Design principle: ''Tradition + . . .''


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Posted by HSG on April 29, 2005 at 19:09:30:

In Reply to: Sexy Girl (TV show) posted by Melanie W. on April 29, 2005 at 08:34:12:


How wonderful to hear a contemporary stylist use the oft-maligned word "throwback" ("this throwback style") in a positive way, when he refers to the flowing, feminine hairstyles that are so popular today. Considering how unappealing close-cropped modern cuts can be, a "throwback" to a more gorgeous style is, in fact, a step forward.

With that idea in mind, a kind soul recently provided us with a serviceable definition of "The New Femininity"--which is a fashion movement that we often talk about here, but which can be difficult to describe. "You know it when you see it," one might say.

But the definition that we were offered is simply:

The New Femininity = Tradition + Sexiness

And that's a pretty good way to put it.

The "tradition" element in contemporary fashion is represented by the return to dresses and skirts over slacks; the revival of timeless details like embroidery, frills, ruffles; and the use of vibrant, organic colours, from garden greens, to berry and citrus hues, to the delicious yellows that are so popular this season.

The "sexiness" element is represented by the "body-as-fashion-accessory" principle of cutting garments in such a way as to emphasize the allure of full arms, curvaceous shoulders, generous decolletage, and shapely legs.

And when these two elements are combined, the result is an explosion of gorgeous apparel such as the fashion world hasn't seen in . . . well, ever.

But it should come as no surprise that this union of timeless and contemporary influences has impacted the art of fashion in such a glorious way. Art grows and flourishes when time-honoured principles of beauty provide the fertile ground in which new ideas can germinate.

(And by contrast, art withers and dies, or grows in stunted and deformed ways, when those traditions are cut off--as they were in the 20th century.)

Would it surprise you, then, to discover that we can all learn a useful lesson about fashion from the writings of . . . an 18th-century philosopher?

In his descriptively-titled Philosophy of History (1774), the great Prussian writer Johann Gottfried von Herder (a seminal figure in German Romanticism) states that cultural development rests upon two pillars--two fundamental principles that, as he put it, are

as evident, simple, and indubitable as the natural history of man itself is: they are called tradition and organic powers. All education must spring from imitation and exercise, by means of which the model passes into the copy; and how can this be more aptly expressed than by the term tradition? But the imitator must have powers to receive what is communicated or communicable, and convert it into his own nature, as the food by means of which he lives. Accordingly, what and how much he receives, whence he derives it, and how he uses, applies it, and makes it his own, must depend on his own the receptive powers. So that the education of our species is in a double sense genetic and organic: genetic, inasmuch as it is communicated; organic, as what is communicated is received and applied.

Herder's formula, tradition + creativity (which precisely mirrors our definition of the "New Femininity," i.e., tradition + sexiness), and his description of how the one relates to the other, is a blueprint of the aesthetic restoration that is burgeoning all around us.

And it is easy to see how this principle of cultural growth applies to the world of plus-size fashion today. Consider this postcard showing a 19th-century outfit (with apologies for the diminutive size of the image):

It's sleeveless, with a low neckline, and is even embellished with something resembling a modern "waist tie." If the hemline were rather higher, one might almost think that the model had purchased this dress at her local Torrid (although the lovely background might make the viewer think that it was part of Lane Bryant's recent Spring Preview campaign).

Or consider the current vogue for "curvaceous, off-the-shoulder dresses." The "New Femininity" did not invent the human appreciation for soft, lovely shoulders, but it has definitely helped to revive this appreciation, as plus-size fashion in general is in the process of rediscovering the intrinsic allure of full-figured femininity.

When Lillian Russell posed for this photograph in the late 1800s, she knew that everyone's eye would be transfixed by the fullness of her face, and by the exquisite softness of her neck and shoulders. (Note that there isn't even a trace of a jutting clavicle.) The opulence of her top was simply meant to provide the most elegant and ornate frame possible for those gorgeous features.

In fact, you might even say that "tradition is sexiness," based on images of pre-20th-century style. Remove the feathery hat in the following ensemble, add some colour to the dress, and suddenly, you have a great starting point for designing a sexy, contemporary dress:

And when you look at some of the sensual and alluring dresses that adorn the beauty of plus-size goddesses today, you would be hard pressed to determine the date of their creation (a fact that distinguishes them as truly . . . timeless).

Is this, for example, a sensual Victorian dress, as one might see in an old sepia-tinted postcard?

or is it a colourful example of "hot couture" at Torrid?

One would never know.

As long as designers approach their craft with an eye that is favourably disposed to the soft fullness of a womanly figure, they cannot help but discover wonderful ways to accentuate it.

The "New Femininity" is beautifying the world, one dress at a time . . .

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