Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Child’s Prey: The Darker Side Of The Drawings On Our Dress

In (UK) Esquire’s latest Black Book, Johnny Davis claims ‘menswear is at the tail end of its love affair with dandyism.’[i] It is therefore apposite, he suggests, that his interviewee, the sartorial minimalist Carlo Brandelli whose tailoring champions opulent asceticism, is returning to Savile Row. Naturally, Brandelli agrees. He believes the uncertainty that men felt following the 2008 economic crash is fading and so, consequently, should their need to wear fussy and fustian fashions from the past. Whilst Davis and Brandelli are probably not alone in hoping that menswear will soon hit the refresh button and emerge from the sartorial safety of the 1920s and 1980s, the latest trend, which sees the incorporation of childhood motifs into men’s dress, suggests male shoppers are not yet ready to abandon the comfort of clothing’s past.

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Cartoon-inspired clothing is burgeoning rather than booming, but there is already diversity in the designs that purveyors, chiefly of traditional men’s requisites, have conceived. In February, West Yorkshire-based fabric manufacturer Huddersfield Fine Worsteds launched its Linings II collection.[ii] Possible suit innards include skulls and roses and cartoon word art, reminiscent of the original Batman television series, in sixties-style tones: ‘BAM’, ‘CRASHHH!!’, ‘BLAM’, ‘SPLASH’. For sartorialists wishing to recall the politics of the decade that swung, another lining option includes the slogans ‘ALL WE NEED IS LOVE’ and ‘MAKE LOVE NOT WAR’. If this does not appeal, in May, heritage shirt-maker Turnball & Asser will launch a limited edition range of men’s handkerchiefs featuring one of British television’s most fashion-conscious animated characters, Mr Benn.[iii] The four designs will be available in strictly limited quantities of fifty and cost £65 each. Turnball & Asser’s collaboration with Mr Benn’s creator David McKee follows a well-received animated short for the online retailer Mr Porter in which the dapperly drawn dresser eschews fancy dress costume in preference for a pair of O’Keefe patent monk straps.

The idea of depicting illustrated children’s icons on ‘grown-up’ dress is not new, which probably won’t surprise you: remember Disney’s 101 Dalmatian prints on Castelbajac’s Autumn/Winter collection in 2011? But the frequency with which these designs are now being used prompts me to ponder, especially as the drawings in vogue are mainly from the nineties. This chronological clustering of cartoon characters was nicely illustrated by Michele Moricci’s depiction of six nineties’ animations, all grown up and attired in designer ware corresponding to the various shows they were supposedly attending during New York Fashion Week: Lisa Simpson in Marc Jacobs, Beavis and Butthead in Hood By Air and Jeremy Scott, respectively, and Daria in Prabal Gurung.[iv]

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So what’s afoot? Four factors clearly play a part. Firstly, brand extension. Popular children’s characters have always been adept at spawning myriad merchandising opportunities. In the case of clothing, they are an expeditious way of revving up new collections and reaching out to new buyers, specifically those who recall, and have an attachment to, the cartoon figures depicted. That said, the ‘need’ to possess umpteen different products featuring the same hero or heroine is probably more keenly felt by children than adults and does not work so well with clothes, I imagine. Moreover, cartoon appeal appears to diminish with age, especially with regards to adult dress, which is often minimal and an-iconic, although Prada’s Spring/Summer 2014 collection conspicuously bucks this trend with uncompromising murals of women’s faces on its knitwear and dresses.

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A second factor is the growing appreciation for fashion illustration, championed in February by Colin McDowell and a subject about which there are now a number of academic and generalist publications.[v] This could be creating a context in which shoppers are beginning to value art in fashion, although this is hard to judge. At present, art-based fashion remains niche. Available products, even Hermès’ bright and bold silk scarves and Louis Vuitton’s third season of neckwear produced through artistic collaboration, remain serious, nonfigurative and prohibitively expensive for many people.

The third factor is the technological developments that facilitate design partnerships and dissolve boundaries between the creative industries. But here again there is an explanatory gap, for fashion houses are hardly novices when it comes to creative coupling. Think Gucci and Fiat, Adidas and Rick Owens, Oliver Peoples and Maison Kitsuné, etc., etc. Significant though they are, the bottom line is that the attractiveness of childhood cartoons, the growing appreciation for fashion-related art and the technological innovations that foster creative cooperation and enterprise cannot fully account for why children’s characters, generally from the nineties, have become prevalent.

The fourth factor, the present nineties renaissance, which has spawned indiscriminate crazes for baseball caps, denim and back packs and encouraged a new appreciation for Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Kobain, who committed suicide twenty years ago this month, gets us tantalisingly close to the issue, but why should it be that fashion brands, and other brands, are making specific overtures to customers in their thirties and forties, people who grew up with Alan West as Batman and Mr Benn?

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Following Simon Reynolds[vi] (if you are more of a generalist reader) or Fredric Jameson (if you have a penchant for the academic and esoteric[vii]), it might be argued that our present nineties love-up is an example of how moribund popular culture has become. Saturated by capital, our lives follow the ebb and flow of the markets. Seeking to maximise profits, companies devise marketing campaigns that will induce us to part with our incomes in the quickest way possible. Invoking much-loved cartoon characters at a time when people are feeling weary and confused because of the economic down-turn could easily be sold as a sure-fire way to keep what is perhaps the most financially vulnerable and image-conscious age bracket spending. Turnball & Asser might decry this polemical postulation and argue that their handkerchiefs are a bit of fun, that there is nothing to read into them at all. This could be so, although it is interesting that their current limited edition range of hankies is based around the theme of the mid-life crisis; cue four designs featuring, variously, a suit-clad man flying planes, driving fast cars, motorbikes and motorboats, always accompanied with female beauties and a brolly.

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As ever, humour contains a kernel of truth. Whilst Turnball & Asser’s handkerchiefs are not the output of some money-making behemoth, they hint at how pervasive financial considerations have become in the conception, creation and consumption of fashion products. It seems hard to believe that the fantastical image of an armour-clad Mr Benn riding a fire-breathing dragon could convey such hard reality, but men’s continuing need for socio-economic reassurance, and companies’ inevitable willingness to supply commercial comforts to satisfy this, plausibly explains the majority of recent menswear trends that Carlo Brandelli wishes to be rid of. The shock treatment that his austere attire provides might, therefore, prove to be the most effective cure for men’s historically-centred sartorial sickness.

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[i] J. Davis, ‘The Modernist: Carlo Brandelli returns to Savile Row’, Esquire: The Big Black Book (Spring/Summer 2014), 59.

[ii] www.hfwltd.com.

[iii] www.turnballandasser.co.uk.

[iv] T. Smith, ‘New York Fashion Week: Michele Moricci revives 90s Cartoon Character Outfits’. www.designyoutrust.com/2013/09/new-york-fashion-week-michele-moricci-revives-90s-cartoon-character-outfits/. Accessed: 7-iv-2014.

[v] C. McDowell, ‘Could Illustration Offer an Antitode to Fashion Banality?’ www.businessoffashion.com/2014/02/colins-column-illustration-offer-antidote-fashion-banality.html. Accessed: 4-ii-2014.

[vi] S. Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (London, 2011).

[vii] F. Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry, 24:1 (1997), 246-65.

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