By Sanda Miller

 The international project created at the initiative of Alumnus Club for UNESCO, launched in 2018 which involved Romanian fashion designer Carmen Emanuela Popa placed centre stage folkore. This makes the project unusual because fashion design and folklore do not, as a rule, make good bed fellows, and when they do collaborate it is on a very tangential basis. The reason? folklore tends to be considered the domain of anthropology and ethnography, rather than haute couture.

In 2007, a seminal, but unfortunately largely ignored book entitled: The Worldwide History of Dress,  by Patricia Rieff Anawalt was published by Thames and Hudson. Apart from its breathtaking scholarship, its author’s aims and objectives were  to write a ‘history of non-Western clothing’ because, as she confessed, ‘a lifelong fascination with the world myriad array of traditional societies’ (Preface).  Starting from the Paleolithic, the book takes us on a voyage of discovery through to our times, covering every corner of the world, China included, with its six thousand years of civilization, starting with the Paleolithic through to the Cultural Revolution. And here Rieff Anawalt makes the important point that ‘of all great revolutions  of world history, that of the Chinese has unquestionably been one of the most far reaching. It had to be because in China – as nowhere else – society, government and the economy were enmeshed and integrated into a single system that constituted the most unchanging society on earth’ (p.175).

To take this amount of cultural history on board is no small task, but Carmen Emanuela Popa raises to the challenge for one simple reason: she chooses to address current issues and concerns, such as ecology, and the world of fashion continues, sadly, to be one of the worst offenders, by returning to the roots of how people dress rather than concerns with ‘the latest must have’!

“ In this collection I used the metaphor to convey my message for union of the two cultures through symbols, chromaticity and aesthetic sensitivity. I also made the junction between the fabrics specific to the Romanian and Chinese folk costumes. So I created a Hanfu of natural white tissue with relieves matlases in the same color, elements that remind of the cycling suit, graphic motifs similar to those of some protective surfaces. The selected motifs from the two traditions, the most representative, from Chinese peony to Moldavian rose, from dragons, cherry blossoms to geometric motifs found on Romanian costumes, were made by painting with free brushes and two-dimensional appearance effect, directly on impermeable surfaces,  neoprene or natural textures such as wool or cotton velvet. ” – Designer says

In her collection Popa uses dance, joie de vivre and humour to make her point: thus we see ballerinas on points dressed in diaphanous white outfits decorated with the most delicate floral and vegetal embroidery but the lovely garments are not following the architecture of the body; on the contrary they appear to have a will of their own and we see the models sporting sleeves that are longer than their arms, bodices that appear resistant to being pulled down properly to fit the shape of the torso; in a nutshell rules are broken and what we see is funny!

We find the same mischievous sense of humour in Yssey Miyake who in 1999 launched  A POK, whereby he introduce a new ethical approach to making clothes. by using computer technology combined with old fashioned knitting techniques, Miyake created free-sized garments which could be rolled up into a tube from which the wearer could cut the clothes to fit their bodies or desire.

More recently New York based male fashion company Duckie Brown funded in 2001 by Steven Cox and Daniel Silver are championing unusual fabrics, tailored in unusual ways which result in oversized garments hanging which cover, rather than reveal, the body and Popa’s own clothes with oversized sleeves and ill fitting bodices are reminiscent of how Duckie Brown see the world in terms of clothes.

In the selection of outfits presented, we see side by side the delicate floral motifs reminiscent of classical Chinese textiles as well as the traditional Romanian embroidery found it women’s blouses (iia) made famous by Henri Matisse’s painting: The Romanian Blouse he painted in 1940.

The models do not assume the cat like steps we are accustomed to see on the runway; they are (or seem to be) dancing, and leaping and generally enthusiastic, but the message is important and hopefully far-reaching; we need a wind of change in the self seeking fashion world and that must come exactly from such sources as folklore and places other than the Pan Western European fashion world.