Thursday, 25 September 2008
The Yellow Wallpaper
I don't usually post my column in Stella on this blog -- though I will if people want me to. But I thought I'd include this week's, because it's got a bookish element to it. I always try and look at fashion sideways in the column; I'm as interested in Hans Christian Andersen's take on red shoes as Christian Louboutin's.
Anyway, Virago are producing a new edition of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; it's not out yet, but will be available in the New Year, with a brilliant introduction by Maggie O'Farrell.
In the meantime -- fashion takes inspiration from 'The Yellow Wallpaper"; unlikely, I know, but then both are infused with insanity...
What has fashion got to do with madness? Everything, you might declare, as a sceptic; or nothing, if you’re a true believer in fashion as an arbiter of all that is beautiful. But whatever your feelings on the matter, it turns out to be very much on the agenda this autumn, because Marios Schwab – one of the most influential London designers – has produced a collection inspired by ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a novella about insanity.
First published in 1892, it was written by an early feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, based in part on her own experience, and tells the story of a nameless woman who is driven mad after the birth of her child. During an enforced confinement by her doctor husband to a bedroom in a country mansion, the narrator becomes obsessed with the peeling wallpaper: “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin… The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow…” The tale is an masterpiece of eeriness, with a narrator who believes she can see a woman’s outline beneath the sinister patterns of the wallpaper, and finally that she herself is one of the “creeping women” imprisoned behind its monstrous, gothic design.
You might think this a perverse starting point for a 21st century designer (and it’s undeniably peculiar); but nevertheless, Marios Schwab has come up with a collection hailed by fashion critics as defining the latest aesthetic, a long and narrow silhouette. In practical terms – not that his clothes are in any sense practical – this translates as a tubular dress stretching down to the ankles, so constrictively cut that it forces the wearer to hobble. Thus the woman in the dress is as confined as the narrator of Gilman’s novella; and Schwab draws further parallels through his use of strangely textured and shredded fabric, as if creating a new version of peeling Victorian wallpaper.
It’s hard to know what to make of this. Schwab’s brief comment, aside from citing ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as inspiration, is that the narrow dresses are “so fitted against the body that although the figure is entirely enclosed, it stands revealed.” This is intriguing on a conceptual level – for here is a contemporary male designer absorbing the message of a nineteenth century feminist writer, and then reinterpreting it as a modernist statement of his own – but I’m not sure Charlotte Perkins Gilman would have approved. For these are dresses that act as a literal means of preventing women from making strides forward; and might that not be a backward step?