Mondrian, the Abstract and Fashion

Vogue Paris 1965.

Yves Saint Laurent has once again designed an item of clothing that every woman in the western world would pay a lot of money to get their hands on. It is unusual for Vogue to have full-length shots of a model on the cover of their magazine, and even more unusual to have the model tilted at an angle. Vogue Paris of September 1965 has then, done so for a reason. The dress that the mannequin is wearing is clearly of some vast importance. It is a familiar design, to people then as now. We recognise the crossing over of geometrical lines, boxes of red, yellow and blue colour. A Mondrian artwork of course! Everyone is familiar, to an extent, with Mondrian. Even now Mondrian’s influence remains heavy in the world of fashion. Nike’s Dunk Low sneakers or their Vans competitors are just two examples.

Mondrian merchandise is endless, and this is perhaps because there is something timeless about Mondrian’s designs; they do not, cannot, grow old. It is ironic that it so often manifests itself in the fashion industry; an industry which is itself a process of seasonal ageing. The fashion industry clings onto Mondrian’s timelessness, and this in itself reveals the importance that lies behind the surface of his art. Mondrian noted himself that his neo-plasticism influence extended out a great deal more to poster art, advertising, layout and industrial designs, than to painting or sculpture.

Vogue Paris’ 1965 cover is important therefore, in revealing something particular of Mondrian’s work, as opposed to Mondrian’s influence on Yves Saint Laurent or fashion as an entity. The white edges of the dress blend into the background of the white studio; the model and the background become one. The way she is tilted at an angle gives her the appearance of a cut-out paper doll, pinned to a background. Even the caption title ‘Collections Hiver 65’ runs out onto the white of the dress . The way her head is at an unnatural angle, with a large round earring, heightens the illusion that she has been pinned to some sort of board. The effect is that there is no sense of depth to the picture. The paper-cut-out doll is pinned to the surface of the magazine cover, and there is no separation between the dress, her body, and the background. This is a play of depth which Mondrian would, had he still been alive in 1965, vastly approved of. This has however changed in some more recent Mondrian adaptions in the fashion-industry, such as Francesco Maria Bandini for example.

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His designs take Mondrian entirely out of context and have created them into moving, walking three-dimensional sculptures. The black lines of Mondrian’s work that we are so familiar with, reach out into the space around the model. Bandini has subverted what I believe, to be fundamentally at the heart of the abstractedness of Mondrian’s art; the loss of depth and three-dimensional space.
Or has he?

Take Mondrian’s ‘New York City 1’, completed 1942.
The criss-crossing symmetry of yellow strips, underlined by blue and red, is cut off by a grey border line. Yet the seemingly white background beneath these grid-like patterns is not in fact, properly white. There is a tinge of grey which is only a few tones lighter than the borderline. The effect is that there is no sense of depth within the picture, but strangely, the lines seem to spring out towards the viewer instead. “The white is not flat enough” Mondrian complained once to his friend Naum Gabo in relation to ‘New York City 1’.

Mondrian’s paintings prevent any possibility of entrance at all. The frame is set behind the canvas, pushing the area forward instead of letting the spectator into the wall. The geometrical lines he uses instead, push out towards the viewer; therefore rather than giving the impression of pictorial inner three-dimensionality, he instead creates exterior fourth dimensionality. Returning to Francesco Maria Bandini’s fashion designs, one begins to see why Bandini may have used the black lines from Mondrian’s canvas as a three-dimensional element to the outfits. These lines do in fact, jump out at the viewer; whether from the canvas, or from the runway show.

So can the destruction of depth and space within the canvas, account for Mondrian’s move towards abstraction? I think so, yes. Through his move away from depth, Mondrian developed his abstract philosophy and characteristic style that we identify with him today. Most importantly, there is arguably a parallel between Mondrian’s concept of pictorial depth and the notion of time.

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What he has created in his art is an accumulation of centuries; into one moment, into a single object. Time is directed back to depth. If time is reality (time being the past manifest in the present), and time is parallel to pictorial depth, then the removal of pictorial depth from his canvas both strips it of age and renders it immortal; whilst abandoning it to a new-born notion (a Mondrian notion) of what reality is, or should be.

Correspondently this is once again reflected in Mondrian’s legacy in the fashion industry. People still wear Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian collection, if they can afford to get their hands on the originals. Mondrian designs are echoed throughout the decades of fashion, even last summer’s Victoria’s Secret Mondrian-inspired bikini range being one example of many. Mondrian’s designs are ageless and timeless; but this was always his intention. He wanted to destroy time, in the same way he wanted to destroy space and depth; and in doing so, has immortalised his subjective philosophy on the objectivity of time, emotion, art, life and reality.