I love a little avocational graphic design gambit —and nothing beats the glitter-strewn runways of New York Fashion Week. The unabashed grandiosity of the event is oddly comforting: as soon as one stops fretting about its silly excesses, you can freely admire the titanic imagination at play. And while attending live is no doubt aces, the virtual runway feels every bit as rife with opinion, titter, commentary, gasps, lollygagging – a total, and totally enjoyable, scene.
Having dipped a toe into fashion coverage before (see 2013 and 2011), this year I came at the topic with a fresh perspective. I’m infinitely better schooled now in what graphic patterns mean, particularly on textiles, thanks to my second book Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage & Other Graphic Patterns. It’s hitting bookstores next month – tiny drumroll, please! – and available for pre-order now.
Patternalia decodes the cultural histories of graphic patterns across the globe, revealing how many things a simple pattern can mean across cultures, disciplines, and contexts. It’s both audacious and unique; you won’t find another book tackling the same ambitious premise. And thanks to Oliver Munday (who designed my first book ROY G. BIV and topped himself here), it’s downright handsome.
The book started with a question that might float through the brain idling behind sunglasses in a runway crowd: “Seersucker. Paisley. Houndstooth. Who named all these patterns? What are their backstories?” As it turns out, those stories run way deeper – and more fascinating – than you might suppose. Let’s plunge into a few pattern-tales sauntering down the catwalk.
Some stories are overt, like Trina Turk’s exuberant kaftans and psychedelic swirls that opened this post. Clearly screams late 1960s and 70s, no? Yet the buried influences lurking in prints from those eras are also in evidence: Indian paisleys in swirls, Dutch wax batiks (which themselves contain an unlikely backstory, traveling as they did from Indonesia to Africa by way of Holland). Mara Hoffman revived Dutch wax batik in her large-scale graphic florals – see the lower right of this image.
Florals perfectly embody the paradoxical nature of patterns. On the one hand, they’re viewed as strictly decorative and duly dismissed. On the other hand, florals burst so frequently from textiles the world over, they function as a complex language specific to individual cultures.
Take Turkish oya, 3D-embroidered embellishments on traditional women’s headscarves. Here the symbology of flowers, fruits and vegetables works much like Ophelia’s “crazy flowers” speech in Hamlet. Edging your headscarf with oya chili-peppers communicates silently that relations are contentious right now between husband and wife – much like daisies in Shakespearean times betrayed faithlessness and dissembling. Mara Hoffman’s peonies above convey wealth and honor to the Chinese – outsizedly so, from the largeness of the print. Some might see these as magnolia blossoms, a crucial difference in Chinese symbology as “magnolia” is a homophone for “magnificent hall”. Magnolias evoke palaces, fairy domiciles, and other outlandishly luxurious residences.
Or consider DVF’s bold-pink toiles. These discreet prints are often referred to as “diapering”; writ purposely small, they’re designed to fill a background expanse discreetly. Here DVF plays with scale and optical illusion, so the dress is a wilderness of zoom-in-and-out. Toiles are among the first “conversational prints” – textiles with patterns mechanically stamped on them. Originally on unbleached linen or cotton, toiles could commemorate noteworthy events like the first balloon ascent or Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838.
Diapered prints is a key feature of medieval heraldry – such an amazing, rich rabbit-hole of pattern interestingness, it might deserve its own future post. Knowing how to decode heraldic signs will unlock zillions of instances of public iconography scrolling across the finery once (or currently) owned by dynasties from Europe and beyond.
There’s plenty more to parse and enjoy from patterns seen in New York Fashion Week – and the event’s now globe-trotting to London, Milan, and Paris. Stay tuned for part 2 soon!
Roy G. Biv takes clever look into the meaning of color and the emotional and social impact color has on our lives. Color is all around us every day. We use it to interpret the world—red means stop, blue means water, orange means construction. But it is also written into our metaphors, of speech and thought alike: yellow means cowardice; green means envy—unless you’re in Germany, where yellow means envy, and you can be “beat up green and yellow.”