Read my Clothes

Clothes have a lot to say. They speak about our cultural origins, our socioeconomic status, our gender, our age, and even our moral values. Increasingly, it is not enough to let the cut of cloth speak on a wearer’s behalf. Designers want their garments to express linguistic meaning.

Little Factory Lowercase Scarf

Little Factory’s Lowercase scarf uses individual letters instead of whole words, employing letters as shapes rather than the components of a particular written message.

Prominent brand labels have been present on the outside of clothing since sportswear became leisurewear in the 1950s and 60s. Small designer emblems began to appear on the outside of sports attire in the first half of the twentieth century. When it became fashionable to wear sports attire in non-sporting situations, the emblem moved into a fashion environment. Clothes by brands such as Ralph Lauren and Lacoste, which had associations with elite sports, began to be worn as fashion. By the 1980s, other brands had followed suit. Among the first was Georgio Armani, closely followed by brands such as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Espirit. When used by these other brands, logos grew in size, even to the extent that they became the dominant decoration on many garments. Louis Vuitton’s Monogram Multicore (designed by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami for Autumn/Winter 2003) displays a pattern structured largely from sequential repetition of the LV logo. [1]

Meanwhile, slogans began to appear on t-shirts. Such slogans are explicit messages to stay away or move closer. They are either designed to provoke offense (as with Vivienne Westwood’s earliest experiments), or to invite the reader to peer deeply into the wearer’s soul. There are, of course, clothes that achieve both, being offensive to some and inviting to others. ‘I wish these were brains’ emblazoned across a chest is invitation to objectify the wearer; to stare intently at her breasts and simultaneously draw conclusions about her lack of intellectual assets. Such messages are a warning sign to some, and an invitation to others.

As design has become increasingly self-referential, t-shirt slogans have begun to reference the practice of typography. Many now assume knowledge of typefaces (see, for example, ‘The United Weights of Helvetica’ below). Laser-cutting and 3D printing technologies have allowed these typographic references to appear in jewellery too. Plastique’s acrylic Kern ring set features the letters ‘ke’ and ‘rn’ on two separate rings, enabling wearers to replicate the process of typographic kerning (specific letter-spacing), by opening and closing the gaps between their fingers.

helvetica t-shirt

This t-shirt slogan makes reference to typeface weights.

kern rings

Plastique’s acrylic Kern ring set allows wearers to replicate the process of kerning by separating their fingers.

Over the last few decades, typographers have developed their understanding of letterforms. They now understand letters as subject: not just the signs of verbal messages, but objects in their own right. While the typed letter remains a flat sign, as object, the letter escapes the confines of the page and can be experienced as a tangible form. Typographic objects have two identities, being simultaneously word and object. As clothing, letters have practical functions that are often unrelated to their linguistic meaning.

Daphne Heemskerk’s poem necklace

Daphne Heemskerk’s poem necklace.

Daphne Heemskerk’s poem necklace is among many similar products that elevate the t-shirt slogan to new heights. Jewellery is generally considered to be more significant that other clothes, not just because it tends to be more valuable, but also because it is often given as a gift or inherited, imbuing it with personal significance. As jewellery, this typographic object is assumed to be more precious than a t-shirt slogan, and its linguistic message is therefore considered more valuable or meaningful. Just as the wearer might treasure a diamond or pearl, she treasures the sentiments of this poem.

By presenting an entire poem in this way, the wearer invites others to observe her body at length. Observers are invited to ponder the poem’s message, and also what it says about the wearer’s innermost feelings. The necklace draws a tangible connection between a poet’s sentiments and the wearer’s inner self. In this way, it exposes the wearer to a more precise interpretation of her emotional state than any plain clothes ever could.

Viktor and Rolf Fall 2008

Viktor and Rolf’s Fall 2008 collection heavily featured the word ‘No’, presented as a bold instruction to observers.

Viktor and Rolf have incorporate more abrupt linguistic messages into their designs. Their Fall 2008 collection presented short, sharp messages to observers, in three-dimensional and embroidered forms of ‘no’, ‘dream’ and ‘wow’. The word ‘no’ appeared most frequently in the collection, perhaps as in protest against the perceived sexual availability of models or other women in aesthetic labour. Though observers have been invited to stare at these clothes, and the women who model them on the catwalk, it is the clothes, not the women, who are for sale.

Perhaps Viktor and Rolf’s collection is necessary because women are tired of saying ‘no’. By presenting linguistic messages on their clothes, wearers are able to stay silent. They can express themselves very precisely without the effort of conversation. This offers a kind of freedom.

Perhaps too, this is an inevitable companion to social media. We have become so accustomed to broadcasting our feelings on Twitter and Facebook, that we feel too anonymous if we are not attached to some kind of linguistic message. We feel the need to explicitly express our values and emotions to anyone, whether they want to listen or not, and clothes are just another way of doing this.

[1] Giambarrase, Nicole (2010) ‘Intellectual Property Comment: The Look for Less: A Survey of Intellectual Property Protections in the Fashion Industry’, Touro Law Review [online], Vol. 26, pp.243-285.

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