Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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An analysis of a woman’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo Part 1

By Jordan Nguyen

The following object analysis will focus on a black women’s frock coat by Rei Kawakubo dating from the early 1990s (FRC2006.01.023). Upon first glance, the garment appears ordinary and minimalistic in its design. The lengthened overcoat bears no features which demand imperative attention, and it seems undistinguishable from current times. It is only upon further examination that one takes note of the subtle details and design choices utilized by the designer. Exploration will reveal Kawakubo’s trademarks in fashion creation, her conceptual approach, and her values which link to her sense of self. Placing the garment in its historical context will also trace back to the major impact Kawakubo created in the fashion industry at the time of her arrival in Paris – 1981 – and her continuing influence in design. Japanese design aesthetics, gender neutrality, and feminist interpretations will be discussed.

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This analysis has been divided into two posts. The first post will focus on the aesthetics and construction of the garment (the description phase of object-based analysis as per Checklist 1 of The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion.

The frock coat is made of a black wool fabric with an incorporated gold metallic polyester weave. Kawakubo is noted for creating innovative textiles that combine natural and artificial fibres as well as for using modified production methods (Kawamura 134). A raised diagonal grain is evident in the textile which creates a visual glimmering effect. The fabric is of a heavier weight and holds a crisp edge. The coat’s exceptional condition may be attributed to the durability of the wool blend as it shows very few signs of wear. As a whole, the garment appears to have maintained its potent black colour. Kawakubo’s design features a two-piece lapel collar, slightly-flared straight sleeves, a welt pocket on the left breast, two flapped pockets on each side of the coat, a back cut-out, and a four-button front closure.

The coat contains several labels: a “Rei Kawakubo” label, a label for “COMME des GARÇONS CO.,LTD.” – the name under which Kawakubo’s brand was marketed; a tag indicating size medium marked “M”; contents and care tags, and a Ryerson FRC label. The text on the contents label has visibly faded. It contains both English and French, and its backside also includes Japanese text. Visual symbols are evident which indicate care instructions. It can be noted that although the fabric features a blend of wool and polyester, the tag states that the garment is made of 100% wool. The coat is in pristine condition.

Additional design components are observed on the coat. The collar’s left lapel contains an unpierced buttonhole without a corresponding button on the right lapel. The sleeves contain fake plackets which emerge from one of the seams of the sleeves and appears as flaps containing two buttons. Upon lifting the flaps of the side pockets, a button is evident which secures the interior of the pocket closed.

In examining the interior of the coat, the back neck facing contains a band feature above the brand label allowing for it to be hooked on to a hanger. The entire garment is lined in black polyester fabric including the pockets and the sleeves. The center back seam of the lining features a back pleat; this pleat allowance accommodates for freedom of movement in the shoulder area (Bane 300). Hand stitching has been used to clean finish the hem of the garment as well as to secure the lining to the sleeve armholes. In all other areas, machine-stitching has been implemented for efficiency, consistency, and durability.

It is in the examination of the construction and tailoring of the garment that we see traces of the innovative essence of Rei Kawakubo. Merging traditional techniques and Japanese avant-garde aesthetics, the garment creates an innovative boxy and oversized silhouette while maintaining a semi-fitted form. The tailoring of the torso is executed with princess lines – “shaped seams which serve the function of darts” (Bane 103). Following the curves of the body, the seams run from the armhole to the hem of the coat. Towards the bottom, the princess lines fold into the flare points of the garment and transition into a less fitted silhouette.

Complexity is evident in the manner in which the seams coincide with design elements on the coat. The rounded seams of the princess lines are interrupted by a welt pocket on the left breast as well as the flap pockets on the sides. The side seams of the garment also end after they approach the flap pockets from the armhole. This indicates that Kawakubo’s design contains many more pattern panels than a traditional overcoat. An additional panel next to the side seams continues the front of the garment to a partial amount on the back before it ends and makes way for perhaps the most interesting feature of the garment – the back cut-out. Creating a long rectangular void, it is clean finished with a yoke and creates the appearance of two panels on the sides of the garment which extend to the front body of the tailcoat.

In considering the sleeves, instead of a singular seam connecting to the side seam of the coat, two seams appear on both sides of where one would normally appear. This innovative construction method allows for shaping in the sleeve’s silhouette. The interior lining of the coat reveals the different pieces and panels of the garment based on the seam delineations. Its assembly would have required careful planning in the order of operations when sewn in order to ensure that all of the raw seams would be hidden. Finishings have been applied neatly in consideration of the complex structure of the garment which is disguised in its black entirety.

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. F

ukai, 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.

Part II will be posted later this week and continue the analysis.

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). 


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Looking forward and back – The Summer of 2016 in the FRC

The halls of Kerr Hall West have been quiet over the summer. And yet, behind the closed doors of the FRC, there has been a hub of activity. I have been doing inventory and updating the catalogue, processing donations, fielding loan requests and research questions from around the world.

In part that level of interest in the collection can be attributed to the release of The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion in November 2015. This book, which I co-wrote with Alexandra Kim, highlights some of the many treasures in the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson and also includes a checklist-based approach to object-based research in fashion. Sold round the world and on the shelves of several prominent European museums including the V&A Museum in London as well as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, this book has transformed Ryerson’s little-known collection of dress artifacts into a place that international scholars want to visit.

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Cover of The Dress Detective, Cover Image by Ingrid Mida

This summer I welcomed scholars from as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom who come to study objects in the collection. I also fielded research inquiries from the USA, Japan, UK, and Australia. There is no doubt that the FRC is a hidden jewel within Ryerson.

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Sarah Casey at work drawing artifacts in the FRC, Photo Ingrid Mida, May 2016

A memorable event for me was the visit of artist and prof Dr. Sarah Casey from the United Kingdom. Sarah has drawn artifacts from the collections of Kensington Palace and also at the Bowes Museum in the UK. She uses these drawings as a way of expressing ideas of temporality. After reading The Dress Detective and finding an affinity for the “Slow Approach to Seeing”, Sarah came across the pond for a visit – not once, but twice this summer. She drew a variety of artifacts from the collection, including gloves, bonnets, 19th century undergarments, and an exquisite 19th century two-piece gown.

What all these pieces shared in common was that they had been somewhat forgotten – not often requested or considered “important” as artifacts. Sarah drew these pieces and time will tell how she transforms lines on paper into something else altogether. This collaboration brought me back to my roots – as an artist – and reminded me that creativity is part of who I am and what has led me to this place. I have rekindled my drawing practice with a curator’s sketchbook and have resumed drawing as a meditation and as a research tool.

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Curator’s Sketchbook by Ingrid Mida 2015.99.002A

It is a pleasure and privilege to be able to share the many wondrous objects in the FRC with students, faculty and visiting scholars.

What is your area of research? Have you thought of visiting the FRC?