How Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Continues to Influence Fashion

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What started out as a friendly ghost story competition among friends around a campfire has become one of the most culturally significant tropes in popular culture. It was the summer of 1816—a period marked by abnormally cold winds, gloomy skies, and heavy rain thanks to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year—when then-18-year-old Mary Shelley and her husband, the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, joined a mix of other writers and friends (including Lord Byron, who prompted the idea) at a villa near Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Though Shelley struggled among the group to come up with an original horror story, she’d later experience a nightmare depicting a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together… a hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,” or what we know today as the tale of Frankenstein.

Shelley’s life was fraught with tragedy. Born in London as Mary Godwin, her mother died shortly after she was born; she’d later go on to experience illness, depression, debt, and the loss of a child, all of which arguably contributed to her keen ability to depict dark, apocalyptic anxieties using themes of the supernatural, moral and ethical struggles in science, concepts of Greek mythology (hence the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus), and elements of Gothic and Romantic literature.

Shelley would complete Frankenstein in 1817, with the first version published anonymously in January 1818 and again in March, on this day. Five years later, the first stage adaption of Frankenstein debuted at the English Opera House in London and was met with great critical reception. Countless adaptations in literature, theater, television, film, and music would follow, cementing Shelley’s Frankenstein as one of the most important stories in history—and the world’s first sci-fi novel.

Just as themes of witchcraft trickled into the fashion mainstream after the Salem witch trials in the 17th century, so, too, have the fantastical aesthetics of Frankenstein. Despite the German name originally belonging not to the creature, but the creator, the word „Frankenstein“ has become almost synonymous with the word „monster,“ and more specifically, a terrifying, man-made abnormality stitched together with various parts. The latter notion has translated quite literally onto the runway with garments featuring different fabrics, patterns, and cuts all sewn together, with every designer from Junya Watanabe to Henry Holland referencing the notion. (For Fall/Winter 2018, Holland even referred to his spliced toppers as „Frankenstein jackets.“)

Other designers have referenced Frankenstein in a less literal and more conceptual sense. While Gothic themes have long influenced the late Alexander McQueen, the theatrical nature of his iconic Spring/Summer 1999 collection distinctly referenced the supernatural elements of Shelley’s Frankenstein, from the leather bodices with visible stitching to the finale in which robots spray-painted Shalom Harlow.

Elsewhere, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele combined Frankenstein’s clinical and scientific aspects with Donna Haraway’s 1984 “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century“ for his Fall/Winter 2018 collection, exploring notions of identity and technology while riffing on existentialism.

For Spring/Summer 2019, Marni’s Francesco Risso saw his collection as Dr. Frankenstein’s rebirth of the Venus de Milo, with garments that featured visible seams and a collage-like assemblage of colors and prints.

Direct iterations of Frankenstein have also emerged, most notably at Christopher Kane, whose Spring/Summer 2013 collection featured the face of actor Boris Karloff (he played Dr. Frankenstein’s creature in various films in the ’30s) and Rodarte, whose Spring/Summer 2009 collection nodded to Frankenstein through the green hues and suture-like stitching.

More recently, Shelley’s legacy was apparent in Prada’s Fall/Winter 2019 menswear collection, which incorporated themes of danger and chaos and focused on the heart and humanity of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.

Shelley passed away from a brain tumor in 1851 at age 53. One could argue that her life was a tragedy in and of itself—in addition to the aforementioned strife she experienced, Shelley was plagued by illness throughout the final 10 years of her life, and Frankenstein largely overshadowed her other many literary works. But like Shelley’s creature in the novel, who was inwardly humanistic and outwardly grotesque, her prolific legacy is proof that an accumulation of tragedies can sometimes lead to something significant, and in the case of fashion, something beautiful.

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