PRINT October 1995


Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the book and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence.
—E. M. Forster, A Passage to India, 1924

INVENTIVE IN CONCEPT, prosaic in its reiterations as a clothing standard, dazzling in its transmutations through ordinary and extraordinary textiles, the sari is an ancient device and decorum of Indian dress. Clever at its matrix, it is a fixed template, allowing no meddling or whim to its fundamental form. We Westerners are clumsy and colonial in our inevitable discontent with dress that is ideal and unchanging. Dull though such forms of dress may be to our jaded sensibilities, they have clothed more people more effectively than all our ateliers or even our sweatshops.

Gianni Versace’s Evening Ensemble, from his 1994 Spring/Summer collection, takes the sari as its manifest symbol. Setting mode against mode, the time-honored material and practice of the Eastern dress against the transitory stylishness of Western fashion, Versace renders the sari as sign—a sign that both represents its roots and demonstrates its own transfiguration. The resolve of the social and cultural convention behind the sari is set against its disturbing reinvention as a newly figured text and textile. In one garment, “dull” is whetted to painfully spiked.

Versace creates enigma variations. Throughout his work, contradiction and argument dissolve dullness and define style; his equivocations between modern and historicist fashions, his alliances between vulgarity and elegance, his allover flamboyance tamed by quality in details, show his view of dress as a site of resolution between antipodes. Does Versace in this case resolve the tension between clothing in evolution and clothing solved, between Western novelty and Eastern quiescence? In fact this is a hyperbolic, caricatured sari, the bright colors more Warner Bros. cartoon than Raj, and the slashed yellow T-shirt more Flashdance than choli, the fitted top that is its inspiration. Versace renders the continuous wrapping of the sari, a gesture of elegance and protocol, into a graphic pronouncement. Gone is the sweep of the Indian original; in its place are conspicuous signs of Western interpolation, a pop of change and an insinuation of popular culture.

That hint goes farther: Versace grafts onto the Indian classic an emblem of ’70s English punk. In the ’90s, and in Versace’s hands, that style is already artifactual, absolved of its primary transgressiveness, yet it remains sufficiently memory-laden would describe it as interesting are obliged to to seem reckless or at least slightly promiscuous. Versace takes the safety pin of first-generation-punk disfigurement in new directions: for him, it becomes a sign of process, as if he were pinning the muslin to create the garment (though then he’d be using straight pins). But the pins here repair, rather than make, the garment’s long vertical separation. In this Versace simulates the dress-making process besides literally gilding one of punk’s virulent antibourgeois tokens—turning it into a bourgeois asset, gold jewelry: Sex Pistols, meet Bulgari.

There is no future, to be sure, in England’s dream. Versace affirms the original punk critique but takes it elsewhere, albeit in the supposedly polite and unmattering arena of high fashion. Versace’s brutal cleaving of the sari in the manner that reflects a youth cultural sensibility two decades removed is certainly a virtuoso demonstration of design-room possibility: where the sari is a single piece of cloth functioning as a bias-draped ergonomic whole, the Evening Ensemble resutures an intact aggregate out of separated parts. The eye at work here, however, is not just the eye of the needle; it is an eye turned out on the world. While punk, with its faddishness, successfully shredded an enduring concept (for a half century’s battering had not managed to destroy England’s imperial self-image), Versace lets transience and perpetuity coexist. While we have for a hundred years expected (or demanded) that the fashion designer espouse novelty and the moment, Versace lets us choose the triumphant expression of a past more powerful than punk dismay, an ideal more sovereign, resourceful, and sensuous than one with a mean of iconoclastic change.

Can a mere dress engage colonialism, social change, and resecured values, all given sign in a garment that brings together archetype and recent historical style, with a safety pin as connector? In Cindy Sherman’s enacted portraiture or Yasumasa Morimura’s intercessions in the genre or Byron Kim’s use of partitives for the human visage, we see our culture parsing encumbered sign systems of the past into smaller, more intimate integers of intellect and emotion. Predisposed to the body, apparel is nonetheless an instrument of our perceptions, convictions, and even politics. Versace’s Evening Ensemble bears witness to our global visual culture and our complex uncertainties in striving to remember, wanting to replace, and demanding to ameliorate.

Richard Martin is curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.