Want to be the Poet or the Muse? Essay by Antonia Nessen


Want to be the poet or the muse?

The way the relationship between the fashion designer and the muse is often described, has much in common with the transformation theme that is rooted in the myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who falls deeply in love with a statue that he has carved.

By Antonia Nessen

In “Falling in love with Statues: Artificial Humans from Pygmalion to the Present” (2009), George L. Hersey shows how people since ancient times have used dolls, marionettes, robots and virtual representations to develop ideas about artificial humans. This is what Hersey refers to as The Pygmalion Effect. With magic, art, electricity or technological innovation we have tried to replicate human life.

Fashion models are perhaps not statues, but they can be beautiful captured in plastic. Do you remember the picture of Naomi Campbell, Karen Mulder and Claudia Schiffer where they are each posing with a toy doll? The goddesses of the early 90s each got a kind of kitsch mini-me that they, according to the commercial, could play with, comb and dress up. As Pygmalion, children animate their dolls with magical thinking. But the idea of adults playing with dolls can be a bit unnerving, especially if the dolls are their doppelgangers. In “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” from 1962, a doll becomes the symbol of Bette Davis’s insanity. While the doll sits at the piano, Davis twirls around with bows in her hair; she wants to return to the 1910s when she was the great child star Baby Jane Hudson.

We seem to be frightened by the thought of dolls and robots as autonomous subjects. Frankenstein’s monster as well as the Replicants in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner“ all set off to hunt down their creators. In Mary Shelley’s novel the monster is made up of real human organs and demonstrates that the line between living and artificial isn’t absolute. That distinction may be particularly pertinent today considering the tools we use to alter our bodies. What used to be achieved by corsets and wigs has been replaced by surgery.

In creating a new human, fashion and clothes are often central to the transformation process. “Pygmalion” (later “My Fair Lady”) is the play about Higgins who wants to turn Eliza the flower girl into a proper lady. Her entrance dressed in an evening gown indicates the transformation. In the fashion world, designers can compete with Pygmalion in carving out female bodies. And like Cinderella’s shoe that was so small it would only fit her tiny foot, the sample collections are made to fit only the very thinnest of models. The catwalk becomes an arena for a ritual staging a threshold between reality and a vague idea of perfection.

But few material things are as strictly divided according to gender as clothes. Fashion has been understood as body and femininity, the opposite of mind and rationality, which has positioned fashion in opposition to technology. Would designers be ready to move further away from the human body in their creations? Donna Haraway posits in her “A Cyborg Manifesto” from 1984 that the cyborg can be a boundary crosser that opens up for a world without gender categories. The cyborg surpasses both the supposed human and the supposed technological. By developing the cyborg it would be possible to deconstruct notions of what a human can be.

With its penchant for metamorphoses and the poetic insanity in the shape of the authority of the designer, the fashion world ought to be the perfect arena for more experiments with different forms of artifical life. A problem seems to be that it’s easier to fall in love with preexisting images; if more sci-fi films are produced in the future, we will hopefully see an increase in these fashion experiments. Imagining new existences is one way to articulate new dreams for the future.