Columns on fashion, culture and ideas

Men's Fashion / An Intellectual Fashion

Harold Koda

In his column, Donatien Grau speaks to prominent thinkers and creatives about fashion and its connections to contemporary creativity

Harold Koda
Harold Koda Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harold Koda is one of the most prestigious figures of the New York fashion world. Having first trained with Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art...

Harold Koda is one of the most prestigious figures of the New York fashion world. Having first trained with Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he then served as associate curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, returning to the Met, only to leave, in an infamously surprising move, to study landscape architecture at Harvard University, after which he was called on by Met Director Philippe de Montebello to head the Costume Institute, a job he still does today. A discreet living legend, Harold Koda has curated and co-curated numerous iconic shows, including the ground-breaking Armani retrospective at the Guggenheim, and the recent Schiaparelli/Prada exhibition at the Metropolitan.

How would you connect fashion to elegance?
Fashion is a cyclical, forward moving system of invention and obsolescence. Often the invention is actually a kind of revisiting, renewal or re-invention, but whatever the case, obsolescence is inevitably fashion’s fate. Since the 19th century, we have had a Western fashion system characterized by an accelerated temporality, and ephemerality. Within this constantly shifting phenomenon, the concept of elegance presents an ideal of non-trend-driven appearance at its most highly refined and evolved. But even the standards for elegance never really transcend fashion because determination of its criteria is always contingent on what is in fashion, as there is no such thing as an immutable fashion that transcends change.  Taste shifts and evolves, and with it our clearly subjective notions of elegance. This is not saying that elegance can’t be a repudiation of contemporaneous fashions, but it is necessarily in the context of fashion that the concept originates.

"Fashion is a cyclical, forward moving system of invention and obsolescence. Often the invention is actually a kind of revisiting, renewal or re-invention, but whatever the case, obsolescence is inevitably fashion’s fate."

What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
The study of fashion reveals useful historical markers over time, as with any artifact or example of material culture. Ideas of gender, status, class hierarchies, national and regional differences, technical innovation, aesthetics, etc., are embodied in dress. Art history often provides evidentiary representation of fashion, often of periods and styles which no longer survive as actual examples. Very simply, I see fashion as one layer of understanding of historical periods, with art history’s relation to fashion as a supplementary augmentation of that understanding. My interests, though anchored in the historical, can sometimes seem somewhat hermetic in that I am one of those dinosaur “formalists” as defined by art historians. A purely formalist approach can appear estranged from any other conceptual narratives, but of course nothing can ever be completely isolated, whatever the analytical methodologies employed, from what precedes it.

Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did?
I would, but perhaps less theoretically and more prosaically or literally. As with all languages, fashion can be astonishingly revelatory if we understand its vocabulary. Because fashion operates as a social mechanism, when we dress, even if we think we are dressing for our own pleasure, we are essentially representing a view of ourselves to everyone else who sees us. It is a communication that often precedes our actual speech. Wielded with intelligence, fashion is a powerful tool. Whether it is Elizabeth I dressed for a state portrait with a deliberately constructed iconography of power, a thug in a black shirt, or a woman wearing a tight suit with fishnet hose, fashion’s potency as communication is inarguable.

The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress.  Does fashion have a political role?  And if so, in what way?
The most rudimentary way that fashion is politicized is when it operates as a sign of affinity or exception, declaring “us” or “them,” “me” or you, the “other.” Unless there is a deliberate intention to dissemble, group affiliation, conscious or not, is often immediately discernible through dress.  Prescriptive clothing especially fascinates me – uniforms whether for school children, the military, or the clergy. The paradox of uniforms is that while they are intended to obliterate individuality, they must still convey hegemonic markers and underscore established hierarchies. This kind of negotiating of conflicting intentions and strategies of dress is fascinating to me. When I consider fashion’s political role, the more obvious explicit examples like the coopted military details of civilian militia groups isn’t as interesting to me as the “drag” details of a transgender identifying high school student, or the hoodie worn by the Unibomber and Trayvon Martin, a teenager shot for appearing to be a neighborhood threat. The latter are much more politically potent for the social disruption they provoke.

"As with all languages, fashion can be astonishingly revelatory if we understand its vocabulary...Wielded with intelligence, fashion is a powerful tool."

How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to one of "style"?
Fashion and style as they relate to an individual is pretty clear: fashion even if one were to argue that it can originate through the vision of an individual, the designer…like Dior’s “New Look”…is essentially a collective phenomenon.  To participate fully in fashion one must accede to the prevailing trends which are the consequence of a critical mass of consumers. Of course there is always the possibility of editing and modifying the menu of fashion options to one’s personal taste, but to be fashionable is in the end to participate in a consensus. Style for the individual on the other hand is necessarily a series of subjective preferences and decisions that can range from a complete concession to la mode or a move toward an individual expression that, in its extreme, ignores or even rejects prevailing fashions. Many people who are known for their “style” seem to have mediated fashionable convention and its rules with distinctive personal taste and idiosyncrasy. The pitfall of too individuated an identity, of course, is eccentricity which can be amusing. However, “amusing” isn’t, when applied to issues of dress, generally in the same sentence as “alluring” or “elegant.”

What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
If I were seeking out great fashion icons, it wouldn’t be my first impulse to search the rosters of Nobel laureates or members of the Academie Francaise. On the other hand, an examination of the lives of the greatest women of style generally reveals individuals of some cultural sophistication. I can’t think of anyone who is known for her stylishness to be stupid or purely instinctive. The memorable women of fashion have to be intelligent enough to understand the rules and codes, often nuanced, implicit in fashion, and how far they can go in testing the limits and boundaries of those accepted standards. I love the fact that when someone is perfectly put together they are said to look “smart.”  That’s as intellectual as fashion has to be.

"I love the fact that when someone is perfectly put together they are said to look “smart.” That’s as intellectual as fashion has to be."

There seems to be a contemporary return to sartorial matters. Is the sartorial aspect a primary one to fashion?
“Sartorial” suggests a focused awareness of choices implicit in the act of dressing, beyond the rudimentary definition of its pertaining to matters of tailoring or apparel. When speaking about “sartorial matters,” I think about an attention to the details of dressing for personal display. Of course all the different aspects of one’s identity can be worked into selecting clothing to communicate, or hide, who you are (your sex, age, class, race, music preferences, what neighborhood you live in, etc.). But in addressing the sartorial, I see more people today who seem to have a heightened sense of the aesthetic components of dress than in the recent past. Fashion today, with its proliferation of designers and array of design houses, offers a vast number of ways to dress and look. Because of that, there is no longer a unified dictate from one authority. Instead, the opportunity to dress within the expanding parameters of fashion with some individualized distinction is vast. The importance of dressing with literacy has penetrated so far that even the American male, the last vestige of sartorial disinterest, is engaged by matters of fashion. We are in a period where the popular interest in dressing with premeditation, or simply awareness, has resulted in an increasing level of connoisseurship.

You studied landscape architecture. Is there a relationship between landscape architecture and fashion? And if so, what is it?
Even landscape has a language. Much of what we see now, even if it is an old growth forest or collapsing glacier, is likely the result of some human intervention or activity. But even if it is not, it is possible to look at the landscape, and tease out the clues to its history. This kind of excavation of natural and human phenomena on our environment is not that different from sitting in a bar in Williamsburg and assessing individuals in the crowd by what they are wearing: how much make-up a woman chose to put on that night, whether the men have or don’t have facial hair, or if someone appears to have dressed in a fashion inconsistent with the occasion, etc. Maybe this goes back to Barthes. In “The Empire of Signs,” he reads a whole culture, Japan, through gestures – a half smile, or the prizing apart of food by chopsticks. Are his translations and his understanding apt? Possibly not. But it is an amusing way to approach everything, whether to immerse oneself in another culture, walk through a city park, or observe what people are wearing at the airport.

In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the editorial director of Modern Weekly Shaway Yeh.

Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates