• Devyani Aggarwal

Fantasy x Function: the fashion collab we all know and need

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

Fashion has always been functional. What does that mean for a post-pandemic world?

What do bomber jackets, sneakers and masks have in common?

More than one would typically imagine, it turns out. For starters, all of these items were invented at least one hundred years ago. Each one of them was developed, designed and constructed to serve a very specific professional function in the varied fields of military, sport and medicine. Bomber jackets kept pilots warm, dry and agile during wartime. Sneakers gave athletes the perfect grip and bounce for long-distance running. Masks protected doctors and nurses from disease transmission during surgery.

Fast forward to present day. I can easily picture one person sporting all three items in a single streetwear look, albeit with no connection whatsoever to military, sport or medicine. Some items, perhaps over time, become such mainstays in fashion vocabulary that we forget to consider their pasts.

Take, for instance, the most recent addition to the outfit of my imaginary fashion icon – the surgical mask. How and when did it become a part of street style? And what role did fashion play in giving the mask such appeal?

The answer lies in the so-far brief and ongoing history of the global pandemic that is Covid-19. In the face of this devastating crisis, medical professionals all over the world have faced an overwhelming shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). The fashion industry, in response, has made a prompt and impressive effort to aid the manufacture and global supply of said equipment. Christian Siriano, one of early responders, promptly repurposed his manufacturing units when Governor Andrew Cuomo revealed a short supply of masks for healthcare workers in New York. Ever since, many other American fashion companies such as the PHV Corp (which owns both Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein), ThirdLove, Revolve, Brandon Maxwell and others have followed suit. In Europe, where a majority of fashion’s luxury giants are headquartered, the response has been similarly remarkable. Every big name in the industry – Versace, Gucci, Chanel, Fendi and Prada among many others – has contributed to the fight against the pandemic as have smaller boutique labels. This news does not even begin to significantly cover the extent to which fashion has risen to the specific challenges of this pandemic with alacrity and grace. Both small and big players in the industry have dedicated factories and production units around the world to produce not only masks but also hand sanitizers, overalls, medical gowns, safety goggles, undergarments, gloves, scrubs and other PPE for medical professionals. And now, as public health and safety guidelines rigorously prescribe masks for public use, production targets are expanding to cover the broad new market.

What started as crisis response has slowly transformed into the full-fledged production cycle of a new fashion item, which now has its own identity and versatility. It all got me thinking: what, in fact, is the role of fashion in boosting professional performance? And once it achieves this endeavor, how does that success influence other subcultures and mainstream, civilian clothing?

To find out more, I turned to a trusted source: human history. I discovered that – like the mask, the bomber jacket and the sneaker – several “stylish” and “trendy” items in the modern closet have origins that have nothing to do with either style or trend.

Take for instance another example: the humble ballet flat, an undisputed wardrobe staple. Before the French Revolution, ballet was performed with heeled shoes which made it impossible for dancers to perform many of the leaping ballet movements that, today, characterize this ethereal dance form. The removal of heels from ballet shoes birthed a design invention that made flexible, easy foot movement possible for dancers. Later on, this “pointe shoe” would come to be adapted as the ballet flat, which women now commonly wear in workspaces and social gatherings, perhaps for a different kind of flexibility and ease in movement. Another popular adaptation of performance-enhancing technology is a global trend we all know too well: athleisure. Running tights and windbreakers were originally designed for to provide comfort and dexterity for the optimal performance of athletes in particular sports. But today, they are frequently worn by non-athletes, far away from athletic practices and competitions. Undoubtedly, the adoption of more fitness-conscious lifestyles and increasingly relaxed workwear protocols have resulted in the integration of sportswear into mainstream clothing. Their inherent comfort and newfound fashionable status make such items bestsellers. This enthusiastic global embrace of “athleisure” has given sportswear not only a different kind of utility but also a more venerable identity in our culture. The creative genius of some brands has been instrumental in feeding the resulting high demand. Polo shirts, cycling shorts, yoga pants and basketball sneakers, after all, were more or less absent from high fashion till brands such as Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, Lululemon and Nike used their marketing skills to give them new meaning and relevance.

This kind of adaptation, however, is not reserved for high street brands: luxury fashion and couture, too, often draw inspiration from vocation-specific apparel. For Calvin Klein’s Fall 2018 collection, for instance, Raf Simons dressed models in garments made with heat-resistant fabric, specialized zippers, rubber boots and protective headgear – the very features that make bunker gear exceptionally suitable for firefighters. Sure, in doing this, he expressed his own creative vision. But, in the process, he also gave the fireman’s uniform a voice it never knew it could have.

Will medical PPE see a similar future? Silvia Venturini Fendi did hint at the possibility in an interview with Business of Fashion, suggesting that “the future of fashion lies in smart clothing, from T-shirts that measure someone’s blood pressure …[to]… gloves that calculate oxygen saturation.” While these ideas are cutting edge and exciting, only time will tell how the pandemic will tangibly change the currents of post-modern fashion and style.

Coming back to our original question: what finally is the connection between fashion and professional performance?

During my research, I learnt that the technical term for such an intersection is “functional fashion.” A tragically honest first reaction: it sounds…kind of boring…and kind of…not really fashion. I forced myself to push harder and produce a second reaction. Why is functional fashion boring? Why is it “not fashion”? Are we conditioned to dismiss the attachment of “function” (as opposed to fantasy) to our image of “real fashion”?

On the one hand, fashion is fantastic. The element of spectacle gives fashion its glamorous, striking appeal. Some runway moments can stun you. Some red-carpet creations can truly blow your mind. Some streetwear styles can inspire you like nothing you have ever seen. Some pieces of costume in a film or TV show can overwhelm you with awe.

In a post-pandemic world, however, the world of fashion must be admired and respected for more than its purely sensual appeal. With death and disease lurking around the corner, such conditioning will have to rapidly undo itself. Throughout our history, the functional aspect of fashion has been a massively important but underrated aspect of its identity. It must now be visibly and vocally appreciated so that the fashion industry can help society fight the perils of modern times. How we do this will be an interesting topic to follow in the coming weeks, months and years.

Notwithstanding, fashion will perhaps always be an escape route, something that evokes desire. But desire is not and cannot be a permanent fixture in our lives. Function, however, always will be. And if fashion can fuel our ephemeral desires, it can certainly help us function better on a regular basis.

Originally published on Art & Style

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