Images via Dazed & Confused
Is there a difference between costume and fashion? Designer duo Elizabeth Ammerman and Eric Schlösberg have never seemed the types to get metaphysical, yet this was the question that resonated during their SS ’16 presentation.
Ever since their VFiles runway debut in 2013, Ammerman Schlösberg has always incorporated some element of costume into their designs, creating a mashup of dark and feminine tropes described by Schlösberg as equally “cotton-candy sweet and fucked up.” Borrowing heavily from the worlds of fantasy and fetishism, their eponymous line repeatedly embraces latex, bows and fake blood. Previous collections have included gothic Lolita looks aplenty (like their memorable “sexy nurse” dress), and this season promised much in the same vein.
Hosted in a speakeasy-turned-theatre on youth-crazed St. Marks Place, the psychedelic horror show opened with organ music heightening to a frenetic acid-induced peal, as blood-red velvet curtains parted to reveal a glow-in-the-dark cemetery. The stage was littered with decorations right out of the Halloween section of the local drugstore containing tombstones and a crooked gate, both hearkening to autumnal yards across suburban America.
The first look was a shapeless brocade smock over a pale pink ruffled dress—very sixties—featuring a sequined bat above the hemline and accessorized with a familiar black pointed hat (the Ammerman Schlösberg answer to a “witch” look). The remaining lineup included the following: a flower-power hippie with a plastic marijuana necklace; a mod zombie, her hemline tattered in a zig-zag; another witch; Freddy Krueger and another hippie. The looks weren’t completely literal, but shared an overlap of elements: sequins, jaggedly tattered hemlines, plastic accessories, beauty-queen streaked tears and wiggy long blonde hair. The general effect was that of six Marsha Brady clones, who in the midst of a nonsensical teen-angst tantrum had gone rifling through a box of old Halloween costumes.
Obviously the quality of the material and designs were superior to what you would find in a plastic bag labeled “Sexy Witch” or “Freddy Krueger. For instance, the coat in the Freddy outfit glimmered with luxe iridescent thread, and yet the effect was the same as an ordinary Halloween costume.
“Costume” is broadly defined as “the clothes that are worn by someone (such as an actor) who is trying to look like a different person or thing.” The definition opens up a rabbit hole of philosophical questions: Is all fashion just costume? Is every person an actor? More generally though, why do we think of costume as different from wearable, “everyday” fashion?
Much of what we see on the runway can be considered costume. Take, for instance, the jewel-encrusted lace masks shown this season at Givenchy’s first New York show. Surely the masks, which were intended for cinematic effect, fall under the category of “costume,” while the clothes—liquid silk tops paired with Le Smoking-style cigarette pants—would be considered “fashion.”
But in the case of Ammerman Schlösberg, the entire experience is costume, and there’s seemingly no attempt to hide the fact. This inevitably begged the question, “Was this fashion at all, or just costume, and if the latter, why would people pay a premium for it?”
An answer is suggested by a visual survey of Ammerman Schlösberg’s audience: club kids, drag queens, Tumblr-famous teens with tens of thousands of followers, living out a fantasy both online and off. Once upon a time, kids wore what they thought was “cool.” In the sixties, the era which Ammerman Schlösberg quietly mimics in their collection, cool girls would have donned miniskirts and mod prints—fashion that made their parents sigh, and gave them a sense of rebellion.
But mere “fashion” isn’t enough now—a time summarized in the words of Childish Gambino: “Because the Internet.” Cool is only cool if it “reads” as cool online, the same way faces are only attractive on-screen if they’ve been contoured and/or Photoshopped to oblivion, and street-style stars can only expect to be photographed during Fashion Month if they look like expensive clowns.
Where older generations of cool kids once turned to “fashion,” the alt-net inheritors of their coolness now turn to “costume”—the splashier version of not giving a shit. It’s self-expression, with an essential bonus: it reads loud and clear in a tiny square frame on Instagram. Costume-heavy Ammerman Schlösberg might not have worked for Marsha Brady, but for the Internet generation, it’s a different world—one where you might have to resemble a masked murderer to feel cool enough for Elm Street.