The Flat and the Bumpy
Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute
The show starts out normal enough. Dresses. They look fancy. Academy Awards fancy. But there are also dresses that could have appeared in Blade Runner and dresses that might be seen in someone's Coachella Instagram dump. This is the first gallery of Future Beauty, the high-profile fashion exhibition featuring 30 years of clothes by 31 Japanese designers at Seattle Art Museum.
Immediately upon entering the second room, you see that the clothes have been flattened. The flattened versions of certain items appear next to the real-life, embodied versions on mannequins. There's a completely different, independently satisfying architecture in their 2-D forms, and it can be endlessly puzzling figuring out how someone would get into or out of the clothing.
But to back up to what this is really about: Flatness is introduced by way of the Japanese aesthetic ma, which has a range of meanings but most succinctly means "gap." Marshall McLuhan writes about it as "the Japanese word for space," but a specific kind of space: "between people and objects." People and objects have relationships.
This is the starting point for a completely un-American relationship to the shape of the lady body.
(It should be noted at this point that a consideration of the shape of ladies in the US and Europe versus that of Japanese ladies, while tempting, invites certain phenotype-based generalizations that are probably largely accurate and even entirely honorific but pretty dicey nonetheless. Especially when the person doing the considering is a white American male. Probably better to just skip all that.)
Then, after establishing this baseline of flatness, the lumps begin to appear. The first indications that something is amiss are the cartoonishly big labial/testicular bulges built into designs by Keisuke Nagami. The lumps are tastefully turned away from the museum's younger viewers, who would confront them at eye level.
After that, lumps start emerging elsewhere. The clothing does not accentuate the body so much as obfuscate it. Even the face becomes a lump, tightly wrapped in fabric. This begins in Tamae Hirokawa's Skin Series and reaches its zenith with Jun Takahashi's single-pattern pieces, wherein each article of clothing is composed of the same pattern, as is the head covering, as is the ground on which the mannequin stands and a large portion of wall behind it. It's like seeing the Matrix for what it is, but with plaid instead of ASCII. The whole body is a lump. A space articulated by the clothing. There's no "inside" in there to be expressed. It's a stand-alone expression.
There's a whole room of that, and once you make it through that totalized aesthetic, you're spit out into some very lumpy items from Rei Kawakubo. Fluffy stuff like what you'd find inside your comforter is jammed into the clothing. One mannequin looks horribly hunchbacked. Another looks to have received several gallons of collagen injections in her outer thighs and lower back, to the point that her ass has become a small depression in a giant horseshoe of body mass. It is a gorgeous, lumpy "fuck off" to the fascistic tendency to compress women's bodies into one particular shape—a shape that plays out again and again on a series of screens at the exhibit's midpoint.
Those screens are a small alternative exhibition that demonstrates how different this Japanese fashion is from what was coming out of Western houses at the same time. Runway-show footage from Chanel, Gaultier, Alaïa, and others shows seemingly endless iterations of wide-shouldered, narrow-waisted models marching up and down catwalks-cum-parade-grounds like haute dictators. This is uniform in all senses of the word. There is only one way lady lumps can be configured in these images, only the claustrophobia of the mechanical, hourglass-stamped bodies of the West. After that, even the mannequins with their noses and mouths tightly covered in fabric appear to be breathing easier.