Exploding Fashion: Cutting, Constructing and Thinking Through Things

Lead Research Organisation: University of the Arts London
Department Name: Central Saint Martin's College


Exploding Fashion destabilizes conventional historical methods to create new forms of understanding about the material culture of the past. It 'explodes' the mystique of the fashion design process in two ways. Firstly, it deconstructs the myth of the designer as sole creative genius by uncovering the intriguing role of the patter cutter. Secondly, it reverse-engineers four historical designs by game-changing designers who were also innovative pattern cutters, digitally reanimating museum objects as moving images which visually narrate how these things were once made, and how they moved on the body.

This project thus foregrounds the pattern cutter, an essential maker and technician in the fashion design process whose role is essentially unacknowledged in design histories and unfamiliar to consumers. The project offers a long overdue corrective to this oversight. Like the warp and weft of fabric, it interweaves two strands of enquiry: firstly, the participatory nature of fashion design, and secondly, the cultural and historical implications of studying pattern cutting as a technology of the body.

Like an exploded-view drawing, the project offers a visually-led understanding of how fashion is an object of pattern cutting. Working together in museum archives, historians and pattern-cutters will study a small number of highly complex garments in close detail, using several visual methods to 'explode' them in order to understand their construction. This involves making paper patterns, toiles (canvas prototypes of the garments), textile samples and digital visualisations of the garment in motion, to produce a set of 'materialised' investigations in 2D, 3D and 4D formats as a form of reverse engineering.

The project thus reveals a backstage view of the fashion design process, and aims to make the invisible visible. It will set fashion in motion, animating a greater understanding of how historical dress designs once worked on the body. Outputs include a major exhibition at Somerset House (London), a book associated with the exhibition, academic journal articles, a museum study day, several workshops, a fashion industry showcase, and an online project with a fashion media partner.

The project employs curation as a form of creative practice capable of revealing and narrating fashion design as a type of visual, motile and three-dimensional knowledge. Fashion curation sits between the academy and the museum, bridging the historical and the contemporary through the exhibition of objects, images and texts. Due to the new methods developed in fashion studies, the close reading of the cut and construction of historical dress has been discarded, and this project seeks to redeploy it in a contemporary context in order to offer new interpretations on the making of modern clothing.

The research team consists of professional pattern cutters, historians, curators, and digital visualisers who will investigate the overlooked role of the pattern cutter. The project uses ideas about co-design which privileges processes and procedures over authors and styles that have rarely been tested in fashion. Exploding Fashion employs three forms of practice: pattern cutting, visualisation and curation. It combines the methods of practitioners and historians in a blended approach; it brings technicians and academics into debate, and investigates whether the practitioner's mode of 'thinking through making' can offer new paradigms to the fashion historian, allowing us to theorise pattern cutting as both cultural and technological, using cultural and historical theories of the body as a set of technologies.

Situated at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, the project bridges fashion design practice and academic history and theory, and draws on its expertise in both areas to produce innovative fashion thinking that is unique to London's status as a fashion capital that excels in design, education and curation.

Planned Impact

This project brings three constituencies into dialogue: the fashion industry, the museum and the academy. Our research project is an unusual form of engagement in that it represents an academic intervention into industry and the museum. It does so in order to triangulate expertise across academic and non-academic fields. (The benefits to the academy are addressed in the academic beneficiaries section.)

Exploding Fashion will feature a series of expert think tanks, public workshops, and a major public exhibition, enabling the project to provide benefits to fashion design, production and ecommerce; museums and galleries, including their education and learning programmes; public and private fashion collections and archives; and the general public.

Industry beneficiaries include different sectors: independent fashion designers who are often high impact but small scale; teams working in fashion design studios for large, international brands; ecommerce companies; and fashion media platforms for both consumers and trade. The benefits are various, to both designers and pattern cutters. Designers can appreciate the value of studying complex archival garments as part of the design process. In turn, the project has the potential to impact on what they decide to preserve in their own business design archives. Pattern cutters can benefit from the public valorisation of their important, often unrecognised, role in the design process, and the acknowledgement of their contribution to the creation of significant examples of innovative 20th century fashion design, with future benefits for the British fashion industry in the 21st century; addressing, for example, the need for skilled technical practitioners.

Fashion retail and media platforms can draw on the project's method of visualisation and its wider appeal as a means of visually narrating the 'backstage' fashion design and production process. Ecommerce, which is now ubiquitous in fashion retail, depends on moving image for sales. Our research will demonstrate how moving image can be deployed in novel ways to enrich the standard commercial fashion narrative.

The benefits for the museum and galleries sector are twofold: for those working in the sector and those who visit. Museum curators specializing in fashion, textiles, costume, decorative arts, and design can benefit from the project's novel approaches to display, a curatorial emphasis on the design process over the finished garment, and the means of bringing historical dress to life through the digital visualization of 'fashion in motion'. These benefits can be further disseminated by museum education and learning teams to directly address every level of education, and the many constituencies of the exhibition-visiting public. Museum visitors are another audience segment who will gain from learning about a new narrative derived from innovative fashion thinking that typifies London as a unique fashion capital for design, education and curation.

Formal learning groups such as secondary school programmes in design and technology will benefit from new forms of analysis and the visualization of garment construction; college and undergraduate courses in art, design, textiles, and fashion will further benefit from a better understanding of extant dress and the forms of object analysis offered by the project.

Public benefits address lifelong learning, such as: an engagement with craft and making; an appreciation of design, and knowledge of historical dress; and the animation and illumination of the material culture of the past.


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