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Fashion and Philosophy

Alain de Botton

Should fashion be more meaningful? Every few decades the question gets asked, and as we move into the 21st century’s teen years, it has rolled around again, thanks to a pair of surprising collaborations.

After the Aesthetic Dress movement of the 19th century; after the love affair between fashion and art (Schiaparelli and the Dadaists; Nicole Farhi and sculptor Benedetta Mori-Ubaldini, whose wire animals are currently showcased in the designer’s London shop windows); after a flirtation between style and literature (Zandra Rhodes and Celia Birtwell have designed book covers for Penguin and White’s Books’ edition of Wuthering Heights respectively) comes… fashion and philosophy.

A new shirt collection launched by Bruce Montgomery, design director of men’s wear label Alexander Boyd, for example, is entitled “Poetic Summer” and aims to make fashion “a little bit more intellectual”. Avoiding the rather existential question of whether this is, in fact, an impossible task, Montgomery has designed shirts, each of which is inspired by a poet: Keats, Blake, Byron, Milton, Burns and so on.

Burns is a pleated-bib formal dress shirt (a nod to Burns’ Night), while Eliot is crisp and striped (imagine him presiding over Faber’s old offices in Bloomsbury). All the shirts are made using Italian Swiss two-ply cotton fabrics for durability, a deliberate reflection of the poetic theme, as Montgomery sees poets as people who reflect longer and more carefully about things.

For the autumn range, Montgomery has expanded into outerwear (a Siegfried Sassoon trench coat, for example) and has referenced contemporary poets including Simon Armitage (a poppy red shirt) and former laureate Sir Andrew Motion, who has had a cornflower blue shirt named after him.

Motion says of the idea: “It’s certainly true that most poets are so poor they tend to wear what they do have for a very long time. So the idea of having a shirt robust enough to last more than one season is very attractive. If people think what is it about cornflower blue that suits my poems, then I’m thrilled about that.”

Personally, Motion professes himself a fan of Margaret Howell and the retro tailoring of Old Town in Norfolk. “In both cases their durability is what I like, and if that durability is to do with a certain old-fashionedness, then so be it,” he says.

Taking Montgomery’s idea a step further is cult philosopher Alain de Botton, author of books about love, travel and work. De Botton was recently filmed for a video interview on Vogue’s website Style.com talking to Philip Colbert, one half of the Rodnik Band, a concept British fashion label.

Sitting in Colbert’s high-fashion studio, dressed in professorial crumpled shirt and trousers, De Botton explains on video that he “got really interested in fashion the day that I saw a Chloé dress that Phoebe Philo had designed on a beautiful woman. I just thought, ‘This woman and this dress are working so well together, fashion isn’t just some boring thing that I as a bloke am not interested in.’”

After the interview, De Botton and Colbert even discussed starting a “philosophical” fashion line together entitled Smith & Rousseau, after the Scots economist and French philosopher. The more left-field De Botton’s musings, the more Colbert found them inspiring. “[De Botton] has so many ideas that gave me thoughts for clothing – he said fashion was closer to cookery than architecture [as it’s more temporary] and that was amazingly funny and surreal,” notes Colbert, who says the phrase inspired him to do “a series of [fabric] prints of food”.

Whether or not women actually want to walk around wearing scrambled eggs and a hamburger and chips, is, of course, a question to provoke a thousand musings. But just imagine the entire school that could arise to come up with the answer. Dolce & Chomsky, Viktor & Russell, maybe even Van Cleef & Habermas…

First published in Financial Times by Natalie Whittle