashion flock has been appropriated so that one can click onto any e-tail site and 'shop their look'. What once might have been considered as, or had the beginnings of a subculture has now become commercialised, available to everyone in a copy-and-paste pastiche or formula, as has of course happened before. 'Punks moved inexorably into the cycle of commodification it had set out to subvert,' further writes Breward. (2003, p.225)
And most recently, we have seen that happen with skatewear and streetwear. As they stepped back into the limelight as having a rekindled currency of cool, fashion designers for whom that subculture had never been a part of their DNA decided to try it out for their latest collection. Which seemed strange. McCauley Bowstead notes: 'The conversation between street and catwalk is more instantaneous.' And that falls largely down to one thing: social media. Instagram.
'Now the lines are blurred, the visual audience is much broader, the reach of what you can see – you can be influenced by so much now,' says Sam McCoach, the designer behind Le Kilt, a brand of its own micro-culture beginnings, built upon ready-to-wear kilts originally made by her gran. 'You used to have to investigate and consciously decide, but now it’s all so accessible. It’s harder to have a strong sense of identity than it used to be.'
Indeed, you used to have to know about the gigs, meet people at the gigs, permeate that world in order to be a part of it. There was a physicality involved. But now by the power of your phone, you can dabble. 'It’s too easy to be a part of something, to be someone different each day,' says Turk. Though she notes there is a defining factor. 'Subculture has a style element that is essential to them; fashion you don’t need such a strong identification component. It’s more fleeting, more so because it’s attached to commerciality.' Subcultures are built on sustained rituals and ingredients, therefore. Fashion not so much.
But it makes for a crunch point all round. And this would be where the atom or molecule changes. When something becomes too mass, too copied and ends up pastiche, it can lose its intended value (be that culturally, politically, socially, sexually); it’s time to move on, the balance of energy now out of sync.
'If we think about the avant-garde members of subculture, it’s an attempt to overturn a hierarchy of taste,' explains McCauley Bowstead. 'What you could suggest they’re [subcultures] doing is reverse discourse, taking the unattractive and the undesirable and transforming it into badges of pride.' This ultimately is what keeps fashion moving forward, reactions prompting progression and new standpoints.
The advent of teenagers is a case in point, with their own disposable income and a new world dawning, they didn’t want to go straight from children to adults, they didn’t want to dress like their parents. But there aren’t just teenagers to contend with today, there are millennials, Gen Z et al, a continuous stream of buzzwords seeking to define us as we try to do so ourselves. Are we the cause or the consequence? What comes first: the clothes or the identity?
From a designer’s point of view, this throws up some interesting insight. 'Character is everything,' says Charles Jeffrey of Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY, a brand which is arguably the closest thing London has to reviving any kind of subculture since the neon days of New Rave. 'My design process almost always begins with an exploration into identity. I’m always thinking about a cast of characters,' he says. 'When I think about the people who’ve inspired me most since I was a kid – not just in fashion – it’s a lot of those people who’ve had such a sense of self that’ve started movements. I’m drawn to that. I guess, ultimately, serving good looks will always get people excited.' One shouldn’t overlook the feel-good factor in the motivation behind getting dressed. 'I think as long as it’s [what he does being perceived as fitting into a style tribe] not something exclusive, something intimidating or cold, the idea of people celebrating and emulating each other’s style is fabulous.'
Eden Loweth and Tom Barratt of Art School, another of London’s more collectively-underpinned offerings explain: 'The identity always preludes the clothes.' And, so they begin within their own circle of friends, who inform and develop their looks. 'Essentially individuality and personal identity is one of the cornerstones of Art School’s message. We feel it’s really important that our work isn’t solely reflective of us but reflects the identities of the people we work with, who walk for us and inspire what we do,' says Loweth.
Fashion’s relationship with identity can be a little like fashion’s relationship with the environment: in both existing, they find themselves at odds against one another, yet also aids to each other, forces of inspiration and innovation, but there’s never going to be a definitive answer. Only many and another (big) number of avenues to explore. This essay could have gone on and on and has only scratched the surface on a topic that affects us every day, goes beyond it even, but always begins every morning when we get dressed. What shall I wear?
Breward, Christopher; Fashion, Oxford University Press, (2003)