The other day while reading Barchester Towers, I came across this characterization of Mrs. Stanhope, the indolent wife of an absentee clergyman:
The structure of her attire was always elaborate and yet never over-laboured. She was rich in apparel but not bedizened with finery; her ornaments were costly, rare, and such as could not fail to attract notice, but they did not look as though worn with that purpose. She well knew the great architectural secret of decorating her constructions, and never descended to construct a decoration. But when we have said that Mrs. Stanhope knew how to dress and used her knowledge daily, we have said all. Other purpose in life she had none.
Ouch! A fit match for a husband who takes his job so seriously that he delegates it to a lesser-ranking clergyman and spends his life abroad, collecting butterflies and a salary for the work he's not doing! But the part of the quote that intrigued me was the bit about the "great architectural secret", which sounded like a quote.
So I looked it up and found this architectural forum thread, where people batted the quote around with a bit of implied laughter, presumably at some architect joke. Here's a longer quote from a famous book about modern architecture:
When Modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament. In promoting Space and Articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck. They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck; minimegastructures are mostly ducks.
The references to modern architecture being "ducks" was part of a laboriously explained dichotomy between buildings that were simply buildings and were decorated with signs or other furniture to make them suit their purpose ("decorated sheds") and buildings that thought the decorated sheds were too prosaic, and so tried to make the whole building tell you what it was for by looking like its use or purpose. Here are some notable "ducks". But I disagree with such a limited breakdown of things. Why only two options? In fact, most of what I think of as modern architecture falls into a third category: buildings which try their darnedest to fulfill the role of a building without looking like one or looking like a duck. You know the ones I mean... bigger on top than on bottom, with random excrescences, hopefully graceful cantilevered floors, elevated walkways and abstract art?
But back to Pugin's original quote:
“It is alright to decorate construction but never construct decoration.”
Trollope's Barchester Towers was published in 1857, so he may have read Pugin's work. (Philosophically, the two had some similarities... Pugin championed the Gothic style of architecture on moral grounds, as being more humane and Christian than modern, utilitarian styles, while Trollope used his work in the fictional hamlet of Barchester to contrast the amiable rightness of the old ways with the pushy officiousness of modern worldviews.)
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
In both architecture and clothing, form follows function... A building must shield the occupant from wind and weather, so it ends up having walls and a roof, for instance. Clothing is the same: there may be endless varieties of shirts, but the basic concept of a shirt is always the same--to cover the torso--and so the form generally is something torso-shaped. Cultures around the world have different shirts, but they are all identifiably shirts.
THE FUNCTION MAY BE SYMBOLIC
In buildings and in clothes, there are non-utilitarian functions that influence form, such as the objective to intimidate or make users comfortable, to signal modesty or availability, to reveal or conceal things, to preach political ideas, et cetera.
I knew a man once who would scoff at women's fashion, saying things like "that silk blouse won't keep her warm--it's not functional"! He was half-right (which is to say ALL WRONG); the clothing might not serve a utilitarian purpose, but that didn't mean it didn't serve any purpose! The silk blouse wouldn't keep her warm, but it would make her feel beautiful, or satisfy a tactile appetite for luxurious texture, or signal her social standing, or reassure her that she was worthy of respect from others, or communicate something else. It had many possible functions, not just the utilitarian function of warmth. But ultimately, for most people, beauty is a need. Without beauty, humanity fails to thrive in a way that's difficult to quantify but impossible to deny. Since beauty is a need for us, it's a legitimate function for our things.
FORM INFLUENCES FUNCTION
Just as the form of a building (or garment) follows the function we require of it, our function within a building (or garment) is influenced by the form it already has. We behave differently in a cathedral than in a cottage: in a cathedral, high vaulted ceilings and windows make us feel small while beautiful art directs our attention to the sublime; in a cottage, the human-scale and cozy, soft furnishings make us comfortable. It's the same with clothing: structured jackets and patent leather shoes make us feel formal; corsets literally impair our movement and breath; high heels change our posture and gait; a crown weighs down the head that wears it.
FORM WITHOUT FUNCTION
So what about form that seemingly has no function, either physical, emotional, or symbolic? When, for instance, designers send some gaunt model down the runway in "clothing" that fails to cover her, or to protect her, or to look nice on her, or to communicate an intelligible message to onlookers...? What is that? A duck? Anti-clothes? Many designers, at least in their runway shows, construct something that's not clothing and not decorative, and then decorate that thing...
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
What's your personal philosophy of dress? Do you decorate the construction? Construct the decoration?
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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