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Living in an Immaterial world, what materials matter?

By Jackie Mallon

Jul 12, 2018

Fashion |OPINION

Thirty-odd years ago Madonna sang about living in a material world while wrapped in hot pink satin, nuzzling fur, dripping in jewels, and being hoisted into the air by a posse of suited men. She was mimicking her idol Marilyn Monroe, who thirty-odd years before that, dressed similarly, had sung about diamonds being a girl’s best friend in the movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds.” Flash back another thirty and an equally vampish, blond, Mae West, responded to the exclamation of “Goodness!” from an admirer, with the statement “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

Goodness nothing to do with glamour?

West was right. Throughout history female glamour has been a ruthless death match in which the major players were dressed to the nines in a patchwork of scalps, skins, and token body parts from the planet’s most vulnerable creatures. The glamour we aspired to was a trophy to destruction. But at least we knew where we stood.

Today’s uncharted territory can be confusing for glamour queens. Luxury houses like Gucci and Giorgio Armani have lined up to reject fur, the pursuit of glamour no longer justifying the killing and exploitation of animals. Going a stride further, ASOS have pledged that by January 2019, not only products containing “fur, including Mongolian lamb’s fur to rabbit hair” but additionally “bone, horn, shell (including mother of pearl), teeth, mohair, cashmere or silk” will no longer be sold by them. H&M, Zara, and Gap have recently gone mohair-free. Ad campaigns use the term silky-smooth to describe the feeling of a body wash on our skin but we shouldn’t put the real thing on our bodies. The average customer who purchases a silk blouse probably doesn’t know that, according to PETA, approximately 3000 silk worms are boiled alive in their cocoons to produce every pound of silk. They may however know that it is one of the oldest and the strongest natural fiber known to man, and for generations has been synonymous with quality and glamour. Modifying terminology such as taffeta, damask, shantung only served over time to imbue silk with its exotic allure.

Polyester and nylon have been offered as silk alternatives since the early twentieth century and during the second world war, nylon stockings were considered the height of decadence with women who could no longer get their hands on a pair, not even on the black market, forced to paint the seam up the back of their leg. But after the initial boom, “synthetic” or manmade fibers, were viewed as budget-friendly options, and natural fibers were still coveted as superior. Deriving from petroleum, these synthetic fibers are PETA––but not planet––friendly and finish up in landfills and oceans. Even basic cotton is not without shame, whether organic or not.

In an increasingly immaterial world in which all the traditional symbols of glamour and luxury have fallen into disrepute, nearly all of the status materials once considered a girl’s best friends are former BFFs at best, and some we are ashamed to admit we ever hung out with. The subject of materials is a modern minefield as it is no longer a question of what feels good but what makes us not feel bad. One consolation might be that as digital experiences and virtual reality swallow us up, and property ownership is no longer a priority, physical materials might cease to matter entirely.

The look of luxury

After a status quo that endured for centuries, luxury now looks radically different. Responsible aspiration has replaced reckless excess in all that money can buy. Biodegradable polyester is the thinking girl or boy’s fur stole. Our lingerie will be compostable and our bioleather biker jacket made in a lab from collagen protein, our handbag from apples, and our sandals from mushrooms. Multi-purpose food produce becomes the ultimate fashion prize.

The epitome of the new glamour is Iris Van Herpen’s shape-shifting, show-stopping sci-fi creations which seem to suspend and ripple around the body like energy fields. With steel threads that mimic silk and silicon that mimics skin, her dresses which appear to be dripping in crystals or embellished in feathers are instead 3D printed in her studio and painstakingly assembled. One-of-a-kind pieces they are born from collaborations with scientists, architects, the military, and seem to have materialized in response to the need for a new bespoke for the zero-waste generation. She regularly collaborates with CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and operates at the intersection of sculpture and couture, having set fire to the bridge that might have led her to fast fashion acceptance early in her career. Ephemeral and fragile her dresses resemble the exoskeletons of the Madonna/Marilyn/Mae glamour that is now tottering, once infallible, considered too big to fail.

Today’s material girl can’t be bought. Compassion is in fashion, and the consumer demands reassurance beyond what her reflection in the mirror reveals. The compliments she seeks appeal not just to her ego but to mankind and mother earth. The external “feel” of fabric touching skin holds no comparison to how certain fabrics make her feel on the inside.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Images: Pexels, pixabay, Youtube, Wikicommons, Catwalk pictures, Iris van Herpen, Couture AW17