Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Unique Uniformity: Fréger and Fashion

Clothing. It protects us from the elements. It covers our nudity, which reminds us too much of our descent of apes. It makes us clearer, more definable to our fellow men. 
This last function is where uniforms come into view.
The paradox of the uniform is twofold. First of all: The uniformity of the outer shell of a collection of people has one goal: to suppress individuality, to make clear that 'this' is one group, whether it be social, physical, bound by class, age or a common goal. But it's clear that everybody enters this world alone and for the rest of his life is trapped in his/her body and mind. You can never grasp what it must be like to be somebody else, however empathic you are. Second: the uniform is used to create objectivity and clarity but often spreads insecurity and doubt in the minds of those enslaved to its shackles. Disposed of a unique appearance, a person can go both ways: experiencing a calming sensation that one is amongst like-minded people and is part of the right path or feeling the blow of being bereft of his personality.
In a sense every fashion utterance is a kind of uniformity, an obedience to laws that get imposed by the commercial fashion world. That's why people who color outside the lines make such an impact on the world. Think of artists like Baudelaire, Salvador Dali or Frida Kahlo. Think of designers like Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood or Alexander McQueen. Think of fashion bloggers and exentrics like Isabella Blow, Anna dello Russo or Tavi Gevinson. 

Someone who, in my opinion, captured the essence of the uniform is French photographer Charles Fréger (°1975). I came in contact with his work through a workshop I attended during my internship in the museum for photography of Antwerp. I also had the privilege to get to know the artist a bit during his stay in Belgium. An interesting man he is! 
His work focuses on the human condition. A lot of his photographs are done in series. Each series depict a social group. Uniforms play an important visual role in his art.

Charles Fréger, From the series Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes, 2001 
Charles Fréger, From the series Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes, 2001 

Charles Fréger, From the series Rikishi, 2005

Charles Fréger, From the series Légionnaires Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes, 2002 

Charles Fréger, From the series Légionnaires Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes, 2002 

Charles Fréger, From the series Empires, 2010 
Charles Fréger, From the series Empire, 2010 
I know firsthand that Fréger has an immense respect for one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, August Sander (1876-1964). This was a German photographer who proclaimed the 'Neue Sachligkeit' or 'New objectivity' as the standard for all photography. His detached approach resulted in a systematic portrait collection of the German people of his time. 'Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts' or 'People of the 20th century' would become one of the most famous photographical oeuvres of all time. He divided the people by professions and social groups and captured them posing consciously before his camera.

August Sander, From Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts, 1929

August Sander, From Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts, 1929

August Sander, From Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts, 1929

August Sander, From Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts, 1929

Fréger's work resembles Sander's in a couple of ways. The object is almost painfully aware of its representation of the self. People are separated in closed groups. Charles Fréger has an immensely vast oeuvre which brings to mind the hundreds of people Sander tried to archive. But in Fréger's oeuvre there's room for other facets of the individual portrayed.
Compare the gestures of the people in these following photographs. 

August Sander, From Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts, 1929

Charles Fréger, Portrait, 2007

Sander shows the cook during the exercise of his profession. The cooks on Frégers image display gestures specific to their respective personalities.
In this way he is a child of his postmodern time. Hyperindividuality is the norm, that's why uniforms are loosing ground in schools and professions. 
But not on the catwalk. Uniforms, not seldom military, have always influenced fashion designers. Most recent at the shows for the Spring/Summer 2012 collections.

Lacoste, S/S 2012

Haider Ackermann, S/S 2012

Charles Fréger has also ventured out in the field of fashion. He's done some beautiful fashion spreads for magazines such as POP and Another Magazine.

Charles Fréger for Another Magazine, 2010

Charles Fréger for POP Magazine, 2010

His own projects even involve designing his own uniforms. He calls this project the 'Vis Voluntatis' and has designed a guard uniform, an iceskating uniform (an earlier venture in to the realm of designing) and even a Chinese Opera Costume.

Charles Fréger, 2007

Charles Fréger, Vis Voluntatis, 2008

Now if this isn't a successful crossing between art and fashion....

Have a lovely Christmas everyone, and wear something festive, be it a uniform or something more unique..

The Mere Alchemist


  1. In a way we are all wearing uniforms...philosophical post

    1. Yeah you could say I'm a surfer just by looking the way I'm dressed. I France we have a sentance: "L'habit ne fait pas le moine"
      That's also right but most of the time we stop on the way people looks like and it have great influence on how we behave towards other.
      But isn't the uniform, the way we're moving talking, the way we are? simply. Dressing is just an artefact of our person. You don't go for an interview with your -maybe future- boss dressed with a short and tongs. (except I)
      At least every human in the world wear the same human shape uniform we're part of "something bigger".


      The guy that was the little boy with the hat tied on the head of the second pic of this topic ;)

  2. Do you agree that when you put on a uniform, there are certain inhibitions that you accept?

  3. The uniform comes with restrictions but also possibilities. It can give you power and strength, because you're part of something bigger than yourself. But as with all power there is a downside. If you speak or act while wearing a uniform, you speak or act for the whole population wearing that same uniform. There's a sort of responsibility that comes with that. You do have to accept those inhibitions and restricitions of your personal freedom if you want to benefit from the uniform.

  4. I like this post a lot :) It reminded me that there is a subtle historical connection between your initial observations about uniforms and your thoughts about clothing in general. Military uniforms were probably the first type of clothes to be mass produced because they were required on a massive scale. [Nasty corrolary: the size of wars is related to the amount of uniforms that can be produced. The first and second world war could not have occured before the industrial revolution]. Anyway, the demand for uniforms booms in times of war, leading to an associated boom in manufacturing resources and technology. When war is over (happy xmas, lalalala :)), the huge and technologically advanced manufacturing industry still stands. What can you do ... but use the manufacturing resources to start producing goods for civilian use on a massive scale? Those goods are then of course "uniform" in the primary (adjective) sense of the word. The stage for the paradox is set: Modern fashion offers to fill our need for personal expression by making available new and original designs while at the same time we fear that, even if the creator's thought is unique, wearing the design is not at all an original expression, but in fact a desolately uniform statement, available to all.

    In postmodernity, fashion tries to escape this inevitable struggle in a variety of ways: a flat denial to make use of the manufacturing technology (haute couture), outrageously pricing something so that the buyer cannot believe it is a uniform factory item (Gucci Bags, sunglasses, ...), hilarious proposals such as imposing that raw selvedge denim (the kind produced on rare vintage japanese looms :)) should be worn for approximately six months without washing to make sure it escapes uniformity. New designs must also be presented frequently, basically when fear of uniformity starts reaching uncomfortable levels. However, the most preciously funny way to escape uniformity is when manufacturers and designers conspire to do some kind of Jedi Mind Trick to convince us that what we are buying is not uniform but unique. I started a collection of photographs two years ago when I was trying to buy a shirt, but I never got further than a small collection of labels: "100 % quality for individual people", "Unique garment which is as indivdual as you enjoy being special", and, on a shirt I own, "Authentic Wear. This product has been handcrafted and tailored to your requirements." It also says: "1968 - Settlement of America". Genious label designer! Finally, I saw a great shopping bag in a run-of-the mill store in Antwerp that said "Character can be bought". I bought mine there a few months later when it was on sale.

  5. @Emm : I love your take on the structure of the fashion industry (haute couture-mass production, etc...) It is important to realise the processes behind the objects we use on an everyday basis. The idea of a collection of labels that reveal the truth about our clothing is very interesting. By buying those t-shirts you fill in your part as customer. Nobody can escape the banality of being entrapped in mass production and communication!