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Seamlessness: Making and (Un)Knowing in Fashion Practice

Seamlessness: Making and (Un)Knowing in Fashion Practice

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Seamlessness: Making and (Un)Knowing in Fashion Practice

370 pages
5 hours
Sep 4, 2016


Taking the concept of 'seamlessness' as her starting point, Yeseung Lee offers an innovative practice-based investigation into the meaning of the handmade in the age of technological revolution and globalized production and consumption. Combining firsthand experience of making seamless garments with references from psychoanalysis, anthropology and cultural studies, Lee reveals the ways that a garment can reach to our deeply superficial sense of being, and how her seamless garments can represent the ambiguity of a modern subject in a perpetual process of becoming. Richly illustrated and firmly rooted in the actual work of creation, this daringly innovative book breaks new ground for fashion research.
Sep 4, 2016

Tentang penulis

Yeseung Lee is a researcher and practicing designer. She is currently a visiting academic for research in fashion and textiles at the Royal College of Art, London.

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Seamlessness - Yeseung Lee

First published in the UK in 2016 by

Intellect, The Mill, Parnall Road, Fishponds, Bristol, BS16 3JG, UK

First published in the USA in 2016 by

Intellect, The University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th Street,

Chicago, IL 60637, USA

Copyright © 2016 Intellect Ltd

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the

British Library.

Copy-editor: MPS Technologies

Cover designer: Emily Dann

Cover image: Courtesy of Yeseung Lee

Indexer: Silvia Benvenuto

Production manager: Amy Rollason

Typesetting: John Teehan

ISBN: 978-1-78320-642-1

ePDF: 978-1-78320-643-8

ePUB: 978-1-78320-644-5

Printed and bound by Gomer Press

This is a peer-reviewed publication.

To my mother, my father and my brother

Very special thanks to

Tristan Webber

Wendy Dagworthy

Claire Pajaczkowska

Jonathan Faiers

Susanne Küchler

Christine Guth

Cathy Johns

Amy Rollason

anonymous peer reviewers

In memory of Louise Wilson



Claire Pajaczkowska

The Seaming

Chapter 1: The Skin Ego

Chapter 2: The Garment Ego

Chapter 3: Auratic Objects

Chapter 4: Here and Now

Chapter 5: Seaming Hands

Chapter 6: Seamless?

Chapter 7: The Toile Ego

The Seam(less)




Claire Pajaczkowska

All design is an exercise in seamlessness. Architecture extends the human relationship of body in the enabling culture to make good the deficiencies of nature. Furniture is a form of ambient assisted living as chairs enable us to sit, with ease, off the floor, cutlery to enable the transition of food from hearth to mouth with minimum waste and embarrassment. Vehicle and product design have both perfected the art of the aesthetics of seamlessness, by engineering casings that appear to have no joins.

Yeseung Lee’s study of seamlessness in fashion invites reflection on the meaning and function of this aesthetic. Seamlessness is a unique book. Written by a designer, about the experience of making, it reveals the fashion designer’s embodied encounter with materials. Through descriptions of the workshop experience, the designer explores the meaning of seamlessness as a design feature. Writings about the meaning of making with materials, from the perspective of makers, are rare. Rarer still are writings with parallel illustration in the form of images, drawings, photographs, reproductions from note and sketchbooks. These parallel texts are made and designed by Lee herself, giving readers the opportunity to understand the process and methods of a fashion designer at work.

To explain a little about the originality of this book we should first compare it with existing literature of fashion and design. There are many books about the meaning of fashion, though it is customary for the makers to be considered authorities only on technique, and for critics and historians to be considered authorities on meaning. In a quiet and lucid act, Yeseung Lee proposes that the fashion maker and designer can be both author of, and authority on, the meaning of fashion, clothes, adornment.

There are many writings for, and about, fashion as an industry of commerce, manufacture and trade. The industry of fashion merchandising and marketing employs hundreds of thousands of graduates each year, and many millions in its globalized production chains. The scale of the fashion industry as an economic force has generated studies that conclude that the meaning and value of fashion lies in its function as a major contributor to world GDP and industrial power. However, this commercial dimension of fashion design as a creative practice is only one dimension of its meaning to the design culture. Studies of fashion as an industry can provide knowledge that leads designers to make ethical choices about sourcing materials, about sustainability and employment regulations. However, there is another, equally materialist, world in which the designer works. Where can the designer look to find out more about what it means to work, creatively and by hand, with materiality of clothing?

New information technologies have transformed the dissemination of knowledge. Online publishing too has generated a new culture for fashion writing. The voice of the blogger, characteristic of genres of fashion journalism, is familiar. It is part of the kind of writing that Roland Barthes calls the 'systéme de la mode', a discourse of knowingness about the codes of fashion.

Another genre of writing about fashion emerged from what was once the academic discipline of the ‘history of costume’. Historians of dress write texts published in scholarly journals often to support a curatorial practice, to analyse an archive or museum collection, or accompany a museum exhibition. In this sense, these texts are about a retrospective analysis of conventions of dress in society. Historical scholarship is mostly written for, and is addressed to, academic colleagues, and this kind of writing is rarely written by, or for, the fashion designer. The garments that have been collected in archives tend to represent only a tiny fraction of what people have made and worn in the world.

Similarly, the texts by sociologists of dress often establish a specialist field of academic practice that views fashion from ‘the outside’, with a concern for scholarly objectivity rather than with curiosity about the universality of the subjectivity of clothing.

Written with a mode of address that is directed to other scholars within their specialist fields, the writings of historians and scholars ‘of dress’ rarely include the voice of the experience and thoughts of makers.

Yet fashion is fascinating to so many precisely because it is ubiquitous in a world that is interested in the idea of modernity. Clothing is fascinating because it is universal. Making clothes from materials is a practice extending back to prehistory, and yet is a contemporary and everyday creative practice. This is the central aspect of the work of the designer. Fashion design includes a repertoire of skills extending from the post-industrial techniques of pattern cutting, to an aesthetic and personal style of craftsmanship and taste, expressed in choices of fabric, material, colour and form. The fashion designer, then, is the site of an interaction of social systems, cultural codes and idiomatic subjectivity. But where is this represented? Writings about making fashion have included scholarly studies of celebrity or auteur, ‘signature’ designers where interpretations are interspersed with interviews with, or quotes from, the autobiographical writings of the designer as artist.

What are the alternatives to these conventional forms of fashion books? What kind of book might tell us what it is like to be a maker? What kinds of writing enable scholars to learn from the makers themselves? Which books will enable makers to satisfy their curiosity about the studio and workshop practices of other makers? What kinds of data can be made available to all who want a more in-depth knowledge of the way that art, craft and design all interact in the work of the creative practitioner?

The book you hold in your hands is a unique text. It is a book about the making of garments, written by a maker within the flow and the process of making. It is a book written from within fashion thinking, and is about the knowledge of making. It is a book about the way that knowledge derives from sensory, embodied experience of materials and how this experience is an important dimension of the meaning of materials and artefacts. This book may be the first in a new genre of writings by makers, about the kind of knowledge that is implicit within embodied thinking. Without creating artificial distinctions between the ‘theory’ and the ‘practice’ of fashion, this is the first book by a maker of garments that sets out to explain to all what it means to be making garments.

Neither an instruction manual, nor an autobiographical study, this book sets out to show that the activities of designers can be understood as ways of knowing, ways of thinking as well as what John Berger called ‘ways of seeing’. Whereas sight may objectify, by holding artefacts at a focal distance, the optical perspectives of the maker and the wearer are more close-up and haptic. This simple fact has some significance for philosophical perspectives on knowledge. The optical metaphor has been used for centuries to understand the relation of a thinking mind to its object of knowledge, with the idea of distance being a condition for objectivity and ‘impartiality’ or truth. Lee’s work invites us to consider the truth value of what we hold close.

Lee has worked as a professional designer for years, and her employment in the business has supported her study of fashion practice. This book, on the ambiguity of seamlessness, emerged from the doctoral project that Lee initiated at the Royal College of Art following her Masters course at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. The question, for Lee, was that of understanding couture itself. When understood, literally and metaphorically, the act of sewing seams, couture, is not only an object of study for historians but also is an act of profound social and cultural resonance. The maker, in the act of making, sewing and seaming, thinks about the meanings of the work she completes and she shares this with us. Wondering why the process of clothing, tailoring, designing and making has such silent, and yet universal, significance, Lee embarks on a journey of exploration that takes us all into a fascinating world of travels, travails and travaux.

From her initial undergraduate studies in chemistry, Lee learned a humility that comes from respecting the complexity of matter and materiality. The scientists’ dream of finding systematic order is the power of the Enlightenment in western culture, and is the logic that generated cultures of modernity and modernism. The new paradigm of the ‘Material Turn’ that emerges in anthropology, social and human sciences is closely connected to the materialities and materialisms of other sciences. Natural sciences can offer a starting point for thinking about the innovation of the Material Turn of thinking in arts, humanities, the social and human sciences.

The physicist’s detection of the quantum mechanics of subatomic forces and the chemist’s observation of the patterns of connection and transformation of molecular systems find analogy in the maker’s awareness of the patterns and material pieces that can be fitted together to generate new configurations, new affordances and new spatial forms. In dressmaking and tailoring there are specific forms of the Material Turn, as the couturière’s feel for differences in cloth is not unlike the chemist’s tacit knowledge of the properties and behaviours of different elements in the lab. To understand the different behaviours of a range of fibres, filaments, yarns and surfaces acting with the tensile strengths and drape and stretch of a knit, a weave, a felt or other non-woven cloth is not unlike the scientist’s understanding of the different elemental properties of matter. Joining cloth together through different techniques of seaming – juxtaposing edges through layering, fusing, needlepunch, stitching and weaving – is a challenge that can be considered as analogous to the composition of atoms into molecular structures. The electric valencies that bind molecules are not identical to the materialities of conjunctions. But the energies that connect elements have long been equated with affective bonds that create the fission and fusion of nuclear and other families. The metaphor of ‘seaming’, therefore, contains all these meanings. The complex energy that generates bonds between elements is, Lee seems to suggest, analogous to the way that garments comprise pieces that are held together, invisibly, by techniques of seaming.

In fashion, couture is the seam. Western techniques of making garments, notes Rudofsky, were the first to replace the folding and pleating of rectangular units of woven, uncut cloth, with shapes of cloth cut from the bolts. The technique of cutting was added to the repertoires of draping, stitch, layering and silhouette. The presence of the seam as a fundamental structural, and sculptural, component of a garment was born. Yet the western tradition of couture, like the naturalist and realist conventions of western art and literature, takes great effort to conceal the ‘work’ of its manufacture, construction and making. The joins between pattern pieces, in a finished garment, are inverted so that the join is rendered invisible and the garment is considered ‘seamless’. Obviously, seamlessness is a magical property that conjures up desires for a reality where all ‘fits’ perfectly and exactly to the subject’s form. The ideal of bespoke tailoring conforms to the ideal of the environment that is customized to eliminate difference between self and environment. There are many similarities between this dream and the structures of narrative forms in literature and art. The classic realist text in art and literature may be composed of many different, and even contradictory, perspectives or ‘points of view’, but these are rendered as if there is one ‘transparent’ perspective within which these are unified. For the reader, the coherence of the world is thereby guaranteed through the apparent ‘seamlessness’ of texts. The comparison between the reader, immersed in the seamless world of the realist novel, and the subject at the tailor’s fitting room is apt. The facticity of the making is effaced and the subject is ‘fitted’ with an ensemble that communicates, to the world, the expectation of who is at the centre of all this.

The modernist avant-gardes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took the deconstruction of naturalist and realist convention as their subject matter. Central to this was the deconstruction of the imaginary unity of a sovereign subject. In its place modernism aimed to celebrate and acknowledge the decentred subject of modern life. Russian formalist artists, writers and theorists found analogy between the effacing of facticity in the surfaces of art, and capitalism’s erasure of the difference between use-value and exchange-value within commodity production. The cinema of Eisenstein celebrated the Marxist principles of the dialectical thought by making this the structure of montage or editing. Soviet formalist cinema replaced the seamless editing of naturalist fictions with experimental montage sequences. Dziga Vertov’s revolutionary masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera celebrated the entire process of filmmaking, with the work of the ‘seaming’ construction at the heart of the film. Later, Brechtian dramatists celebrated the revelation of contradictory perspectives within a scenario on stage. Foregrounding the work of stagehands, they proposed, is analogous to revealing the differences of perspective between those who own the means of production and those who sell their labour within it. The former want cultures of illusion of narrative flow, through which they are shown a world of seamless, smooth running; unity with the spectator-subject at the centre, in a universe that will maintain the status quo. The latter must ‘make do’ as best as they can, with narratives that ill fit their experience, or, alternatively, with the formalists, Brechtians and with other revolutionary modernists, join an avant-garde that challenges the smoothness of the illusion and unpick the seams of the imaginary unity. Fashion as a culture of an avant-garde can take a place within this culture of modernism.

Lee traces the potential of Russian formalist criticism to unpick the meaning of seamlessness, and also considers the metaphor of the seam with reference to a wide range of thinkers. The idea of the seamless, for Lee, has potent symbolism interlaced with many analogous meanings. The modernist practice of revealing facticity, or ‘baring the device’, is one level of meaning that is implicit within the unpicked seam. The question of the implicit or explicit differences between ‘auratic’, unique, original and multiple copies is another meaning that is present in Lee’s process of unpicking the seams of fashion.

In film theory, the concept of ‘suture’ is used to explain how spectators are bound into the narrative illusion through structures of pleasure and identification. The illusion of the separateness of conscious and unconscious thought is yet another meaning inherent in cultures of ‘invisible’ seaming. Many myths that weave narratives around themes of unity and schisms between body and soul are found in religious cultures. Mary Douglas proposes that the schism between ‘purity’ and ‘danger’ found in all cultures is indicative of the universal need for classification.

The idea of seamlessness as a manifestation of purity takes Lee from an analysis of the biblical narrative of Christ’s garments, symbolising divine power to ‘heal’ wounds, to Douglas’ Purity and Danger.  Douglas offers a structural analysis of material culture that classifies uncut and cut cloth as, respectively, ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’. Structural analysis shows how this distinction is used as paradigmatic of all systems of cultural classification. For anthropologists Douglas and Lévi-Strauss the idea of the body and bodily processes is just one of the many layers of signification that derive from the universal and invariant need for classification. For psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Didier Anzieu, the body, albeit an unconscious body ego, an imaginary body, is an underlying generative structure that creates meaning. Lee understands that this is of special interest to those who work with the cultures of cloth, clothes and fashion. The ambiguity of feelings of pride and shame that pertain to fashion attests to a fundamental emotional as well as physical proximity to the skin and the body. Lee proposes new concepts of the ‘toile ego’ and ‘dress ego’ to elaborate these levels of emotional and symbolic agency.

Using a range of anthropological and cultural thinkers, seamlessness is, for Lee, a starting point for thinking about the enfolding of denial and effacement of contradictory thoughts. Viewed from a psychoanalytic perspective, the denial is a tacit, unconscious assertion and Lee uses Freud, Anzieu and Julia Kristeva to trace the interplay between seams as simultaneously both hiding and revealing. The psychoanalysis of matter and materiality enables Lee to sound out the resonances between bodily metaphors of layers and surfaces, and the social symbolism of boundaries and edges. Taking Freud’s concept that the ‘ego is first and foremost a body ego’, Lee follows Anzieu’s concept of the ‘Skin Ego’ to propose the couturière’s material of the ‘toile ego’. The toile ego is the precursor to the subjectivity that is generated by the completed ensemble, the finished garment. The toile, like the drawing beneath a painting, is the ghost that is hidden within the artefact. Lee asks us to consider the layers of effect that precede the garment’s existence. The desire, the idea, the copy, the gaze, the memory, the fantasy, the dream are all ‘layers’ of meaning that become encoded within the garment. Just as the garment creates a layer of cloth that lies over the body’s skin, so garments symbolize the lines and boundaries of social demarcation that structure the subjectivities of our sameness and difference as people living within cultures.

The etymology of the word ‘cloth’ is derived from the same Anglo Saxon word as ‘to cling’ and it is so named, as a material because of this property of pliability and as a ‘second skin’ in proximity to the body. So what is it about the garment that gives it this magical characteristic of confounding the antinomy between nature and culture? The difference between natural and cultural orders is, traditionally, marked as an opposition. The word ‘cleave’ is another antithetical word that draws on the same etymology as the ‘clinging’ of cloth: to cleave means, simultaneously to cling together and to ‘split asunder’, notes Freud. This linguistic conundrum is a vestigial trace of the existence, in the unconscious, of primary contradiction – not simply the ‘mixed feelings’ we have to artefacts and to the social relations that these symbolize, but the powerful ambivalence that is a loving and hating relationship towards the same object at the same time. It is this profound unconscious ambivalence at the heart of social relations that is symbolized in the ambiguity of seamlessness, suggests Lee’s work.

Whereas pre-modern cultures constructed traditions of denial to generate illusions of fit, the modernist adventure has generated an aesthetic style that celebrates the misfit, the everted seam and the visibility of ‘joins’. Lee traces the principles of modernism from the Soviet constructivists who proposed a poetics of the text as preferable to a transparency of meaning. The origins of modernism in the formalism and constructivism of literary and artistic experimental method leads Lee to celebrate the aesthetic of fashion designer Martin Margiela, whose avant-garde designs use many tropes of the formalist project in order to parody fashion and thereby to create a

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