react-renact: sartorial codes

Much has been said about the fear/paranoia that surrounded fashion at the end of the 20th century (Caroline Evans does quite a good job with Fashion at the Edge) and the distintegration of what our predecessors would have considered conventional modes of dress. A quick survey of the offerings on display at the Blueprint feat. Blackmarket show (so apparently, we really don’t run out of things to say about it) and, by extension, what local and regional up-and-coming designers have been coming up with suggests that we don’t seem to be done with this process.

Let’s give the process a name. Call it Pomo fashion (everything’s pomo these days anyway). Pomo fashion is not the New Look couture suit of the 1950s or punk fashion in the ’60s. These were all sartorial codes created with the aim of giving expression to a particular identity. Rather, Pomo fashion preoccupies itself with breaking down existing sartorial conventions to present a form of fashion that is at once devoid of cultural context and a symbol of a new culture. Reckless Ericka’s Union Jack dresses were less a political statement (something your parents or their unSingaporean compatriots elsewhere would have understood) than an exercise in sartorial dec0ntextualisation.

Long-winded wordplay aside, there is something very interesting about the local variant of Pomo fashion – what I’ve come to think of as the Haji Lane look – not least because you have to wonder how it came about. I suspect it is chiefly a result of Singaporeans not having a sartorial legacy to draw on. The French have their heritage of haute couture and men in smoking jackets with upturned collars, the Chinese have their Haipai styles and Mao suits and the Americans have a long history of sportswear and Americana. Our local designers simply don’t have anything to refer to that does not originate from without the cultural framework of our country. Not having a sartorial legacy means not having something to defend, to adhere to and in that sense, our local designers have been able to show some very interesting things unhidered by any sort of conventions. Pomo fashion comes into its own when designers persistently question the logic of existing norms such as why jackets button up differently for genders and come up with something truly unique.   

There is, of course, always a but. Not having a sartorial legacy also means not having something to subvert, to renew and, if the combination of shaggy fur coats with too-short dresses and slant-zippered pants are anything to go by, the end result can occasionally seem inconsistent. Increasingly, it feels as if we are trying to reach out for a new sartorial code that gives form to our identity and appropriating the sartorial codes of other cultures to define ourselves has reached its limits. It’s rather like an alien who matches a pre-Civil War hunting jacket with day-glo pants from the ’80s in trying to figure out how humans dressed. Koolhaas described Singaporean architecture as decontextualised modernity. The same might be applied to the Haji Lane look. (Aside: By calling it the Haji Lane look, do we then begin to give it context and legitimacy? Oh the irony.)

There is always the possibility that far from a thought-provoking issue for local designers to ponder on as they forge a new sartorial code that gives true expression to what we are (what’s Hokkien for chic?), P.B.’s just too uncool to fully comprehend the utter hipness of the Haji Lane look. Deebot and PFYG will have to do something about that.


This entry was published on May 16, 2009 at 2:00 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “react-renact: sartorial codes

  1. Pingback: Fashion’s New Order at Audi Fashion Festival 2009 « THE F-WORD

  2. tweeds on said:

    was the koolhaas quote from a book/magazine/speech?
    he is on point with that comment. but the question is also: was modernism, at least in its architectural sense, ever contextualised?

  3. saythefword on said:


    the Koolhaas quote came from Singapore Songlines (1995) and has often been cited in discussions about Singapore, modernity and our inadvertant struggle towards a post-modern future.

    not well versed in urban theory and architecture but i believe modern architecture was contextualised in an international sense i.e. Western, rational and a refutation of the decorative nature of art.

    with regard to fashion, i believe that is the case: that all sustainable sartorial codes are contextualised. The Edwardian relaxation of male dress codes as seen in the adoption of suede loafers for the first time reflected the sense of ease that was perpetuated by a broad minded court. This means that fashion should always tell us something about the particular era that it originated from.

    If there is anything in particular that Pomo fashion tells us about our era, it is the defining characteristic of uncertainty. The mixing and matching of sartorial codes regardless of function and culture point to a proto-aesthetic that needs further elaboration for it to be sustainable as an expression of identity.

    So yes, Koolhaas would make a great fashion critic.

  4. tweeds on said:

    have to go and borrow S,M,L,XL sometime…

    fair points but i feel like something in it makes me disagree – is there a possibility that the context has changed today, so that the code in its modern sense no longer points to its original context?

    to use the suede loafers example: doubtless in its strictest sartorial sense it symbolises a lack of formality. but the code it represents today has been reduced in its original sense, and expanded in others, so that wearing suede loafers is not to adopt a rootless symbol, but to refer instead to its modern context.

    too much talk from me, i apologise 😉

  5. Pingback: Trend-xistentialism. Ooh~ « THE F-WORD

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