The Function of Fashion – Otto von Busch

deep-fashionBild: Otto von Busch
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“Form Follows Function” is now an old mantra of design, the epitome of design as the modern practice of social improvement. Even if this motto may not be as popular as some decades ago, it may still quite accurately describe some aspects of the design process and its application.

Function can be understood in very wide terms, in anything from machine parts and ergonomics to healthcare services and glossy myth production. But if we are to examine what function really is for everyday design the main question would perhaps be: what function is of priority to your user or stakeholders, or perhaps more accurately for most design processes: what function is of priority to your contractor, your employer?

The motto of form follows function is very effective in putting the attention of the designer to the goal or the design brief: you must design function, and function is not a fluffy category like taste, but something measurable, something that can be almost objective. It makes designers not merely artists, forming subjective emotions, but like engineers, doctors or physicists, with function designers become really useful to society.

We struggle with this in fashion. Some of us want to be useful, other want to be more artistic. We may work with aesthetics, but still, much of our aesthetics are deemed as functional: we argue some patterns make the wearer seem longer, some colours are more “expressive”, some shapes of silhouette more attractive, some fabrics more “breathable” and, yes: some fabrics are even “functional”.

With function, it is as if we work for a higher aim, a noble truth more elevated than the daily struggles of morals or politics. Indeed, this is often used to sell more recent design methods, such as “participatory design”: that it is a higher form of applied democracy, not polluted by the dirty, contested and irrational struggles of politics. Participatory design is more functional.

Function is almost like a law of physics. It is just there, neutral and necessary. But unlike gravity, function is usually also seen as objectively good. If I make something functional, it is most often also beneficial or even virtuous.

But there is another function of design that we seldom discuss: that function also serves the ones who design, or at least the world from which they come. It is also functional for the interests that wrote the brief, for the contractor and agency ordering the designer to do something functional. It is functional because it furthers the interests and power of those who define the function. And in most cases, the most perpetual function of design is to further inequality. And this may be especially true for fashion: fashion thrives on exclusion, on distinguishing between the “in” and “out”, on preserving social injustices and making sure nothing fundamental alters the class divisions in society. Even if design has become more “democratic”, that is, accessible, the consumer or slave still simply votes for another master: the new paradigm of fashion does not abolish the master. This is indeed the function of fast fashion: making consumers reaffirm their slavery more happily. We are born free, but everywhere held in chains, or in chain stores. With easy consumerism we are taught to sing in our chains.

We must come to terms with that design is never neutral. The primary function of design is to dominate, to form the user, to challenge dissatisfaction with miniscule steps of hope. Design is a force and it produces consent. It may do so in a subtle way, or more explicitly. To trace the true impact of design we must look for its function on a deeper, social level. We must trace the mantra of “Fashion Follows Function” on a more radical level, and ask: what is designed, for whom, and in the interest of what social actor?

The function is always asymmetric and it hides the uneven distribution of agency and wellbeing in its path. As we look at the social situation of the poor and marginalized it may be more obvious, but its political function may also be closer to our own lives. The challenge for fashion designers is to distribute more agency, make users more skilled and engaged in disassembling the Real function of design, to bring it into their control. To abolish the master.

Fashion follows function. The form of society is uneven; it is unequal, and unjust. The ultimate function of fashion is to make sure it stays that way, that the social form of things keeps being asymmetric, that social life stays tilted in favour of those with privilege. We must alter that function.

If we are interested in the politics of design it may be helpful for us to take the old mantra of “Fashion Follows Function” as more reliable and plain-spoken that we first may think. Ask yourself: what is designed, for whom, and in the interest of what social actor? Follow the function, and your may see the form of power. Change the deeper function, and you may start to change the world.



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