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Fashion VS AIDS: A 90's War

Aggiornamento: 1 dic 2023

I clearly remember February 2020. On the streets of Florence (where I was attending university at the time) there was this air of hysteria which for everyone represented an uncomfortable and odd new reality, scenes of people who lifted up their medical masks on the train (not obligatory at the time) at the first sound of a cough or a sneeze, or people who sometimes avoided, in a rude and impolite way, the Chinese origin's (actual or presumed) part of population, were become present in daily life of everyone, no one, between citizens and institutions , could have ever imagined that shortly after the world would have changed forever in the next two years, in a mix of restrictive measures and anti-contagion rules.

For people like me, born in the late 90s, the coronavirus was"our first pandemic". However there is a generation that knew very well factors such as mass hysteria and suddenly finding themselves to face the lack of friends or relatives due to a silent and viral evil.

However, although covid received a lot of following around the world by the media, when the AIDS virus began to appear, there was no journalistic coverage and no institutional recognition of that disease.

This phenomenon is mainly attributed to the fact that unlike the coronavirus, AIDS was not a "plague of everyone" (or so it was believed), but initially afflicted the members of an already marginalized society: the people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community.

But how did we get to this?

When history wanted to identify the so-called patient zero, the blade of public opinion struck the 25-year-old Air Canada steward, Gaëtan Dugas, whom the media of the time did not hesitate to describe as "a gay sexual predator who brought and spread the HIV virus first in North America and then in the rest of the world”.

What was ignored, however, is that at the end of the “free love era” of the 70s, isolated cases of AIDS had already been reported in the United States and in many other areas of the world (Haiti, Africa and Europe).

Indeed, it is believed that the first case of HIV positivity dates back to 1959, when a blood sample was taken from a man from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) which, analyzed thirty years later, proved to contain HIV-1 infections.

In the late 80s, Michael Gottlieb, a researcher at the University of California, was conducting clinical research on immune system deficiencies. While analyzing the medical records of hospital patients, he came across the case of a young patient suffering from a rare type of pneumonia. Over the next few months, Gottlieb discovered three more cases of patients, all sexually active homosexuals, with low T-lymphocyte levels of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in young homosexuals. When a group of cases among homosexual males was recorded in southern California in June 1982, the hypothesis that the disease had a viral origin began to spread among researchers. Only in 1986 an international committee did establish a new name to indicate the AIDS virus: from now on we would only speak of HIV, or "Human Immunodeficiency Virus".

But how was fashion influenced by the plague of AIDS?

It's no secret that fashion have always been queer. Over time, designers such as Ray Petri (who has appeared in The Face, i-D and Arena magazines) based they work on the looks observed in gay clubs.

In the New York of 80’s, fashion was the city's second largest industry, and these people were their pumping heart.

During the 80s, AIDS took the lives of fashion designers including Perry Ellis and Willie Smith and many other figures (both male and female) in the fashion industry:

Showroom assistants, stylists, photographers, creative directors, window dressers - an entire creative category, almost completely wiped out.

Although the sector was hit hard by this new disease, also thanks to a society that saw (now even more) homosexuality as a taboo not accepted by the community, its effects were rarely discussed, admitted or acknowledged.

What was the result? Ignorance, disinformation and above all, an increasingly homophobia in a society that already saw something wrong and unnatural turning into something contagious and fatal. It became impossible for people to separate homosexuality and AIDS from the fashion industry. And the creative talents who took refuge there, because they had always seen fashion as a safe place where they can be able to follow their creative identity, suffered a lot.

In the early 90's AIDS was always a taboo subject, but this was about to change very soon.

On December 1, 1993, in a pre-dawn raid, the huge obelisk at Place De La Concorde in Paris was entirely covered in a 22m high bright pink condom, in a definitely “Camp” act. Those responsible were identified in the aggregates of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an international direct action organization committed to bring attention to the lives of AIDS patients, sponsored by Benetton, without the approval of the French government.

"I've lost many friends, I'm devastated, but we need to help spread information"

declared Jean-Jacques Picart, president of Christian Lacroix.

Fashion industry began to feel the need to fight the spread of the plague and the resulting ignorance caused by it through the most powerful weapon at its disposal: information.

Designers and fashion brands began to combine what was the cardinal philosophy of the 90s (based on the rejection of history and transgression), a sort of "conscious sexualization", using nudity for informing and protecting.

In fact, although the 80s based its aesthetics on glamur and an exaggeration of volume, the designers of the 90s began to make clothes capable of creating a second skin, a sort of protective and close-fitting envelope for the wearer.

In a world decimated by the AIDS epidemic, a taboo-fashion collective was born and shouted "protect yourselves", in a perfect mix of 90s transgression, energy and creativity of the pre-AIDS era.

With tight and allusive fabrics, almost merged with bodies such as Elastane, vinyl, leather, transparent plastics became the new cotton. A new era begins, and like the birth of earth is told in the bible, it begins with Adam and Eve (by Jean Paul Gautier). During the Spring/Summer 1993’s pret-a-porter show, two incarnations (one of which carried on the runway by Yasmine Ghauri) of an idyllic, joyful and carefree Eva, covered in a transparent tight-fitting dress adorned with small precious stones, as a metaphor of a scandalous nudity which protects the body ( illusion of the condom). Were shown in Paris on October 16, 1992 in a primordial and safe atmosphere, invested by an illusory and glittering magnificence.

However, of all the designers, Walter Van Beirendonck's took the ant-AIDS cause very seriously.

It all began on his brand’s show at the Lido de Paris in July 1995:

At a silent but aggressive rhythm, the "Condom Man" are revealed one after the other on the runway. Muscular men with a titanic physique covered only in colored lattex, present to symbolize a new type of protected and indestructible warrior. This now gleaming bodies reveal themselves one by one in all their strength, their gazes are hidden behind protective fabric screens, their heads are entirely protected by a shield that highlights their silhouettes even more, shouting "safe sex".

Then, in the summer of 1996, Van Beirendonck's models were shown wearing masks with political slogans, only to then unexpectedly fall into the void at the end of the runway, in what is a deliberate error, a metaphor for the "voluntary blindness" of a society that, realizing the danger too late, ends up" falling" into it. The clothes in this collection give the model the semblance of an astral traveler: almost like a set of ethereal bodies belonging to a group of transgalactic tourists from a distant galaxy, who dazzle the spectators with the light reflected from their worn garments.

On January 12 1998, in Paris, it was then the turn of Paco Rabanne, who presented his models wearing metallic clothes whose shape recalls the typical tattoos of Maori traditions, complete with a white ostrich feather headdress. The models are wrapped in what is a sort of metal chastity belt, which the detail that stands out the most to the eye is undoubtedly the presence of exposed genitals, (also made in metal) that make model’s bodies hyper-sexualized, these forms of the models's bodies are clearly visible but untouchable, thanks to the armor that covers them. The dress then becomes the birthplace of a paradox:

“You can watch what you want as much as you want, but it’ll be impossible for you to touch it”

Now, it can be said that the AIDS pandemic has represented not only for society, but also for the fashion industry some sort of transition?

If we refer again to Covid we can mention some "aesthetic innovations" caused by its origin, such as the making of the Trikini (beach garment, three-piece, top, bottom and mask).

Surely the change from the 80s runways is very clear, both for the silhouettes and for the garments, but we also see the collections giving to the viewer a political component, capable of sending a message, and who knows, in the future, maybe we will see the theme of COVID-19 arriving on the runways.

For other revolutions in the fashion industries, we just have to wait for the next pandemic (but let's hope not).

By Cosimo Baldi

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