Sculptural Fashion: Volume, Structure, and the Body

Fashion necessitates a body. What is fashion without a body beneath? The interaction between the two is one that, as trends and materials come and go, will always remain. The nature of the interaction, at least on the runway, is what provides variety and differentiates designers. As such, the relationship is a way to explore the topic of sculptural fashion, where the body is designed for and even acted with or upon in an extraordinary number of ways.

Questions that drive this research piece include:

What makes fashion sculpture? Just because fashion is tridimensional, is it automatically sculpture?

What makes sculpture fashion? Just because a piece is made to be worn, is it automatically fashion?

What does structure and fashion engineering (or lack thereof) mean for the body?

How sculptural fashion addresses the above questions depends on the individual designer or artist. Here, specific work from the following designers will be investigated and compared: Jean Paul Gaultier, Charles James, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Rick Owens, and Walter Van Beirendonck. These designers’ specific works were chosen to provide points of comparison in terms of structure and volume as a way to investigate how sculptural fashion interacts with the body.

To begin the discussion on fashion’s effect on the body, the first example represents an extreme of this interaction: the corset. Traditionally an undergarment, not meant to be seen, the corset has been re-interpreted time and time again. Recently, in modern fashion, it has become the centerpiece of many designers, including perhaps most notably, Jean Paul Gaultier.


Jean Paul Gaultier corsets on show in the designer’s traveling retrospective show (2011). Photo courtesy of Charlie Pea.


The corset is important to this discussion, as it really was one of the first items of clothing to affect the body in very dramatic ways. It not only changes the appearance of the waistline, but it restricts the growth of the body in certain dimensions.

In this case, fashion is interacting directly with the body, so much so that it is restricting and changing how the body itself exists. The intricate design, boning, and fabrication of a corset is a sculpture in and of itself. Similarly, the work of Charles James is a result of highly technical sculptural components and is perhaps one of the first examples of sculptural fashion.

“Clover Leaf” dress (1953), Charles James. Silk, synthetic. Photo courtesy of Pinterest.


The Clover Leaf dress is a prime example of sculptural fashion – one that takes after the cage crinoline and 1860s voluminous silhouettes. James pioneers a new way to achieve volume in a skirt without the structure of the past and instead uses two separate understructures of boning and stiff interfacings to balance the weight of the skirt on the hips (15 pounds!). This weight distribution allows the dress to sway when in movement, rather than rock back and forth.

Here, structure is of utmost importance and is a departure from the common cage crinolines used to achieve such a large shape. In this way, the dress seems to build itself around the wearer, James acting as an architect and engineer – a sculptor. Technical details aside, the torso is hugged and accentuated, while the skirt takes on extreme volume and holds a complex, undulating shape of its own.

To compare James’s work from 1953 to Turkish fashion designer Hussein Chalayan’s designs, particularly from his spring/summer 2000 collection, is to reveal a similar engineered precision, but in completely different ways. In the looks below, Chalayan seems to take inspiration from science fiction and futuristic technology in terms of styling, as well as the construction of jutting angles in the bodice and skirt. On the left is the famous “Remote Control” (often referred to as the Airplane dress), which is made of fiberglass and resin composite and has flaps that open via remote control. What is revealed beneath is a soft mass of tulle, similar to the example on the right. What is truly striking here is the modular fabrication, at once sleek and impersonal, that opens up to a soft, more human-like interior that is at the same time no less structured.

“Remote Control” (look 7) and look 8 of spring 200 ready-to-wear by Hussein Chalayan. Fiberglass, metal, cotton, synthetic. Photo courtesy of Chris Moore via March & Fight.


Hussein is known for addressing “the spatial connotations of the body and how we culturally define ourselves in what we wear and how we act” and is often inspired by geography, religion, ethnicity, time, and space. In light of this information, the Airplane dress, although inspired by modern and futuristic times, is also removed from connotations of organic matter or specificity in culture. It floats above body commentary with a very structured, directed form.

In other cases, textiles and fashion move beyond creating a structure around the body to becoming conceptually about the body: rejecting, critiquing, emphasizing, questioning, transforming.

Finale view, No. 13, spring/summer 1999, Alexander McQueen. Photo courtesy of AnOther.


Alexander McQueen was one of the first popular designers to really push boundaries of fashion towards the conceptual. His daring show No. 13, the only show that has ever made the designer himself cry, ends in a finale where former ballerina Shalom Harlow steps onto a rotating circle on the plywood floor and begins to spin. Two machines seem to watch her, observing and attempting to assess the situation when they begin to spray black and yellow paint onto Harlow’s pristine white trapeze dress. She spins, as paint wraps and disgraces the frock. Here, the performance of the machine attacks the body, as it rotates and becomes the canvas for these machines that seem to take on their own personalities. The moment is so moving because the body becomes the canvas for an idea – firstly for a very voluminous, unstructured trapeze dress and secondly for a performative commentary that could reference the body of the machine, the trace of an action, a subverting of purity or proper high fashion, the artist’s hand, or a relinquishment of power.

The body is disregarded here in a sense – it has no agency in the performance, rather the body and the design of the dress are left up to their environment and circumstances. Even the dress itself disregards the body: it is voluminous, extending outward with only a belt securing it across the chest. The body is at the mercy of the idea.

In comparison, Rei Kawakubo uses a similar conceptual level; however, she addresses the body by transforming the body.


Look 16, fall 2013 ready-to-wear, Comme des Garçons. Photo courtesy of The Met.


The Comme des Garçcons designer is well known for playful, imaginative, structured garments that come into direct conversation with the body. Often considered a deconstructivist, Kawakubo’s designs act as a supplement to the body, not a complement, which is a notion important to Jacques Derrida, the philosophical founder of deconstruction. Deconstructivism deals with the expression of dysfunctionality of something stable. Full of uncomfortable paradoxes and contradictions, Kawakubo’s work hits a tone of confusion, but also inevitability (“how?” but also “of course it is like that”).

The above work from Infinity of Tailoring (fall 2013) is a prime example of this certain daze, which adds volume to the torso in a way where arms are brought onto another axis, disappearing in the confusion of it all. It morphs the body into becoming a completely different body.

Looks 8 and 39, spring 2018 ready-to-wear, Rick Owens. Photos courtesy of Vogue.


Rick Owens’s Spring 2018 RTW collection is yet another example that harkens back to Kawakubo’s work where the looks act as an extension of the body: long, dangling arms, protruding box-like bellies. Yet this time, as the show progresses, the looks begin to struggle and start detaching from the models. Fashion rejects the body, overtakes it, and becomes something entirely new. It disposes of the figure, taking on its own lumpy, twisted forms that seem to grow outward. It grows on, a type of barnacle that is compressed onto the body by an elastic web. Owens calls these last few looks that he sent down the runway “meringues,” Vogue calls them “climate refugees,” and in a sense, they seem somewhere in between.

In these works by Owens, a pattern seems to emerge: it is when fashion starts to extend farther away from the confines of the body – taking up more space, less space, new space – where it becomes more sculptural. The fashion becomes about the form and less about the body it is attached to.

In this way, volume and structure are two aspects that provide an entry point into the sculptural aspect of fashion. Does the farther away the work moves from the body indicate a stronger sculptural sense because it is starting to take on its own form? Is there a relationship between how close a piece is to the body and its level of sculptural-ness?

Walter Van Beirendonck’s work provides an interesting commentary on this notion of volume and sculptural awareness. Pop abstract forms from his Spring 2012 menswear show alter the body so much, that the shock comes when you realize there is a body beneath!


Looks (clockwise) 35, 33, 32, and 30, spring 2012 menswear, Walter Van Beirendonck. Photos courtesy of Vogue.


Beirendonck, who is known for using masks and headgear to disguise and transform models’ bodies, uses this show to explore an extreme, and in doing so, creates walking sculpture.

Is seems that here, it becomes possible to detach fashion from being about the body entirely. If the “clothing” (clothing at this point warrants quotation marks) – the work, the art – is attached to a body, but is not bodily, can it cut all ties to the act of “wearing”? Is it still fashion at that point? In this case, the forms work – or walk – on their own. The coordinated pants that stick out of the bottom complement the top-heavy structure, but are irrelevant. This is a total departure from the body, but doesn’t necessarily mean that it achieves being further away from the body in space. It does this through color, texture, shape, and the act of covering and obscuring.

The construction of the volume also plays a role in all of these examples. Beirendonck’s work is highly structured and takes up space around the model, while Owens’s work seems to grow organically and without directed structure. To then compare these two back to Kawakubo, they move beyond the body in a way quite dissimilar to Kawakubo, who addresses, comments on, and re-imagines the physicality and anatomy of the body directly. And then reaching even further back, to James and Chalayan, whose work is highly structured with high volume and little direct discourse around the body (although they still interact with the body – for example, weight distribution around the body in the Clover Leaf dress and opening flaps to reveal an interior in the Airplane dress).

Interaction with body is perhaps the crux of the matter here, regardless of structure or volume, which is an illusion of grand interaction with the body. Instead, circling back to the corset, the ways that fashion affects the body can be quite drastic and direct, creating deception of a completely different body. But on the other hand, fashion can use the body as merely the support system – an inner structure – for a textile piece.

Moreover,  for fashion, the body can be disregarded, act as a source of growth or a vehicle for sculpture, or provide a jumping off point to raise personal questions. The list and the questions go on and on. However, on the spectrum of interaction, fashion can never be detached completely from providing commentary, as textile work will always be in conversation with the body.


Geczy, Adam. Critical fashion practice : from Westwood to van Beirendonck. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.


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