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We Wear Culture: Google's new initiative is not just art, but also a symbol of multi-culturalism

A while ago, I was watching a documentary from 2014 about Christian Louboutin — the adopted son of a French carpenter, designer of very tall and very expensive shoes, and creator of his massive and very (literally) well-heeled empire. For those interested, Christian Louboutin: The World’s Most Luxurious Shoes is an hour-long documentary that’s kinda nuts and all kinds of intriguing, which is obvious, because we’re peeping into the life of one of the world’s most famous designers, his desire and insistence on making super luxurious shoes, knowing what he does is essentially “useless” (to use his own words), and his unabashed pride in all of it.

More intriguing for me, however, was watching him (and his trusty Bangladeshi manservant butler Safquat) travel to places like Bhutan and Mumbai for pursuits that were as much an expansion of the Louboutin brand as they were extensions of the Bhutansese and Indian cultures — in Bhutan, he had local artisans chiseling blocks of wood into shoes (you know, like wedges and 16 cm block heels) who then painted them with typically Bhutanese designs (tigers or a druk). All of these blocks traveled back with Louboutin to Paris, from where he selected a few designs to be sent to his manufacturing factory in Italy.

From Google's We Wear Culture

From Google's We Wear Culture

In Mumbai, Louboutin was on hand for the expansion of his eponymous store to a second floor, which would have a selection of his iconic shoes catering to the Indian bridal market (more bejewelled and more embroidered). In hindsight, that (as well as his collaboration with Sabyasachi for the traditional Indian bridal designs) was inevitable; India is a huge market, of course Indian women would want their Louboutins in the traditional style, perfect for their sangeet and baaraat — high heeled, red lacquered, bejewelled and embroidered!

To see Louboutin’s quintessentially Parisien brand incorporating the aesthetic of two very different cultures, was quite something. And despite all the ridiculousness of Louboutin’s fashion empire (£6,000 for a pair of tall, spiky shoes!) and despite the charming self-awareness with which he described his work as “useless”, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how intricately fashion, once again, had managed to intertwine culture, art, history, and design! All those phrases exalting fashion as one of the highest forms of art suddenly came to mind, amidst a flurry of quotes by Coco Chanel (“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”), Michael Kors (“Clothes are like a good meal, a good movie, great pieces of music”), Bill Cunningham (“Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life”), and even Sir Francis Bacon (“Fashion is the attempt to realise art in living forms and social intercourse”). Blair Waldorf would’ve been really proud of me at that moment!

Of course, all of these great people are right. And, well, so is Macklemore (“we are what we wear, we wear what we are”). Which is why Google’s month-old initiative as part of the Google Arts and Culture platform, the We Wear Culture project (which is essentially a searchable guide to an archive of approximately 30,000 fashion pieces that puts “three millennia of fashion at your fingertips”), is not just an exhaustive database of fashion. Or a pretty platform for well-curated exhibits. Or even a lovely way to spend your afternoon looking through the site and reading about various designers and icons/muses, or the evolution of Tokyo street fashion (Shibuya Casual and Joshikosei for the win!), among other things. Although it is all of these, but it’s also so much more!

By collaborating with more than 180 museums and fashion institutions/schools/organisations from around the world, Google has ensured that the sheer scale of this project is massive — both in terms of geographical/cultural range and (as I mentioned earlier) with the time period covered. You can use Google’s Street View to explore inside Parson’s School of Design (spoiler: you’ll feel like you’re on an episode of Project Runway, minus Tim Gunn of course). Want to decode style trends such as ripped jeans or the Sukajan jacket? YouTuber Ingrid Nilsen (more popularly known as Missglamorazzi) is on hand with a series of YouTube videos on the Google Arts and Culture channel. Or how about an interactive video detailing the history of Chanel’s little black dress on its way to becoming the iconic fashion garment it is today?

Take something as everyday as women’s underwear — did you know that the bra was only created after WWI? If you’re remotely interested in fashion, you might know that Jean-Paul Gaultier was the pioneering mastermind for transforming women’s underwear into outerwear in the ’80s; in a beautiful exhibit on We Wear Culture, we see how this became a mainstream fashion when Gucci, Prada, and others started making slip dresses in the ’90s (sidenote: if F.R.I.E.N.D.S. were a present-day show, and if Rachel had still somehow managed to find herself in that sorta-embarrassing situation at Joshua’s parents’ home, she could’ve just said she was doing research for We Wear Culture, and this exhibit in particular!).

Of course, this is a global initiative, and despite criticisms that the project seems to be more focused only on “3000 years of Euro-American fashion”, there’s plenty of content about fashion from other regions — from exploring the history of the Cheongsam to Deccani fashion during the Nizam period and how it influenced men’s fashion (or at least, traditional Indian men’s fashion). We learn, unsurprisingly and yet in the most pleasant manner, that the making of a kimono is as intricate as the making of a sari. There are so-interesting-you-can-lose-yourself-in-them exhibits about materials — Indian cotton and Chinese silk and Irish linen and South African mohair, with a special spotlight on Indian textiles (nine Indian museums/institutions are part of We Wear Culture).

And because it’s not only about the past and history, but also about the present and the future, there are incredible editorial features about fashion and tech or sustainable fashion (although it’ll be nice to see other big name designers, besides Stella McCartney, working towards “making sustainable fashion sexy”). There are exhibits about artists, materials, and activists. And a well-deserving spotlight on Alexis Lavigne — the man who invented the couture mannequin and the supple measuring tape.

From Google's We Wear Culture

From Google's We Wear Culture

When We Wear Culture was unveiled in June, Amit Sood, the director of the Google Cultural Institute, rightfully called the project a “rabbit hole” at a press conference. Over the past month, I’ve been obsessively exploring the entire site a little bit every day, and I’m still nowhere close to having seen it all — my personal preferences meant that I spent an inordinately long time looking at 360° views of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exploring the exhibits on fashion illustration and the design process, and reading all the articles about Japanese fashion.

During this period, fashion (or rather, “what we wear”) has continued to influence our cultural discussions — take this year’s biggest hit Wonder Woman for example. We’ve recently learned that the movie’s legendary costume designer Linda Hemming used actual Roman armour (and, well, some folklore Amazonian armour) as her starting point for the (thankfully totally non-fetishised) armour worn on screen by the Amazonian women on Themiscyra. Fetish lingerie and sexy underwear weren’t her inspiration; instead, it was crocodile hide and metal breastplates. Feminism 1, fetishism 0? And we’ve all been following Justin Trudeau’s sock diplomacy as he takes on a plethora of political issues, one pair of socks at a time; who would’ve thought that this afterthought of an accessory could make such a political statement? Er, besides Trudeau of course. Or his personal stylist.

From Google's We Wear Culture

From Google's We Wear Culture

What we wear, what our cultural and literary heroes wear (even the fictional ones), what our leaders wear — it’s all, literally, woven into the fabric of our society and our culture. And as We Wear Culture shows us in a beautiful, richly nuanced way, it’s all tied to who we were, who we are, and who we become. It’s not just about expensive clothes or luxurious shoes or the editorial pages of Vogue; we simply wear what we are, and in a globalised and multicultural world, what we are is an amalgamation of various cultures. A cultural concoction, if you will. Kinda like me sitting in our apartment in Sydney watching a British documentary about a French footwear designer traveling the world (always accompanied by his Bangladeshi butler) looking to incorporate Bhutanese designs in his work, and expanding his Parisien brand aesthetic to include traditional Indian bridal shoes in his collection.

Visit Google's We Wear Culture here.

Updated Date: Jul 15, 2017 11:19 AM

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