‘Fleeting transformations’ 

-Tattooing in high fashion-

Jolie wears Vivienne Westwood. 1990’s

Tattooing has been a part of the human creative psyche for tens of thousands of years. I won’t go into that now, as that would take more than a single blog to explain how we got to where we are today… however, we can all agree that tattooing is on a real high right now. Considering it has often been viewed as a marginalised subculture, nowadays it permeates through a huge variety of modern culture and media. 

Tattooing has always had a symbolic place in our societies, and as individuals, so how did it step into the world of mainstream fashion? It is often viewed as a modern phenomena, however, as an artform and a fashion, it has had many heydays, revivals and celebrated fashionable status over the years. 

If you look hard enough, you can find many examples of it creeping into high fashion in the last century or so.

Now, as then, tattoos were seen on the trendsetters of society, and this influence feeds down to mere mortals.

From the inimitable Lady Randolf Churchill reportedly having an elegant snake tattooed on her wrist…

Lady Churchill

She frequently covered it with bracelets, but it was described in the New York Times in 1906. ‘Tattoos were fashionable enough that Country Life magazine featured them in an article dated 27 January, 1900 – as if to kick off the new century. As you might expect from Country Life, it described “one of the most popular Masters of Foxhounds in England” who had “tally-ho!” tattooed on his forearm along with a fox’s head and brush and a hunting crop’ 

Now, as then, tattoos were seen on the trendsetters of society, and this influence feeds down to mere mortals.

We can see examples of tattoo style decorative elements in ladies’ fashion from the early part of last century, such as these Parisian stockings from 1914.

A great example of a timeless style classic- see how similar placement an motifs are used today. 

Elegant ankle tattoo by Jo Harrison from Un1ty Tattoo See link below

Skipping to early last century., where you could say modern fashion was finding it’s feet. Elsa Schiparelli came along and revolutionised fashion in 20’s and 30’s. A stong, independent woman,who felt the need to abandon the conventions and constraints in clothing of former times.

In the field of knitwear, her tattoo jumpers, high-necked jumpers characterised by large trompe-l’oeil flakes in optical black and white style, as well as with the X-ray pullovers, which drew the structure of the human skeleton as in an X-ray, remain memorable. Dada and surrealism were strong influences of Schiaparelli- you can see this in her abandon of convention and embracing of the bizarre.

In her work, she sculpts the body as we do in tattooing- using decorative motifs to guide the eye around the living canvas. If you’re not familiar with her work , you must check her out. 

Iconic Schiparelli
Schiparelli Knitwear

Fast forward to more modern times. It is so common now to see tattoo inspiration in everyday clothing. Who put us on this track? 

Well, true designers of any discipline are usually on the periphery of the mainstream, and often subcultures run together. Like Punk and Ska, Funk and Soul; they go together like rum ‘n’ coke, mac ‘n’ cheese, tea and biccies.

So for S/S 1989, Belgian conceptual designer Maison Marigela stormed onto the catwalks with the now iconic Trompe L’oleil Tattoo Tshirt. Trompe L’oleil, or trick of the eye, ustilises areas of contrast such as skin coloured mesh backgrounds and darker printed motifs to create the illusion of another image- here being tattoos on skin.

I feel like this garment needs very little introduction , as now as then it stands out as a true modern icon. 

Permanence of design, temporary transformation that will not grow, age, die. 

Margiela worked with the illustrious Jean Paul Gaultier. 

Gaultier is a magician at taking elements of culture, and bending, creating and reconceptualising them into supreme pop creations which comment loudly on the world around us. He firmly catapulted this tattoo trompe l’oleil into the eyes and hearts of fashionistas in the S/S 1994 Collection – ‘Les Tatuages’ 

This collection is close to my heart indeed. It combines shapes, colours, and decorative practices from around the world and through the ages- chews them up and spits them out in full punk glory. Fusing international influences with the Euro-punk heart of his creations, it created a story of the now that is, for me and many people in the industry of decoration, as relevant as ever. Having travelled and worked extensively around Europe- this collection is like a full saturation tableau of many of the social events I have been a part of through tattooing and piercing. As a ‘tribe’ – we have our minds and our hearts open to self expression through style. Part of this style is transformation, ownership of our physical selves through motifs that connect us all as humans- through 

space and time. A tribe of the now, with roots firmly in the past, and even more firmly in the future. 

From this explosive catwalk show, the motifs of my craft have flowed their way into the highstreet – e.g. Betsey Johnson, Ed Hardy, and even today, Topshop tattoo t-shirt. 

Maybe this is why people love tattoo motifs. It reflects this narrative of transformation and self-ownership.  The tattoo motif on wearable items both allows the wearer to briefly experience and portray this transformation, but also the motif is preserved in a collection, not prey to time and the natural transformation of the human canvas through the years. 

Fashion can be fleeting, tattooing is not. Although trends come and go, style classics actually shape our culture. I couldn’t say it better myself than this classic movie scene- enjoy!

Classic scene from Devil Wears Prada- Streep could not say it better.

References and further reading-

Jo Harrison Tattoo- http://www.un1ty.tattoo @joharrisontattoo




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