August 20, 2014 9 min read.


Fredericke Winkler's latest article for J`N`C Magazine. Illustration by Frauke Berg.

If there's one thing we don't want to achieve with our elevator, it's that others laugh at us. Fashion can be anything; provocative, scandalous, bizarre, strange, even unreasonable. The only thing it must not be is funny. After all, cheerful clothes are so provincial. If an outfit is called funny, this is a nice euphemism for 'not skillful'. If fashion makes you smile, its best days are long behind it. According to psychologists and doctors, humor not only makes us happier and smarter, it also makes us more beautiful. So why does fashion take itself so terribly seriously? Or do we just not understand its jokes?

The other day I took on the honorable office of judging fashion students' work as part of a jury. Some were good, others less so. However, I particularly remembered a collection that could hardly be surpassed in thoughtless ugliness. Already inferior fabrics were put together with the sewing machine to form textile structures that seemed neither wearable nor meaningful to me. And while I struggled to bring my facial features under control, I listened to the profound swearing about the spiritual superstructure of the work, which the student knew how to tell about extremely eloquently. This situation was by far the funniest I have experienced in a long time. And that was because what was said and what was seen were so far apart.

"Humor is the inverse of the sublime. It degrades the great in order to give it the small, and elevates the small in order to place the great at its side," is the plea of the writer Jean Paul to approach things with more cheerfulness. If an evil seems too big, we set new standards à la 'it could be worse', and almost everything is put into perspective. Even if the presentation in question is a classic example of unintentional comedy: the idea, absurd in the best sense of the word, of putting the obviously amateurish collection on a par with genuine quality work nevertheless fascinated me. Why? Because it fundamentally puts the sublimity of fashion up for grabs.

The situation reminded me of a sketch by Hape Kerkeling for his show 'Total Normal'. In it, Kerkeling impersonated a Polish opera singer who performed an experimental piece of music that ended with a loud "Hurz". The special spice of this successful parody of the (pseudo-)intellectual art scene: the audience listened to the performance with benevolent appreciation. If my student had ended his presentation with a loud "Hurz", the work would certainly have been given the highest grade. Not as a fashion collection, however, but as an artistic work whose merit would have been to satirize the overly serious nature of the industry. After all, fashion must primarily adorn the body and not - for whatever reason - denigrate it.

Cheerful to fashionable

As a handmaiden of the prevailing beauty ideals, fashion must not risk its sublimity. For it functions through the innate human urge to imitate the 'better'. At any rate, this is the conclusion reached by anyone who takes Immanuel Kant's 'Anthropological Remarks on Taste' to heart, and a reading of Georg Simmel's 'On Fashion' also suggests such an interpretation. Roman Meinhold describes this striving for improvement in 'The Fashion Myth: Lifestyle as the Art of Living' as an act of "melioration" connected with the goal of increasing the aesthetic value of the human body. With the help of clothing, people can optimize themselves and thereby enjoy social recognition. In order for fashion to fulfill its purpose, it must give its wearer the opportunity to dress up according to the understanding of those around him. Comedy, however, is based on breaking the rules, on actively distancing oneself from expectations and social assumptions. A comic person does not want to improve himself, he wants to counterpoint. She uses language or other means of expression to point out what she finds debatable. She has fun with senselessness and finds new meaning in it. She brings things together that at first glance have no connection whatsoever, and tracks down small truths in these abstruse structures. According to the Duden, humor is an attitude of "cheerful composure." Serenity in the face of life's adversities.

In short, humor points to the imperfect in the world and helps the humorous to deal with it cheerfully. Fashion, meanwhile, always strives for perfection. Its task is to cover up flaws in order to draw attention to physical assets. With this contrary determination: How, please, are these two principles of representation supposed to find each other?

Life is too short for size zero

First, we have to distinguish between the subject who finds something funny and the object or person who seems funny. So, first of all, fashion doesn't have to have obvious humor for us to find it amusing in a certain context. On the contrary, experience shows that beer-serious things in particular cry out to be taken for a ride. So who's to blame if fashion lacks humor? The wearer, of course. After all, fashion continues to fulfill its purpose of optimization when its ironic potential is tapped here and there and the good joke is then delivered.

"Well, all higher humor begins with the fact that one no longer takes one's own person seriously." Hermann Hesse already put this sentence into the mouth of his Pablo in 'Der Steppenwolf'. So before you can laugh heartily at others, you first have to learn to make fun of yourself. The crux of self-irony? It is easier for a Steppenwolf or a so-called fringe group than for people who see a real chance for themselves to ride the wave of the mainstream. Women with an above-average body size by no means jeopardize their option for melioration by wearing a T-shirt with the print 'Life is too short for size zero! On the contrary. They are visibly adopting general ideals of beauty and making themselves unassailable in terms of clothing size, not without the discreet hint that they can shine in other respects. In this way, they remain bound to the principle of fashion, which is always an interplay of concealment here and display there. However, the fashionable lacks mass compatibility. First of all, the appropriate curves are needed for the shirt to make any sense at all. Second, you have to find its message funny to purchase it, and third, you have to have the courage to wear it. The group of people who meet all three criteria is simply too small to constitute a fashion phenomenon.

Textile fun can only come about if a group of people share a common style and a similar sense of humor, and if someone can be found to knit a collection out of it. If the recognition value is right, it can be possible to distance oneself from real and supposed deficits with pleasure in a collective. When the eco-friendly label bleed launches a T-shirt with the slogan 'I can dance my name', it is making fun of the cliché of the newer generation of eco-activists influenced by the alternative lifestyle of their parents (keyword: eurythmy lessons in Waldorf school). The T-shirt is a big hit with the young label, which on the one hand suggests that there might actually be some truth to the cliché, and on the other hand points to the ability of this milieu to laugh at itself.

"Insofar as fashion seeks to imitate 'worse,' it becomes comedy. This certainly does not happen often, but it does apply to carnival costumes, for example, when the disguise as a robber, prostitute, clown or bum is chosen. However, the question must be asked whether the aforementioned role models do not appear to be 'better' from a certain perspective of the person in disguise, otherwise why would they have dressed up in this way? Because within the respective social context and within the 'rationality' of the individual calculation related to it, the 'worse' nevertheless appears as the 'better,'" Meinhold describes the phenomenon of fashionable self-mockery.

Perfect imperfect

If the imperfect is part of the aesthetic model of a group of people, and dealing with it humorously is part of the communication culture, fashion must even have an ironic undertone. It must find perfection in the imperfect so that one can adorn oneself with it in the best possible way. This would at least be a fantastic explanation for the success of brands like Comme des Garçons, Jean Paul Gaultier or Gareth Pugh. They are known for the exaggeration and deformation of the physical silhouette. A stylistic device with the help of which they question the generally accepted convention forms of beauty. Possibly for another reason, the results are often reminiscent of jester costumes, albeit without the clownish awkwardness. And who knows; maybe Hedi Slimane was laughing his pants off when he designed the new Yves Saint ... sorry: Saint Laurent collection. Because with it he - and if one may believe Pierre Bergé - quite deliberately ensured bad reviews on the part of the press with the sure knowledge to score points with the buyers. He was right, because the relaunch of the traditional company has been enormously successful, which somehow makes the screeching critics look like humorless bunglers, doesn't it? And how exactly is Emma Hill's beautiful, yet somewhat shaggy collection for Mulberry from last fall/winter to be understood, which according to the designer was inspired by the children's book classic 'Where the Wild Guys Live'?

To be aesthetically recognized, a collection by no means has to follow all the rules. It doesn't have to conform to physical ideals of beauty, seasonal color schemes, and comfort standards at the same time. So why not use the space to tell a good joke? If you believe designer Franco Moschino, who was considered a great ironist of high fashion until his untimely death in 1994, there's really only one rule to follow: "Funny fashion has to be extremely well made, because then it has the necessary chic. It's easy to be funny with a printed T-shirt, but it's even cleverer to use a mink coat for it. After all, even caviar wouldn't be so interesting if it cost less." (Cf.UK Vogue August 2009)

When Franco Moschino speaks of 'well made', however, he is not only alluding to the quality of the workmanship and the material, but also to the design. Because even if there is mischievousness in it, fashion has to fulfill its purpose. It must not come across as silly or sarcastic, but must be turned towards the wearer and know how to satisfy his need for melioration in a charming way. Otherwise fashion would distance itself from the wearer. But fashion is a parasite. If it loses direct contact with its host, it dies like a primrose. This is a problem that the high-fashion label Prada tackles head-on in the short film 'A Therapy'. The four-minute spot (directed by Roman Polanski!) tells the story of an upper-class lady (Helena Bonham Carter in full Prada gear) who comes to her therapist (Ben Kingsley), lies down on the sofa and starts talking without looking left or right. So she doesn't notice that her therapist is more and more distracted by her Prada fur coat on the coat rack. In the end, he can't hold on any longer and slips into the coat himself - an ecstatic moment that is dryly commented with the saying: 'Prada suits everyone'. The film sparkles with charming self-irony, but remains 'Pradaesque' in every moment and thus convinced not only the customers of the fashion brand, but also the audience of the Cannes Film Festival.

Karl Lagerfeld succeeds in light-footedly distancing himself from his own weaknesses by regularly taking the mickey out of himself. "I can, thank God, (...) make fun of myself. Which, of course, doesn't stop me from making fun of others, too," he told 'Stern' in December 2006 (No. 51). At the latest since his last appearance on 'Wetten, dass ...?' in October 2012, he has been known and loved for his talent for impromptu self-parody. There, when asked if he thought he was good, he replied, "Not that I think I'm good... But it could be worse." It almost seems as if Karl Lagerfeld had plowed through Sigmund Freud's 1927 work 'The Humor', where it says regarding the meaning and purpose of mocking behavior: "The great thing obviously lies in the triumph of narcissism, in the victoriously asserted invulnerability of the ego. The ego refuses to be offended by the inducements of reality, to be compelled to suffer; it insists that the traumas of the outside world cannot be close to it, indeed it shows that they are only occasions for pleasure. This last trait is quite essential to humor." In the case of Karl Lagerfeld, the invulnerability of the ego and the gain of pleasure are apparently also transferred to those about whom the King so enjoys making fun. Because despite his dust-dry spitefulness, everyone likes to laugh at his jokes, even the ridiculed. In an interview with the B.Z. 28.Mail 2013 he wondered about the goodwill of the public, although he was rather known for his "critical words". He feels that this is a kind of fool's freedom, to be able to say anything and still be liked. Perhaps he is liked precisely because of this, and above all because he does not exclude himself in the process. In 1905 Freud had already dealt with the joke in detail. 'Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten' ('The Joke and its Relationship to the Unconscious') is the title of the work in which Freud for the first time takes a closer look at this technique for gaining pleasure and avoiding conflict. With the joke we overcome inhibitions, say goodbye to shame and propriety, and for brief moments can indulge in boundless, yet socially accepted pleasure. We reduce tensions and show solidarity with our counterpart, who understands our fun and shares pleasure.

In other words, humor creates closeness to like-minded people and protects against attacks on the personality by outsiders. Wouldn't that also be a fantastic definition for fashion? With this in mind, I congratulate the courageous creators who, for all their seriousness in dealing with the subject, are not above an ironic wink. A special salute to all fashion brands that encourage their fans to take life with cheerful composure. To all others, I recommend shouting "Hurz" out loud at this point. Because if there's one thing we don't want to achieve with our elevator, it's that others laugh at us. So we'd better do it ourselves.

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