The new designs that came out of Paris Fashion Week were all fabulous and exciting, but one collection in particular made me think deeply about clothing, the body, and how we present ourselves to the world. Viktor and Rolf’s spring 2020 collection featured a collection of slender, doll-faced models who marched down the runway in patchwork gowns pieced together with contrasting fabrics. Their ensembles were avant-garde, prairie-style dresses; childish and playful, some were even reminiscent of my Grandma’s housedresses.
What took me by surprise was the highly visible tattoos that covered the models faces, necks, legs, and arms. Every model was covered in traditional, American-style tattoos with slogans like “keep calm and get tattooed” and “success is not final; failure is not fatal.” At first, somewhat naively, I assumed that Viktor and Rolf hired only models with gothic-typeface facial tattoos for this show until I realized that almost every model had “DREAM,” “LOVE,” or “SKY” tattooed across their foreheads. These matching tattoos were clearly crucial accessories for this show and essential to Viktor and Rolf’s ‘tough but innocent’ vision for the collection. The mixture of pastel floral fabrics, ruffle dresses and jelly sandals (an icon of early 2000s childhood) were combined with bold, almost macho tattoos.
Tattoo design made its first major appearance into haute couture in 1971 when Issey Miyake presented his seminal “Tattoo” collection. His now-famous ‘tattoo dresses’ and body suits were flesh-toned garments covered in a tattoo illustrative style that featured portraits of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. This dresses and bodysuits blurred the line between skin and clothes, suggesting that this full-body tattoo could be slipped on and off with ease. As tattooing was usually used to identify prostitutes and criminals in Japan, this ‘taboo’ technique shocked his audience but has come to inspire many younger generations of designers.
In 1994, Jean Paul Gaultier incorporated a similar method and used mesh clothing covered with tattoo designs to evoke real tattoos in his show entitled “Les Tatouges.” Using models both with and without actual tattoos, Gaultier extended the work of Miyake to create tattoo-inspired sleeves and tops. Again, the clothing suggested that tattoo designs could be put on and taken off, but it seemed that all kinds of body modification were integral to this collection. Models sported realtattoos, face jewelry and long nails, proving that any form of self-presentation could be fashion. Gaultier’s models were not simply blank canvases in which he could showcase his designs, but real people with the agency to alter their bodies who lived outside of the world of Gaultier.
Thinking again about Viktor and Rolf’s 2020 spring show, the tattoos brought a dark and intense atmosphere when used to accessorize jelly sandals and quilted dresses. In comparison to the colorful designs, the tattoos seemed dire, serious, and intense and presumably permanent. This integration of tattoos brings a sense of endurance and devotion to the fast-changing world of fashion. Even though the models could easily wash off the temporary tattoos after the show, tattoos make you think about what is important, consistent, and lifelong. The use of Vocabulary like “dream” and “love” put a hopeful and sentimental spin on the often masculinized art of tatouage. The messages are sweet, if not cheesy, perhaps pointing out the revealing, intimate nature of body art. After all, getting a meaningful, visible tattoo permanently embellished onto your body is like wearing your heart on your sleeves (or on your skin). It’s like constructing a second skin of your own that is unchanging and everlasting.
Tattoos are essentially a permanent form of fashion. They alter the appearance of our body as clothing does, but tattoos even more profoundly construct our style and identity because they are permanent. They are certainly not going anywhere without a large amount of pain and money anyway. Constructing one’s identity through fashion is a small endeavor compared to doing so through tattoos. Clothing can be changed, taken off and bought new. But what makes something so important that one should get it embedded into one’s skin? These designers’ attempt to incorporate tattoo design into their fashions is admirable and fresh, but ultimately, clothing will never match the power and devotion of a tattoo. Unlike the constant barrage of change and flux that comes with each fashion season, tattoos last a lifetime.