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Recycling the Avante-Garde

Cintra Wilson on how art becomes accessory

There’s a subtle cultural proxy war that unfolds endlessly on our bodies and those of our friends, neighbors and countrymen. The battlefield is symbolism, and the weapons are prints. 

My first inkling of the importance of imagery in textiles was as a small child in the late 1970s. I was at a playdate at the home of affluent friends when I was seized by an absorbing interest in their bold op art bath towels. I was so impressed, I lorded their label over my rube mother and her inferior linens. “Their towels,” I informed her poshly, “are by Yes Saint Lorrent.”

“Ha! It’s pronounced ‘Eve,’ not ‘Yes,’” she chortled. 

Mispronouncing the name of the designe was a stinging shame that I bore for years. I later became obnoxiously competent at French pronunciation, if not comprehension. I finally tasted sweet revenge recently, when ma mère botched “Ghesquière” to my riotous derision.

But the important thing was the print on those YSL towels: rearranged bull’s-eyes, not unlike Jasper Johns’s target paintings, but cut up, like a William S. Burroughs novel, and wrought in Egyptian cotton in that season’s fashionable turquoise and fuchsia. 

It took those bull’s-eyes twenty years to travel from the avant-garde art gallery to the bourgeois guest bathroom—a journey that completely exhausted the image of all the shock it once inspired. The “trickle-down theory” may be a risible economic model, but it’s a safe bet that whatever cutting-edge styles and shapes the avant-garde curators are fetishizing now will end up a nine-piece sheet set, 30 percent off at a mid-range white sale in the not-too-distant future. 

Recycling the Avant-Garde

Prints undergo many changes during their journey from canvas to laundry basket, as any look into a 1970s suburban mail-order catalog will reveal. One must bear in mind that the muttonchopped man in yellow plaid pants wasn’t always a punch line; he was hip, once. He was the Casanova of the country club before mass production stole his flair, turned it viral in Dacron, and rendered him the guy who sells wholesale waterbeds. His plaid was originally intended to épater les bourgeois, not add a pop of color to your drapes.

Take the recent recrudescence of the bejeweled caftan, a style that began amid the haute volée—tax exiles and jet-setters— hanging around Tangier in 1956. Artists, writers and drug fiends of all sexual proclivities followed: Paul Bowles, Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, the Rolling Stones. The spirit of 1960s Marrakech was epitomized by a Patrick Lichfield shot of Talitha Getty, diaphanous and dishabille on her roof deck among the domes. The caftan declared allegiance to an artistic, kif-smoking, lotuseating, louche and sexually adventurous set of beautiful people and heavy thinkers who were getting high among the tiles and returning to swinging London spangled like gypsy Christmas trees in cheap silver tribal jewelry, beads, Berber rugs and enough sheepskin objets to re-create an opium den back in Leicester Square.

Today, no more decadence remains in the caftan. The kicky Moorish influences occasionally found in the offerings of today’s young professional hipster furniture showrooms—leather poufs, geometric lamp shades—were once inspired by Islamic tiles, but the designs have been politely de-Islamicized for your protection, sending a demi-Moorish signal, if you will—a de-opiated den look for the aspirational loft-dwelling crowd. 

Punk rock and bondage suffered a similar loss of meaning. In Style Wars, Peter York writes about the resultant excitement when punk exploded onto a music scene that had been waiting for something to happen for a decade. “The OK subjects now certainly weren’t sex or love, for that was tedious and middlebrow, but the dole queue, boredom, urban violence, and perversity . . . It was Jean Genet and J. G. Ballard all in one,” he wrote. Soon enough, the big record labels were able to depoliticize and dilute the meanings introduced by seminal bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols into dumber bands with lesser messages but greater commodification—what York describes as “Pepsi-punk” (recently, “luxe-punk,” the ultimate sartorial oxymoron, appeared on Madison Avenue).

Even the durable Goth style has defanged and deprived of its original death drive. When Paris designers began dishing out seven-inch black-buckled bondage pleasers, once worn exclusively by vampire sex workers, there was certainly still sex in them; they still winked like naughty shoes, but the cost and quality of them removed the danger. It was the footwear of the demimondaine, without the edgy aftertaste, tragic consequences or that dirty feeling they felt when the dawn crept in. Even the skull print has become fodder for toddler bibs. 

What begins as a declaration of symbolic class warfare—a gob in the Establishment’s eye—gets trendy, co-opted and mass-produced. The symbols of social transgression inevitably become the hand towels of the middle classes. Patterns endure, but the symbolism swings (as England did, when Roger Miller sang about it in 1965) “like a pendulum do.” The meaning of the sign is destabilized; the patterns roll through time, losing a bit of that original suction every year, and, ultimately, mean nothing at all. BG