Architecture after Couture

first published in Thresholds, Summer 2001 as the last of a series of three articles on architecture, capitalism, and consumer culture.

Margit J. Mayer: Is fashion becoming more democratic or more elitist at the moment?

Helmut Lang: I am trying to work this out for myself right now. But perhaps all those old rhythms are outdated. It looks like fashion today may be democratic as well as elitist, an organic inherent contradiction.[1]

Flashback to a scene some fifteen years ago. I was a student in the history of architecture and urbanism at Cornell, having coffee with a fellow student in the program. We were discussing Val Warke's seminal course on architecture and fashion, then being held in a classroom upstairs. I expressed my disappointment that due to the stringent requirements of the undergraduate degree, I wasn't allowed to enroll in the class. My friend remarked that I shouldn't complain: Warke was a little behind the times. After all, everyone was talking about Derrida and Decon. Why in the world would I want to take a class on fashion? It was, it would seem, the squarest thing to do. I raised some doubts, but my friend was an older and wiser grad student, certainly better dressed than I and apparently more knowledgeable of what was au currant in the field.

Yet Warke was certainly not passé. He was, if anything, a trendsetter, for in just a few years Deborah Fausch, Paulette Singley, Rodolphe El-Khoury, and Zvi Efrat would publish their collection of essays Architecture: In Fashion and Warke's text "'In' Architecture: Observing the Mechanisms of Fashion" would be the theoretical centerpiece.[2] A spate of books on architecture and fashion would follow. Naturally, as was the case with all too many critical themes in the 90s, the interest in fashion cooled and Architecture: In Fashion went out of print. Over the last few years, however, queer space, bodies, non-Euclidean geometries, and homeless vehicles have in turn fallen out of vogue while fashion has come back onto the critical horizon. Whereas just five years ago students wondered why I was giving them Warke's essay instead of something more appropriately dark and gloomy, today's students read it avidly. And now Thresholds proposes to investigate fashion.

But is this new resurgence of interest in fashion merely a retro revival of styles of theory from a decade past? Are we now far enough away from fashion that it has become mere fodder for the endless recycling process that is the fashion mechanism of contemporary architecture theory? Or is there a deeper significance to this new attention to fashion?

In this essay I will argue for the latter. Even a cursory glance at architecture culture suggests that far beyond any wistful longing on the part of theoreticians, fashion and architecture have never been so clearly linked. The most eagerly awaited projects of the year are the Prada stores by OMA. Just as Andreas Gursky memorializes Prada's minimalist style in his photographs at MoMA, we are told to forget Supermodernism – it's last year's look - and turn instead to some new, as yet unnamed, fashion. Hyped more than any project since Bilbao, funded by lavish budgets, designed by some of the most talented architects of the day, will this new conjunction of architecture and fashion cut new lines for the architectural haute couture or will it kill OMA once and for all? So, too, we are in an era when a magazine ostensibly about architecture and design – Wallpaper – gains its ad revenues not from roofing manufacturers or purveyors of CAD software, but from Prada, Versace, and Gucci. If Wallpaper uses architecture as an alibi to sell fashion, it hardly needs to do so. Architecture students, at least at the more avant-garde schools, no longer hunt for the newest theory journal from the MIT Press. Instead they look to Flaunt or Tank or Dutch.

Fashion, it seems, has more to offer architecture than theory. But rather than seeing that as an opportunity to rally nostalgically behind theory – after the myriad of symposia that announced "the death of theory" could we really want to bring it back, in zombie form? – I will make two points: that architecture and fashion are linked in an enduring relationship and that the dramatic changes in fashion culture over the last fifteen years force us to reconsider the very structure of architecture itself.

In its modern – that is, desecularized – form, architecture shares a common origin with fashion. Although architecture has been with us for thousands of years, it emerges as a fully modern discipline only with the Enlightenment and the subsequent shift in dominant class from the aristocracy and clergy to the bourgeoisie. Until then, architecture's role had been to demarcate the unquestionable difference between the aristocracy and the clergy on the one hand and the commoners, who would have no architecture, merely building, on the other. Architecture's mission, then, was a divine one: to announce the presence of the more holy, devout, or noble both to themselves and to the common. The excess expenditure that architecture produced in comparison to building vividly demonstrated class difference. Clothing played a similar role: the noble or the priest would don clothes that made visible their difference from the commoner. Certainly more expensive, the clothes of the nobles were frequently deliberately impractical, so as to underscore the impossibility of manual labor for the gentle classes.

During the last stages of the pre-modern period, as early as the end of the seventeenth century, a highly developed taste culture began to emerge in Europe. At first this drive toward taste culture came from within the aristocracy: obsessed with finding a way to legitimate their position, the last nobles turned to connoisseurship. For if one could demonstrate a cultivated taste, then one could prove one's position above the common man. To be a refined and sophisticated gentlemen or lady was the last means by which the aristocracy, having lost its divine right to rule, could legitimate itself.[3]

Obviously, then, the acquisition of the taste needed to become a connoisseur was not value or class free: ample capital was essential. The truly accomplished connoisseur would not merely appreciate art, he would collect important works of art, perhaps write an essay of appreciation or two about items he owned or had seen on a Grand Tour and would construct carefully designed architectural edifices. Architecture became a status symbol, as nobles, particularly in England, opened their estates to tourists. Already in 1775, close to 2,500 visitors visited the estate of the dukes of Buckingham at Stowe.[4]

Fashion underwent a similar transformation, reaching an apogee under Louis XIV, who used it – as he did Versailles – to legitimate his position. Louis XIV had hoped to make France, and thereby himself, the arbiter of taste in Europe. Since the Sun King set all fashion, being au currant meant being close to the King. How similar one's fashions were to the ever-changing tastes of the King indicated how favored one was: like architecture, fashion served as a marker of difference. If, as the Enlightenment dawned, divinity was no longer a sure bet for those in power, then at least they could justify their rule on account of their taste.[5]

Thus, for centuries architecture and fashion were closely linked. The shift to bourgeois rule changed the players at the top, but not the nearly identical roles of the two fields as they reproduced class structure. Upper class women would make the pilgrimage to Paris every year for the newest lines of haute couture, quite literally high needlework. These were the most favored socialites, graced by taste and money, different from the rest of the rabble. As with the Sun King, the closer one was to haute couture, the more privileged one's class. The literalness with which the king was replaced by the couturier is demonstrated by the attitude proclaimed by the first truly successful signature fashion designer, Paul Poiret, when he stated, "Fashion needs a tyrant."[6] From the salon, fashion would then descend to the masses. If the elite were always dressed in the style of the future, shoppers at Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdale's might be a season or two late while the simpler folk at Macy's would have to wait still longer as the in-house designers copied Chanel and Dior.

The role of fashion as a marker of class difference is obvious, then, and the historical analysis of architecture's status as a marker of class difference is confirmed by the writing of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Bourdieu convincingly argues that taste is not class-free but rather reproduces existing class structure. Even in the supposedly neutral realm of the university, it is those who are exposed to the culture of affluence who can excel. Even the most ambitious members of the underclass are condemned to a secondary role, crippled by their lack of acculturation during early childhood. Only those with a mastery of the code with which to decipher a work of art or architecture can make the successful transition to the cultural aristocracy.[7] Now certainly patrons of architecture would depend on this code as a way of affirming their cultural status: the work of architecture as avant-garde art object serves, like a couture design, as a marker of difference, making visible the patron's membership in the cultural elite. So, too, for architects avant-gardism served not so much a way of taunting the bourgeoisie, as much as the means by which the dominant class structure would be reproduced within the profession. For without a gut understanding of what architecture is, why it is necessary to interrogate its boundaries, and how that interrogation might be undertaken, the avant-gardist cannot possibly succeed. Bourdieu's arguments are convincing and have been taken up repeatedly in recent architecture writing, by, among others, this author, Garry Stevens in his book The Favored Circle, and Hélene Lipstadt in the last issue of Thresholds.[8]

Yet, the Owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk. While we have been analyzing the way the dominant class system is reproduced in architecture, the taste culture that underwrites that system has come undone, unlinking markers of difference from status and thereby condemning Bourdieuvian analyses to a historical and retrospective role. Architecture ignores this crucial shift within fashion at its peril.

The change in fashion had begun by the early 1960s. Driven by increasing affluence in the middle class and by the unraveling of the lower class's ethic of saving, fashion began to spread throughout the classes. But it did not do so merely from the top down. Rather, in London, the fashion boutique was developed, providing limited run clothing for a small group of urban youth that used this clothing to mark off their difference – not as a class but as a group with a shared, generational identity. These were rebels who would not defer sensual satisfaction for the sake of savings. These were youth who were, if anything, different. Would a young British youthquaker of the early 60s trade her Mary Quant miniskirt for a Chanel dress? Probably not. From then on haute couture was doomed.[9]

By the 1960s, the top-down system of fashion began to collapse. Already at the house of Dior in 1960, Yves Saint Laurent had begun to poach black turtlenecks and leather jackets from street culture. This insult to the autonomy of fashion, so clearly related to pop art and architecture, was tremendously controversial, forcing him out of Dior and simultaneously allowing the young star to found his own house in 1962, also points to a further change in the system: from then on, haute couture would have to look to the street. As if he had imbibed the heady spirits of Claude Lévi-Strauss's la pensée sauvage, Saint Laurent became a keen poacher of the myths that the young bricoleurs of the streets wove with their clothes. Saint Laurent stole the retro and ethnic garb of the hippies to give his couture clients a distinctive look: "the evening is the time for folklore," he stated. But just as crucial was his prescient understanding that haute couture was dying. Couture, he concluded, could serve only as a way of attracting attention to his ready-to-wear line.[10]

Laurent was right. The lengthy couture fittings and high prices for clothing with a short-lived lifespan were too wasteful and above all too time consuming for even the richest members of the younger set. Moreover, the blurring of class distinctions that took place in 1960s culture made couture seem square. The collapse in the salon is demonstrated most vividly in the numbers. Whereas in 1943, couture had a worldwide clientele of 20,000, by the late 1990s, the clientele was down to a mere 200.[11]

Not only is couture threatened by the continued existence of underground and aboveground boutique labels, it is positively undone by the middle-blow stores like Banana Republic or Target. These stores make clothes that look good, frequently setting trends or at least copying both boutique and couture in real-time, often in a more sensible manner. As these mass-produced clothes are significantly cheaper while generally well made, buying couture now seems to be purely indulgent. Even the rich can understand Target's appeal when its ads read "It's fashionable to pay less."[12] Moreover, the aesthetic of bricolage begun in the 1960s continues today: you may now wear cheap sneakers along with a Helmut Lang jacket. Or perhaps you wear Miu Miu shoes along with ratty old Levis.

Fashion's radical undoing has the possibility of immense repercussions for architecture. The reason that we continue to care about fashion, even after the collapse of couture is that difference is no longer the property of the elite. This is where Bourdieu's argument becomes dated by its origins in the highly hierarchical culture of postwar France, a society in which haute couture thrived. Instead, markers of difference are now commonly deployed in culture. The contemporary subject no longer tries to fit in as much as she proclaims her own identity. Fashion is simply one means, among many, with which we do this.[13]

Similar things could happen in architecture, and indeed need to happen to architecture if it is to avoid obsolescence. If architecture is still heavy, slow and expensive, it will have to become faster, cheaper, and more responsive. If architecture, still dominated by a couture culture of avant-gardist elitism, is to survive, it must realize that haute couture is doomed, or at the very least, can be only one fashion system among many. Instead, architecture will have to find out how to take advantage of a society in which difference is no longer something only for the very rich, but is now for everyone.


For an example of one possibility – indeed just one of many – we can look at the work of Israel Kandarian, a thesis student at SCI_Arc in fall 1999. Certainly not a member of what Garry Stevens would call the “favored circle,” Israel is a skateboarder from Orange County. Driven by an intense focus on the cool, skateboard culture is greatly concerned with a conscious articulation of fashion. Israel saw a model to follow in the successful line of clothes Shawn Stussy launched from his garage next door. For his thesis, then, he explored the possibility of creating a fashion line for architecture. Instead of the typical avant-gardist couture practice, Israel concluded that architects must find a way of becoming more sympathetic to the desires of young consumers for something ready-to-wear, hip, accessible, and informed by a bottom-up ethic. The title of his thesis would be “Out of the Museums and into the Streets.”

Israel’s Ministry of Architecture [MOA] collection is inspired by the super-architectural space created through the bodily processes of the modern skateboarder and the appropriated urban landscape. MOA is intended to appeal to not only grown up skateboarders, a big population in Southern California, but also to a demographic segment in the population that likes to associate itself with skateboard culture (e.g. consumers of skateboard fashion).

Instead of following the established patterns of practices like those of Michael Graves and Aldo Rossi, starting with a couture practice that would then make smaller objects for the masses, Israel proposes to begin with the T-Shirt. As a graphic product, détourned onto vintage shirts with silk-screening and hand-stitched drawings, the T-Shirt announces the MOA line.

The MOA line is rounded out by a series of hyperskin furniture units and a collection of larger fiberglass objects that can be used as surfaces for skateboarding to “toolshed” structures that bridge the gap between furniture and house.

[1] Charlotte Seeling, Fashion. The Century of the Designer (Cologne: Kšnemann, 1999), 607.

[2] Deborah Fausch, Paulette Singley, Rodolphe El-Khoury, Zvi Efrat, >eds. Architecture: In Fashion, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994).

[3] On the development of the connoisseur, see M. H. Abrams, "Art-As-Such: The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics," Doing Things With Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989): 135-158.

[4] Abrams, 150.

[5] James Laver and Amy de la Haye, Costume and Fashion: a Concise History, >(London: Thames & Hudson, 1995), precise page to follow.

[6] Seeling, 23.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste >(New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 485-500.

[8] Kazys Varnelis, "The Education of the Innocent Eye," The Journal of Architectural Education volume 51 number 4 (May 1998), 212-223; Garry Stevens, The Favored Circle, >(Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998) and HŽlne Lipstadt, "Theorizing the Competition. The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu as a Challenge to Architectural History," Thresholds >number 21 (Fall 2000), 32-36.

[9] Seeling, 393-401.

[10] This is the system described by Roland Barthes, The Fashion System >(New York: Hill and Wang, 1983) and in Warke's essay on fashion and architecture in which haute couture seeks out vital "angry sources" and then, by setting a trend, allows these to descend through the classes. If this current paper marks a difference from both Barthes and Warke, it is only because of the changes that have occurred in fashion since those key texts. On Yves Saint Laurent, see Seeling, 355-367.

[11] Seeling, 305.

[12] Teri Agens, The End of Fashion. How Marketing Changed the Clothes Business Forever >(New York: Quill, 1999), 11. But see all of this crucial book for the collapse of fashion. In particular, Agens's account the effects of licensing on fashion would seem to be a cautionary tale for architects – from Graves to Herzog and de Meuron - who have increasingly become intrigued by this idea.

[13] On this, see in particular the writings of sociologists Scott Lash and John Urry, Economies of Sign and Space (London: Sage, 1994). What sociologists only now are trying to understand, marketers have been working with for years. See Michael J. Weiss, The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means About Who We Are >(New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1999).