Velveteen Dreams: Dada

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 4:42pm

The showcase of Richard Quinn’s Spring 2019 line opened with what many fashion publications would call a “luxe morphsuit.” The first four models were covered from head to toe in skin-tight black velvet accompanied by tonal tulle cocktail frocks, commanding silk capes, a pair of lilac pants and a striking blue satin a-line dress, covered in a jeweled vine of ruby red roses (with a matching bag!). The initial onslaught acted as something of a palette-cleansing agent for the looks to come, the first of which were an abrupt change in tone. That’s not to say that the collection lacked cohesion. In fact, different ideas were neatly tied together through a range of silhouettes, but the “luxe morphsuit” concept was particularly interesting because of the jarring, almost sinister allure it held. The models were obfuscated by this stylistic choice, and it afforded them a kind of agency that can only be wielded by playing the role of a silent actor.

Quinn’s masked foray fits neatly into a larger movement of labels tapping into concepts first brought forward by the Dada movement in the early 20th century. Perhaps the first to introduce this idea since Maison Martin Margiela in 2009, Gucci debuted a model covered in crystals in the fall of 2017. Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga, a house with a reputation for pushing stylistic directions to their absolute extreme, posted photos on their Instagram of models similarly covered in pantyhose as well as digitally manipulated images that either multiply figures to the point where they are rendered unrecognizable or do away with them entirely. The first and most notable installment of these is a digitally manipulated closeup of their blockbuster knife boot in a compiled money print. The sharply pointed boot lurches toward the viewer in a penguin-toed fashion, only to vanish into thin air at the mid calf. Another photo features a house-branded “Space Hunters” tee and a pair of suit pants hanging over a drying rack with a model creeping out from underneath. The photos might feel categorically dissimilar, but they instill that same sense of relative unease as Quinn’s morphsuits, which they achieve by tapping into the uncanny. 

We all have agreed notions of what reality is supposed to look like and they become linked to metrics of mental clarity and basic safety. Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Höch and Sophie Taeuber were among the first to introduce the idea that those notions can be upended through art. By creating work that undermines universal norms, like the expectation that a pair of boots will be connected to a pair of legs or that clothing will be modeled by a person and not a faceless morph, the viewer is asked not only to question the work itself but the environment surrounding them. As one might expect, exploring the strange vegetations and fears that occupy the unknown can also be a chance to consider or call attention to existing problems in the sociopolitical sphere.

RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10 finalist Asia O’Hara was seen alongside her sisters during one of her pre-finale appearances covered in black mesh, a protruding rib cage, ruched knee-length dress and matching halo crown. Speaking on her sartorial choice, O’Hara told London’s Metro “I think there comes a point in the competition where some non-majority queens or non-perfect queens start to fade and disappear into the background. My dress and my attire was just a visual representation of exactly how I was being perceived.” Around this time, Asia was also receiving death threats for suggesting that 4th runner-up Miz Cracker shouldn’t continue in the competition during episode 10. It should be noted that Asia was the only Black queen (or queen of color, for that matter) to have made it to the final four and has been vocal about the disparity in treatment she has received in comparison to the other finalists. In visually reflecting her experiences, ranging from lack of credit to virulent aggression, her look helped forward the long overdue conversation around race issues in the Drag Race fandom. 

Vehicles of Dadaism remain a piercing and cogent tool at the disposal of artists regardless of their chosen medium, whether that pertains to getting onlookers to sit up in their seats during fashion week or addressing issues that permeate society as a whole. In choosing to isolate themselves, Asia, Quinn and Demna are in good company.