Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive

Analysis of a Frock Coat by Rei Kawakubo Part II

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by Jordan Nguyen 

frc_coats_2006-01-023_bck_web

Women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Commes des Garcons, ca.1990  FRC2006.01.023

In Part I of this analysis, I considered the construction of the frock coat. Part II will offer reflection and interpretation of this garment in terms of Rei Kawakubo’s continuing influence in design. Japanese design aesthetics, gender neutrality, and feminist interpretations.

As Kawakubo was never trained as a designer, she was able to envision fashion from an unrestricted perspective and was able to “break the mold of conventions that define a fine quality garment” (Kawamura 134). Her unconventional approach to design required collaboration between herself and her seamstresses who were taught how to sew together complicated pattern pieces and garments (Kawamura 133). This conflicted with traditional standards of construction but nonetheless contributed to the designer’s creative design process which challenged her workers. While western styles embraced form-fitting silhouettes that accentuated the contours of the body, Japanese aesthetics rejected this (Kawamura, 137). Kawakubo traces one of her fundamental influences to kimonos which are “geared towards a contourless body” (Kawamura 137). The oversized silhouette of the garment conceals the body in modesty rather than displaying sexuality. This value is evidently seen applied to the length of the frock coat which ends at the knee as well as the narrow depth of the collar.

Western theory suggests that fashion changes in women’s dress occur as a result of “shifting erogenous zones” which entails women to uncover different parts of the body selectively in order to attract men” (Tortora et al. 5). The kimono acts adversely, showcasing femininity in an understated demeanor. Kawakubo states that she “designs for strong women who attract men with their minds rather than their bodies” (English 73). With a greater interest in reconstructing proportion, space, and volume (English 76), Kawakubo sought to question the Western fashion formality.

FRC_Coats_2006.01.023_B34_Web

Women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Commes des Garcons. C. 1990.             FRC 2006.01.023

Certain features of the coat design suggest a concurrent theme in Kawakubo’s work: gender neutrality. The designer’s applied concept of a frock coat to womenswear blatantly rejects the extravagantly feminine and body-conscious fashions of the decade. Kawakubo translated the style into a statement womenswear piece that demonstrates the fluidity of gender as well as challenges gender-specified fashion. The monochromatic colour of the tailcoat presents the 1990s woman in a new light that defies stereotypical perceptions of women in fashion. The placement of the cut-out suggests a certain sensuality to the garment but also serves as a paradox to the rest of the garment which embodies a formal and dominant presence. The design was viewed as impractical and unconventional, but the designer had different goals in mind, ones that would launch a new avant-garde view of fashion on the restricted and traditional 1980s Paris stage.

FRC_Coats_2006.01.023_FRT_Web

Women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Commes des Garcons. C. 1990.             FRC 2006.01.023

The boxy and oversized silhouette of the tailcoat induced radical criticism in response to the masculine figuration it created which was not embraced in the period. The tailcoat features large shoulder pads which broaden the dimension of the garment (See Figure 16). Its front closure is “buttoned from left to right, comme des garçons” (Fukai et al. 161), which conflicts with traditional closures on women’s clothing. Kawakubo’s work was seen as a form of anti-fashion when it was introduced to the Paris runways, and the concepts of minimalism, intended imperfection in design, spontaneity, reconstruction, and deconstruction in design seemed foreign and inaccessible. The spaciousness of the garment was also an unfamiliar aspect in comparison to other fashions of the period. Kawakubo considered the functional quality of the garment and created a fit that would accommodate for movement and ease. This consideration is linked to the practical importance of kimonos in which they were worn to live in. Their genderless appearance and equated elements of design are associated with the unisex nature of Kawakubo’s designs. The designer once mentioned, “it is the space between the fabric and the body that is most important” (English 72). Her directives and influences in fashion were much different than those of other designers who presented at Paris fashion week. Kawakubo’s approach to womenswear blurred the lines of gender and sexuality in an industry that was quick to mark gender difference (Entwistle 135), and denote what constituted as high-fashion.

The issues that the Japanese feminist movement brought to attention factored into the influences that Kawakubo used to redefine women through her visual conceptions. The movement sought for emancipation and equality between genders in terms of education and employment. Efforts were made to advance women’s studies as well as counter the sexism apparent in the mass media (English 69). From changing “women’s consciousness of themselves as women…to seeking visible changes in social institutions” (English 69), feminism was calling for reform in societal perceptions and regulations. In her designs, Kawakubo commented on the Western representation of the body and its concept of sartorial beauty. Fashion’s seemingly superficial image was confronted by the psychologically complex creations of the Japanese designer who implemented meaning and narrative into her work. Kawakubo uses fashion as a means to propel women into states of independence, dignity and strength.

The designer claimed, “fashion design is not about revealing or accentuating the shape of a woman’ body, its purpose is to allow a person to be what they are” (Kawamura 137). The black frock coat extends beyond a fashionable garment in the way that it reflects these powerful qualities in a woman of fashion. This is a matter of enclothed cognition in which clothing influences the way people feel and act in reponse to the “symbolic meaning of the dress and the physical experience of wearing that dress item” (Johnson et al. 28). This intuitive approach of implementing meaning into fashion was seen as avant-garde. A term commonly associated with the designer, Kawakubo’s work complied with its three qualities in definition: work such that “redefines artistic conventions, utilizes new artistic tools and techniques, and refines the nature of the art object” (Kawamura 130). In the innovative design and construction of the garment, its use of an experimentally produced gold-polyester-wool-fused textile, along with its mindful and historical associations, Kawakubo’s tailcoat can be classified as an avant-garde garment from the 1990s.

Upon my analysis of the garment in the Ryerson FRC, the tailcoat seemed to evoke a sense of mystery. I felt a tension between hard austerity and delicate fragility while examining the design. It was an emotional response and led me to research about the designer’s background and historical influences which contributed to its creation.

Kawakubo was born on October 11, 1942 in the post-war period. It was a time when Japan was beginning to emerge beyond the destruction of its country. Due to the colonization by Americans, many Japanese traditions of life were discarded. Instead of opting to modernize traditional Japanese dress, natives were forced to adapt to more Western ideals of fashion. Kawakubo’s work incorporates stylistic influences from traditional Japanese fashion with efforts to “re-instill a respect for traditional cultural traits” (English 69). Such can be noted in the silhouette of select designs which replicate or are based on the kimono. The tailcoat embodies this quality in its boxy, loose-fitting, and flared figure.

The modern appearance of Rei Kawakubo’s black tailcoat from the 1990’s to the current era is no coincidence. The designer captured the zeitgeist, “spirit of the times” (Tortora et al. 7) much earlier than other designers could have foretold. Oversized and boxy silhouettes have seemed to become a global trend and is celebrated widely today as an alternative look to stereotypically feminine fashion styles. Kawakubo paved the way for further experimentation with gender-neutral dress and creativity in design. Her shows continue to shock fashion press, and her designs leave fashion experts puzzled and perplexed. In continuing to reinvent the future of fashion at the age of 74, Kawakubo states, “we must break away from conventional forms of dress for the new woman of today” (Mears, 100). Her influence in the world of fashion is undeniable and just as the black tailcoat created a radical impact in the early 1980s, her innovative creations continue to challenge the conventions of beauty and design.

Works Cited

Bane, Allyne. Tailoring. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print

English, Bonnie. “Japanese Fashion Designers: The Work and Influence of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo”. London: Berg, 2011. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body. 1st ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000. Print.

Fukai, Akiko, Catherine Ince, and Rie Nii. Future Beauty. London: Merrell, 2010. Print.

Garber, Megan. “Why Women’s Shirt Buttons are on the Left and Men’s are on the Right”. The Atlantic. N.p., 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.

Johnson, Kim, Sharron J Lennon, and Nancy Rudd. “Dress, Body and Self: Research In The Social Psychology Of Dress”. Fashion and Textiles 1.1 (2014): 1-24. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.

Kawamura, Yuniya. The Japanese Revolution In Paris Fashion. Oxford [England]: Berg, 2004. Print.

Mears, Patricia. “Exhibiting Asia: The Global Impact of Japanese Fashion In Museums And Galleries”. http://www.tandfonline.com/. N.p., 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Mida, Ingrid and Alexandra Kim. The Dress Detective. 1st ed. York [Ontario]: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print.

Pamela Roskin. “Kawakubo, Rei.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Tortora, Phyllis G and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume. New York, NY: Fairchild Publications, 2010. Print.

This post was written by Jordan Nguyen for FSN302 and has been edited by Ingrid Mida, Acting Curator FRC. This coat was also featured in the case study of a Man’s Evening Suit in The Dress Detective (see Figure 9.17 p.155-157). 

Author: Ingrid Mida

Curator, Dress Historian, Collection Co-ordinator of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, Part-time Lecturer, Lead Author of "The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide on How to do Object-based Research in Fashion."

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