Clothes Sense

Belle Lettrism

Thoughts on words on clothes.

The current show at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute concentrates on 20th-century garments bearing words, letters, and numbers in various ways. There are a few word-bearing accessories from earlier days–garters, stockings, fans, and gloves, most with political or erotic reference–but the clothes date mostly from the middle to the end of this century. Nevertheless the show’s punning title, “Wordrobe,” appears on the wall with the displaced “a” in flashing red neon above the first “o.” Right away we’re meant to think of Hester Prynne’s big scarlet A, imposed by the godly community, which she defiantly embellished with gold thread. In so doing Hester was transgressing a second time, because in the 17th century, in which the novel was set (and in the 19th, in which it was written), wearing letters for decoration on everyday clothing was entirely unacceptable.

It is still disturbing, or was until very recently. Why is that? Words, letters, and numbers on garments seem riskier than kittens, clouds, and flowers on garments, just as those seem less natural than stripes, plaids, or checks. But what, exactly, is profaned by putting words on clothes? Is it the garment, the person, or the words? I believe it is the writing. The written word was accumulating its own sacred aura even before Homer and the Bible. Ever since priests, scholars, and poets used writing to record Scripture, prayer law, and history both exalted and prosaic, reverence for canonical writings has lent an august power to written words themselves. And with all the weight of such a past, a certain dread can still attach to the sight of them being frivolously used.

In the middle of this century, turning words into fashion seemed like just such a use. Some of the designs shown at the Met reflect a serious daring; they are examples not just of amusing invention but also of rule-breaking. Turning the cutout letters of Emily Post’s Advice to Debutantes into a debutante’s dress (designed by Evans and Wong, 1996), or knitting the preamble to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence into a cashmere sweater (designed by Joseph Golden, 1997), or even just making a dress out of random alphabet-lace (French, late 1920s)–all these are ways of flaunting modern fashion’s basic iconoclasm.

After the show, I looked around the museum to see if I could find any paintings representing people with writing on their clothes. I found only Christ and the Virgin and the occasional saint, clad in ceremonial garments edged with golden or pearl-sewn words from liturgy or Scripture–but these were worn only in heaven. Earthly mortals didn’t seem to have the privilege. Words or letters or numbers on your clothes set you apart as some sort of human object, sacred like St. Anthony or shameful like Hester Prynne or maybe useful like a team member.

There is, in fact, an old football jersey in this show, with a big number on it. But it’s mainly there as a foil to an evening dress by Geoffrey Beene (1968) with a football number in glittering beading. Beene has another beautiful, sleek black one with a sequined traffic sign emblazoned across the chest, a big, shiny yellow triangle with “yield” in black capitals (1967). Wonderful to look at–with the meaning not lost, just transmuted, by the sequins.

More stirring is a sheer bodysuit designed by Jean Paul Gaultier in 1994 that transforms the wearer into a living banknote, all gray-green engraved swirls and crosshatching, with an occasional “100” at salient corners. This stretches the theme a little, since there are no words and it isn’t the reproduction of a real bill. But it works, like so much else in the exhibition, to show how practical signs can become erotic adornments on the human surface, depending on texture and placement. This skintight, transparent garment turns its pattern into a tattoo, a practice alluded to by several other items here, including some skin-colored Gaultier swim trunks that seem to cover the genitals with a tattoo saying “Safe Sex Forever” (1997).

Monograms have a natural place in the “wordrobe,” but they were not invented for clothing. The rich and the noble used to put them on personal effects to imitate the ancient royal habit of stamping (or embroidering or incising) the king’s property with his personal cipher. Artisans would discreetly stamp precious creations with their own monograms in minidesigner-label mode, while giving elaborate prominence to the client’s. There are plenty of surviving cigar cases, purses, boxes, lockets, brooches, penknives, and all kinds of tableware with small maker-monograms and large owner-monograms; and there are mountains of antique household linen with embroidered domestic monograms.

But none of these is clothing. Putting monograms on display on garments is very recent. I know my mother thought monogrammed blouses and bathrobes vulgar–but not monogrammed bracelets or guest towels; from which I gather that vivid personal monograms on clothes were new in the ‘30s. Once everybody got used to them in the next generation, it was very easy to replace them with YSL and CK and the double Gs in the following one. And those have acquired a lot more prestige than our own ever had.

Sultan Sáladin, the great 12th-century Muslim opponent of the Crusaders, had an ornate monogram that Mary McFadden borrowed to adorn a dignified 1993 ensemble that is on view in this show. Of course it can’t be read by those familiar with only Greek and Roman letters; nor can all the beautiful Chinese and Japanese characters in this exhibition, similarly reduced to abstract motifs by our inability to recognize what they say. (It does seem unfair to love them only for their looks, as if we despised their minds.) Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam has used script for sumptuous decoration of all kinds. But the Islamic artists, like those in China and Japan, didn’t forget that the immortal soul of the word is its sense; nor that clothing, since prehistory, has made sense without words. Arabic words appear on beautiful textiles, but not on those worn as clothing. Similarly, Japanese calligraphy has a great artistic tradition, no less great than that of Japanese watercolor painting or Japanese costume, and beautifully brushed poems may appear next to watercolor images similar to those that often appear on clothes. But the words do not go on the garments.

It has taken modern Western fashion to make that happen. Brocade or chiffon dresses covered in who-knows-what utterances in beautiful Chinese and Arabic script, or dresses wittily made of paper printed with the New York Yellow Pages, all express a joyful relish in the decay of the written word, a forthright pleasure in the way its meaning has been draining away. Indeed, you could view this show as a carnivalesque celebration of our growing tolerance for illiteracy.

At the end of the show is a cluster of popular sportswear with Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Nautica, the Gap, and such names applied to it. These prove that Hester Prynne’s proud display of her A was prophetic. For with the proliferation of shifting public signage, slogans, logos, and the lava flow of printout, the words on your clothes are now what certify your physical existence. They put you in harmony with the rest of the material world, as well as with the electronically written universe on the Internet. Words are now rarely carved in stone; printed books are quickly pulped; but endless messages flicker momentarily on screens or on this month’s T-shirt. The exhibition tells us that as a vessel of lasting sense or sacred truth, the written word may be losing ground, but that as a source of inarticulate comfort, it has gained much.