Browsing this season’s online catalog at ZARA, it is easy for even the least fashionably-inclined to spot the trend. Through rows and rows of clothing items and accessories, the thread that connects them all is obvious: this season is about the embellishments.
For now, even the simplest of pieces find themselves spruced up with patches, pins, or embroidery marked by their eccentricity: bright colors, bold words, and unconventional images. Of the countless jackets on offer for Fall/Winter 2016, one of the standouts is a denim number adorned with red and white strips of mysterious messages in an uppercase text: “NO IDEA,” “WILL BE SERIOUS,” “BOSSY BOOTS,” they read. Another jean jacket is decorated in a similar style, except this time with an increasingly incongruous hodgepodge of studs, script, and embroidered patches reminiscent of the verbs and the visuals of Jean-Michael Basquiat’s art. A puffed-up camouflage coat looks like a simple piece, just edgy enough until you see the back, plastered with the term “WHATEVER” in an enormous white uppercase font spanning its whole width. Finally, a pair of high-waisted, dark denim trousers is embroidered with brilliant bursts of joyous flowers, evocative of the pants worn back in the uncomplicated days of the early 2000s.
It’s not as if this thing for embellishment is sudden, or unanticipated—it is anything but. At last fall’s Au Jour Le Jour show during Milan Fashion Week, where models sported otherwise ordinary looks decorated with impactful appliqué. While most of these bore the letters AJLJ, others bore words and images (seemingly symbols), spread meaningfully across the front. Likewise, the recent seasons’ collections by Raf Simons and Virgil Abloh (through his iconic label Off-White) display similar styles. Preppy patches adorn Raf’s characteristic saggy sweaters Simons, while more modern, graphical patches line the black biker jackets and hoodies at Off-White. The latter brand’s upcoming Resort 2017 collection features perhaps the most interesting “custom” piece of them all: a structured, baby-blue pinstripe blouse that reads “WOMAN” across the front in large letters.
What sets this kind of embellishment apart from the traditional print or pattern is the fact that physical combination evokes the impression of physical effort, and therefore meaning. Whereas print and pattern are simply part of a fabric’s design, pins and patches are automatically associated with making a statement.
Considering their history, it’s no wonder the fashion world associates adornments with self-expression: individuals have broadcast their opinions with such emblematic embellishments for centuries. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this kind of representation is the political campaign button. While the history of campaign buttons can be traced back as far as George Washington’s presidency in 1789, the first widespread use of buttons as promotion is typically linked to the 1896 election between William McKinley and William Jennings-Bryan. In the centuries since, the concept of the tangible, wearable statement has remained an important part of nearly every election, from “I Like Ike” to Shephard Fairy’s iconic “Hope” t-shirts that promoted Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign just 8 years ago. Now, in the year of perhaps the most extreme election in modern American history, people have again turned to embellishments like pins, patches, and stickers to be their voice.
Yet, between election years, the business of personalization thrives. Recently, pins and patches have gained a second life in the fashion community, stoked by retailers like Urban Outfitters (which has an entire section devoted to the two items) and specialty shops like Pintrill, which fills a niche by producing only those particular products. Additionally, it is hard not to notice that for the last few years, students everywhere have been plastering the surface of their laptops with stickers, creating some sort of collage of personality. Obviously, it is much more than just an astonishing trend—it is a testament to our individuality.
Whether this notion of an embellishment as a testament to one’s own individuality comes from the concept of the political campaign button or the concept of the letterman jacket sew-on, it is clear that when an emblem is added on to an item of clothing, it suggests personalization. Through personalization comes self-expression, and then as an embellishment first distinguishes an item, an item then goes on to distinguish an individual. Essentially, embellishment through pins and patches is a way to establish oneself as an idiosyncratic “I” amongst everyone else; another way to say something about ourselves.
But why is it that we suddenly feel the need to say something about ourselves now? Perhaps it is that, in an age of mass media and widespread sharing, we are trying to make an anachronistic return to a more analog means of differentiation; to the initial, simpler days of pins and patches.
In those times, before the advent of the internet, before smartphones and social media, things were much more straightforward. Instead of Facebook and Twitter, we expressed whoever we were through embellishments like campaign buttons and the large letters of varsity jackets. Today, we find ourselves constantly connected through endless apps and platforms, consistently under the straining eyes of the whole world. Today, in these new virtual social spheres, everything is public and nothing is private; and this kind of pressure has made us turn to hiding, making it more and more of a challenge to express ourselves. Maybe, then, this recent, retrospective return to personalization through embellishment is rooted less in the trends of fashion world than in the vein of a statement. Maybe, after all this hiding, we are trying to say that the time has come to reclaim our own selves again.