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Bodies in motion – Alexander Calder’s jeunes filles en fleurs

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We’re rediscovering our bodies lately in fashion. I don’t mean exposing them particularly; although there’s always a bit of that going on – most recently of a diagrammatic variety – a kind of articulation by way of demarcation and dissection, using bare skin itself as a kind of patterning device. (I’ll see if I can dig up some good examples as a footnote to this.) We’re heading into late fall after all, when even in L.A. we start to make way for actual fall clothes, so baring and exposing aren’t such a priority – even for evening.

I mean the way our bodies move beneath the clothes, the way they feel; not just freedom of movement within the clothes – they don’t necessarily need to be either loose or fitted for athletic wear, or (conversely) second skin – but in the sense that they feel enabling, that they move with us; that their emphasis (in style, cut, draping) underscores our own style, intention, directional movement, our ideas of ourselves. We want the clothes to feel good on our bodies – not just in terms of smoothness or softness of touch, or body contouring, but enhancing the comfort of self-possession, self-confidence.

Consider Rick Owens’ presentation of his Spring-Summer 2014 ready-to-wear collection – not just the movement of the step-dance teams who modeled the clothes, but the attitudes: the determination in the dancer-model faces, the aggressive possession of body and space, the claim on the body implied by their movements. The show seemed to be as much about the bodies – or an attitude towards the body – as about the clothes.

On one level or another, it’s always been about the body in motion – from definition of the body’s stance, posture, balance, equipoise, to the emphasis on one part of the body or another, or extension of body and limbs in space, to directional movement – walking, stretching, reaching; from the entire body in motion – dancing, embracing – to the smallest gesture.

What prompted this train of thought was not any one look or any particular designer’s collection for this season or next (including Owens), but the current exhibition on view at LACMA’s Resnick PavilionCalder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic. Well, Philip Treacy (or even Isabella Blow – more about the Alistair O'Neill/Shonagh Marshall-curated exhibition at London’s Somerset House on Blow’s fashion career in another post) might have had something to do with it. I thought of both of them (also, inevitably, Alberto Giacometti) as I took in two ‘table-top’ bronzes at LACMA – both remarkable for their precise, delicate balance: one a Fake Snake (or possibly two) – a sinuous curve that might be a snake or a branch with an open blossom (flytrap?), crossed by something closer to the real thing (but shorter) delicately poised over a tripod-trunk; the other, a Vine that curled over the platform’s edge only to loop right back around it, curling upwards into a whiplash extension – managing to wrap itself around the support and extend itself in four different directions. I thought – ‘I need an earring like that’; and then it immediately occurred to me that Philip Treacy had done a marvelous hat not unlike it for Isabella.

It’s no accident that many surrealist and abstract/constructivist artists – Calder among them – created jewellery that were essentially micro-sculptures. (I sometimes think artist Joe Sola stole this idea in making a suite of micro-paintings to perch in gallerist Tif Sigfrids’s ear for her gallery’s debut show.) At the very least, some of the pieces might clearly be seen as tiny maquettes for larger sculptures. But what struck me about the Calder show was not the myriad possibilities for jewellery or personal adornment, but what it captured about form, gesture, movement – bodies in motion in every sense: the human body bending, inclining, twisting and torquing; the bending and whirling of tree branches; leaves – and birds’ feathers – fanned, ruffled and rustled in the wind; planetary orbits and the trajectories of astral objects; and, of course most famously, circus acrobatics.

In each of the sculptures, Calder reaches for a kind of gestural essence. Some of them seem both obvious and subtle at the same time. We see it in the ‘botanical’ themed pieces immediately. Eucalyptus is nothing like a transliteration of the tree’s form; but we immediately get the sense of the subtle extension of branches, the slight rustle and shimmer of leaves, a sense of bark ready to splinter and the transformation of the trunk’s surface, the simultaneity of growth and decay. It’s all rendered as pure motion, however still the mobile might be in any given moment. The Yucca, a stabile, with its tripartite structure rendered in primaries, is a bit more still and straightforward, but here too, the ‘flowering’ extension conveys the sense of growth, movement. The Demoiselle does not carry the slightest reference to a girl’s body. The armature has three supporting extensions and there’s nothing of pastiche or caricature about it either. But the parabolic curve arching back to support double curve bracket and ‘spine’ of nesting parabolae – each hoisting red or blue ‘paillettes’ or ‘feathers’ convey a sense of an inclined body (pulling up a stocking?), a casual wave, a fashionable figure emerging from a car or stepping onto a sidewalk. We are indeed in the shadow of jeunes filles en fleurs.

And I could go on…. There are so many examples here, each a gem. I can’t recommend a visit to this show highly enough. It is a refreshment to the eye that cannot help but inform one’s fashion sense. I realize I’ve been somewhat delinquent in reporting the Spring 2014 ready-to-wear; but I did make it clear how important a silken ease of movement against the moving body contours was to collections like Narciso Rodriguez and Ohne Titel. Joseph Altuzarra and Bibhu Mohapatra conveyed the same fluid motion in their very different collections. Or consider Dries van Noten (an outstanding collection, by the way); or a line that, let’s face it, is all about les demoisellesChloé. (There were quite a few more – I don’t need to be reminded.) All used different means – pattern, fabrics, cut, draping, color – to enhance and accent the body in motion, to make eloquent the repertoire of quotidian gestures. Still more fascinating are those designers who use seemingly contradictory means to achieve such ends – like, say, Ralph Rucci – but that’s something for another post.

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