The Invisible Unveiled

The seamstresses and pattern cutters are the unacknowledged heroes of the fashion design process, as a new project from Central Saint Martins makes clear.

My grandmother Paquita fought for her own agency through fashion and style. It was the 1950s, the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, and career options for women from agriculture-based small villages usually narrowed overnight when they married.

Paquita became a village seamstress in Linyola, Catalunya, making expensive creations accessible to her fellow villagers by creating copies using fabrics chosen by her clients. Today, we call this reverse-engineering. Back then, it was just a way of making a humble living.

“I used to watch the shop windows from the street and drew some quick sketches in my small notebook,” says Paquita, now 90 years old. “At home, I created the patterns and the toiles.”

Pattern cutting is a highly evolved skill. Pattern cutters and seamstresses are accomplished individuals capable of transforming real clothes into paper and back into clothes – from 3D to 2D and back to 3D. The question for fashion historians now is simple – are we paying enough attention to the role of pattern cutters and seamstresses as shapers of fashion history?

They worked in ateliers or at home and their names never appeared on the label of the clothes. Their deep technological knowledge of pattern cutting is needed as much as ever, even as we progress to digital and virtual technologies. A 21stcentury generation of fashion history scholars has broadened their focus to explore the methods of these specialists, with ample room for further broadening. “There’s scope to just take our research and apply it to other focuses and continue,” says Isabella Coraça, dress historian, curator and project manager of Exploding Fashion: Cutting, Constructing and Thinking Through Things. 

The research project, based at Central Saint Martins in London, is expected to be turned into both a publication and a museum exhibition in 2022. Led by Professors Caroline Evans and Alistair O’Neill, it aims to shift our understanding of 20th century fashion history by emphasising the invisible work of the pattern cutters.

Coraça explains: “In 2014, Alistair and Caroline started talking about the fact that researchers cannot actually wear historical dresses – sometimes they are so fragile, you can’t even put them on a mannequin. But for some dresses, you need a body to understand them.”

When the project was in its infancy, she was herself an undergraduate student at CSM, researching legendary French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet. Vionnet’s clothes, which are being investigated alongside the work of Charles James, Balenciaga, Halston and Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, are especially complex in structure. Understanding the pattern cutting is crucial to understanding all their work.

One iconic dress from each one of the five designers has been chosen and brought back to life. Veteran Central Saint Martins tutors Patrick Lee-Yow and Esme Young (the latter also a TV star through the BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee) created patterns and toiles. Liam Leslie photographed a model wearing them, while Change Of Paradigm, the project’s digital partner, produced virtual animations. “The purpose was to understand the making of the clothes and see them moving – animate them, bring them to life,” Coraça explains.

The mechanics of pattern cutting are also important for tech companies working on digital clothes. “Digital animations or digital renderings of the dresses are 4D versions of the clothes,” says Coraça, who was surprised to note how similar the digital and the physical processes are. Patterns, toiles, fittings and alterations are all necessary for digital dresses too. Rather than sew with needles and thread, the new digital dressmakers work with high tech programmes and fashion design software. The essence, though, remains untouched.

Just like the specialist team involved in the Exploding Fashion project, my grandmother created patterns to produce tangible copies of garments that could not be touched. Instead of feeling, touching, trying or examining the clothes, she observed the mannequins through the glass of shop windows.

It takes deep knowledge of pattern cutting, an evolved sense of space and a creative mind to successfully transform three-dimensional objects into paper and then back to 3D for the copied items. What Esme Young and Patrick Lee-Yow did for research purposes used to be my grandmother’s job six decades ago and led to her opening her own atelier and academy.

Thinking of the future, Coraça hopes the project will have a positive impact on the fashion industry, shining a light on the teams that work ‘backstage’. “We looked at the pattern cutters, but so many other people deserve to be valued, discovered and have the spotlight. It’s the new zeitgeist – looking at people in the shadows, the other people, not the ones that get the fame.”

In sync with this ‘history from below’ movement, it’s now time to make the role of pattern cutters, seamstresses and machinists visible. The hegemonic fashion discourse needs to broaden its narratives to reflect our complex and postmodernist society.

Exploding Fashion’s true power may also lie in awakening our individual, personal histories and connecting us with alternative narratives of people that have relevance to all of us. Through research projects such as this, the invisible can be unveiled and new fashion histories can be constructed.

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