Friday, 9 November 2012

Recurring Images: The Sea

Chris Nicholls Photography

What is it about the ocean that enthralls us? Is it the fact that we know less about it than we do about the dark side of our moon? Is it the way it is associated with a passage to a new life? Is it simply the appearance of this sparkling blue expanse which so captivates the imaginations of writers, artists, designers and musicians alike?

As with my first post about recurring image of birds, this piece will attempt to track the motifs and symbols which are associated with the sea through selected books, songs and fashion designs. I thought I might start with a few lines from one of my favourite songs:

When these sails go up
Mountains fade away
Stars come out
I'm finally free
It's only the ocean and me
In these lyrics, Jack mentions two major themes which are often associated with the sea: liberty and solitude. Perhaps the connection with freedom stems from a history of people leaving their current lives by boat and making new ones for themselves across the water. Or maybe it's because that view of the distant horizon when you're looking at miles of sea just speaks of hope and possibility.

But when you compare that to the idea solitude, they couldn't be more different. By seeing the sea as a chance to gain freedom, it becomes something which is completely uninhibited, whereas images of the sea creating solitude revolve around the water being a constricting force. In Mrs Dalloway, mentally unstable Septimus feels cut off from the world around him "like a drowned sailor on a rock". He has experienced shell shock in the First World War, and he sees this experience as a kind of death. "I went under the sea. I have been dead, and yet am now alive". It is interesting that he imagines the experience which has isolated him from other people as going "under the sea." In this case, the sea is not the salvation of someone longing for freedom, it is instead associated with the confines of death. Virginia Woolf seemed to be fascinated by the image of the ocean and it recurs in many of her other works, in paritcular To The Lighthouse and The Waves. It comes to mean many things in her fiction, but my favourite is in To The Lightouse, when the tidal movement of the water is associated with the awakening of new ideas: "It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some physical relief."

Folio Society edition of To The Lighthouse

Going back to Ancient times, the sea was often associated with Aphrodite or Venus because she was born from the sea foam, so perhaps we could also see the ocean as a symbol of love or desire. Several writers have made this connection. The Spanish poet and playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca litters his play The House of Bernarda Alba with images of water which represent desire.

But what has all this to do with fashion? Well, as with all art, fashion has striven to recreate the image of the natural world in countless forms. The references can range from a subtle pearl accessory to a flowing blue and silver gown. It is the ocean's mystical quality which makes it a perfect inspiration for a show-stopping evening dress, but its familiarity which lends it an air of the everyday.

Mary Katrantzou S/S 2012
Spring/Summer 2012 was a particularly good season for sea-inspired pieces. The catwalks overflowed with blues, silvers and seashell motifs. Mary Katrantzou's collection was an explosive tribute to nature, including dresses printed with colourful seabed scenes (see above). But her work went beyond a simple imitation of nature; she explored the way that patterns recur in nature and how this also happens in the mass production of clothing. I like how she has crossed the ideas of something so eternal as the sea with some very modern issues in the fashion industry.

The oceanographic triumph of the season though had to be Karl Lagerfeld's underwater world for Chanel. The show itself took place on a sea-shell landscape and the collection was littered with pearl accessories, foamy white creations, silky blue waves and shell motifs. The show also featured Florence Welch appearing from a shell in a kind of Venus de Milo way, bringing in those Ancient mythological themes in again, but the minimalist white of the rest of the show kept things from getting overly-archetypal. But I thought that the greatest achievement of the collection was to make it recognisably Chanel (with boxy jackets, drop-waist silhouettes and lashings of pearls) without sacrificing any of the creative vision in the process.

Chanel S/S 2012
So what have we learned? The sea is one of the oldest things imaginable, but it is also a conveyor of new ideas. It represents solitude, freedom, journeys and love. It can be a dramatic or a subtle image. Perhaps we'll never know everything about the sea, but that doesn't stop us from seeking to recreate it with words, with songs, with fabric.


Haley said...

You got a great blog. Unique style. I will surely visit often.

Melissa said...

I absolutely love that dress!!

<3 Melissa