Utopian Bodies: Fashion looks forward

Originally published in International Journal of Fashion Studies

Craft and Colour gallery. Photograph by Serge Martynov

Craft and Colour gallery. Photograph by Serge Martynov

One country in Scandinavia is known for its function-first design approach. It is the birth place for global corporations such as H&M and IKEA, which signify mass-market appeal with high-volume production, cheap prices and design that is current, never complex. Jeans, the most standardized of garment, has become a recent success story for this country as newish brands Acne and Nudie are gaining popularity in fashion cities across the world.  In the capital, it is not a crime to bump into someone wearing the same outfit as you, rather a sign that both of you have successfully managed to navigate the complex currents of contemporary style and a manifestation of social-democracy – the prevailing political ideology there. Practicality, simplicity and a certain idea of egalitarianism are qualities ingrained in all aspects of Swedish design and specifically when it comes to fashion.

Filled with garments one would immediately deem as un-practical, over-theatrical and perhaps a bit strange against the backdrop of Swedish design identity, at first it is difficult to take in the Utopian Bodies: Fashion Looks Forward exhibition. An outfit that looks as if it has escaped from an imaginary wardrobe of a Japanese manga cartoon, a highly dangerous dress made out of pins and needles, even a coat filled with rubbish; most of the objects at this exhibition, make you laugh or at least put a smile on your face. But that is quite alright.

Housed at Liljevalchs Konsthall located on the Djurgården island in Stockholm, the exhibition aims to explore fashion’s possibilities and human creativity by asking the question ‘how can fashion be harnessed to create a better future?’. Curators Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov set out to provide some suggestions by arranging the exhibition around eleven themes, which provide a framework for their chosen objects and the way in which these have been displayed in the space.  Some of the themes are more familiar due to their topicality or link with fashion studies such as sustainability, technology, craft and gender. More abstract ideas like solidarity, love, memory and resistance suggest a response based on emotions instead.

Each room in the exhibition has been individually designed to house a distinctively different narrative set, complimentary to the theme it contains. Historical reference points such as futurism and the avant-garde, both of which toyed with utopian ideas, and thus contextually central to the exhibition, root the research and inspiration behind each set. The stage against which the theme ‘Resistance and Society’ is arranged, for instance, takes its references from Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s ‘Noise Machines’ (1913) that look like simplified gramophones. The ‘Craft and Colour’ room, on the other hand, is like a Sonia Delaunay orphic painting translated into an enveloping three-dimensional universe. Exhibition maker Judith Clark’s influence on her previous mentee, Hedman, is easily traceable in this scenic approach to narrating the curation. 

The displayed objects, on the other hand, are anything but historic. Most of them have been conceived during the last decade or so; some are straight off the runway or specially commissioned for the exhibition. Futurists would argue that what happens next can be predicted through reading some of the signs that are visible today. With that in mind, one might suggest that most, if not all, of the objects on display belong to the category of speculative design. These garments are not destined to be sold in shops and worn by consumers, but rather they are sites for experimentation and testing, creativity and craft, showmanship and statement-making. Because of this, they belong to the tradition of utopian thinking whereby the future is explored through formulating suggestions in material that, instead of providing answers, ask questions. This distinctive approach puts Utopian Bodies into a category of its own against other fashion exhibitions, away from blockbuster designer retrospectives and exercises in dress history.

Although some might see the future of fashion as a dystopia, the exhibition refreshingly places the emphasis on the positive impact that fashion may have. Read though the lenses provided by the exhibition themes, the future certainly looks healthy, with compassion, conservation, know-how and transformation on the fashion agenda. The objects chosen for the display have a sense of liveliness and a jolly energy, even underlying humour, making the exhibition welcoming for a variety of audiences, not just those with an insight into fashion. What better way to move forward than with an upbeat tone? 

In his forward to the handsome exhibition catalogue, Liljevalchs’ museum director Mårten Castenfors explains that the exhibition began its life as a display of Swedish fashion. Indeed, alongside a selection of things mostly from European, but also some American, as well as Asian, designers, there is a novel focus on the country’s design talent with a further 16 Swedish designers specifically commissioned to create unique garments for the different galleries. Whilst this reads well in the context of where the exhibition is held, the selection is uncomfortably imbalanced from an international perspective. Utopia, after all, is in the title and a whole-hearted globally-minded commitment to this topic would have resulted in something more interesting that would have allowed this exhibition to travel, without confining it so specifically to Sweden.   

Despite this, Utopian Bodies: Fashion Looks Forward is creative in its display and the theme it sets out to explore, resonates easily. Instead of tackling fashion linearly, focusing on one celebrated designer or romanticizing the history of dress, this exhibition is forward-thinking with its approach to foregrounding clothes that connect with the contemporary concerns of the society, even if only on a speculative level. This notion feels particularly poignant against the backdrop of Scandinavian design where functional practicality has a stronghold when it comes to design thinking. By offering a speculative take on the now and the next, Hedman and Martynov have created a forum for potential conversations that take fashion into challenging arenas of emotion and social progress.