Jutting Angles And Tapering Widths: Revisit ’80s Style With John K. Snyder III’s ‘Fashion in Action’
Read “fashion comic” and it’s easy — it’s really easy — to visualise genteel elegance, perhaps (if you want to get nutty) with a side of razzle-dazzle. Dior, Chanel, the '50s-through-'70s girls’ comics with paper dolls and reader-designed costumes...
What was once daring and new, liberating for the wearer, has become established, gender-restrictive, rote and retro. Things "for girls," or about us, are easy enough to dismiss without the added impression that comics, as an English-language industry, doesn't think girls want much more than the feminine or the shallow. We imagine "fashion comics" and see good clean fun — easily, we see compliance.
Interrogating that reductive response is hard when we look around and see very little to contradict it, or to comfort our non-compliant selves with, as we explore what fashion and gender mean personally, to us. Fashion in Action, currently halfway through a healthy Kickstarter campaign, is something to cling onto: Fashion in Action is kind of grotty.
I mean that as a compliment, obviously.
“It's the year 2086, and the 2080s haven't changed much from the 1980s --- except of course for the jetpacks, Mars colonizations, and rocket-fueled cars. Frances Knight and her squad are "the world's highest priced and best dressed celebrity protection agency." They guard the world's rich and beautiful and make their base in the refurbished Statue of Liberty.
Fashion In Action square off against the diabolical team of the coldly manipulative Dr. Cruel, and his accomplices, Boss One --- a henchman just happy to be involved --- and the violently unpredictable Roxanne, Frances Knights' most psychotically devoted fan. Dr. Cruel plots to use the robot clone of a late night talk show host to turn the world's elite into gorillas during a snuff star's celebrity-filled wedding! Will they succeed? Will Frances defeat Roxanne? And will they look absolutely amazing doing so? Fund this project and find out!”
Tank Girl isn’t often described as a fashion comic, but it very surely is. John K. Snyder III’s Fashion in Action, first published in the 1980s (edited by Cat Yronwode, who should not be forgotten) is not and was not Tank Girl (nobody is Tank Girl but Tank Girl) but it’s got the heavy black lines and a gung-ho, determined ugliness that good girls are still encouraged to give up.
Some of its women might look familiar, if you’re one of those weirdos who pay attention to pop history; there’s some David Bowie and Annie Lennox, some of Marvel’s Callisto, some of Grace Jones. References to men’s and women’s experiments with gendered clothing, presentation, body language. There are thin characters, and there are fatter ones. Skin tones range dark to light.
In the linework there’s Jamie Hewlett, and Jaime Hernandez too, and Terry MooreNi. We’re still in the realm of masculine feminism, to be sure — Fashion in Action is a comic, maybe a girls’ comic, about women that’s made by a bloke — but that realm is real: we need people to sit there and draw their comics, and we need to not forget that those comics were drawn. Seeing that men have always known that women come in many packages is good. Seeing “fashion” mean more than sighing and wafting scarves, likewise.
Martha Thomases has an excellent introduction on 20th Century fashion and fashion iconography’s evolution that's ready for the book should the project hit its funding goal. The paragraph excerpted below shows the necessity of remembering comics’ history. This, good grief, is not a problem we are yet past, and it’s not for want of commentary. Perhaps we can hope it’s for want of evidence that the opposite can be achieved. Perhaps we can hope that, the more the good old days are remembered, the better the terrible day today will become.
“Again, what bothers me is not so much that the artists didn’t know current fashion. What bothers me is that they know so little about how women’s bodies work that they don’t understand how our clothes fit. So many times, artists drew a woman’s pants that are so tight, we could see each butt cheek all the way up to her hip. To wear pants so tight, one would feel as if she was walking around with a giant wedgie all day long. And the accompanying camel toe would be painful.”
— Martha Thomases, In Comic Book Fashion, Fashion in Action
Noting the anomalous aspects to this project’s concept of fashion, I asked Hope Nicholson, the Kickstarter’s project leader, and John K Snyder III, the original cartoonist, for their perspectives on how, and why, Fashion in Action was different.
Nicholson: I think what I really have to say about the fashion is how relieved I was that clothes fit the characters. They flowed, they went in straight lines, they were lumpy when needed, they behaved like real clothes on women's bodies, even if the art was stylized. You didn't see breasts being vaccuum packed in or high cut thongs, his characters wore gowns and jackets, flowing coats, soft sweaters, all very real and very fashionable items.
Snyder: What timing! Believe or not, I've been thinking about the very same topic, more or less ... and how for me, growing up in the 70's, and my initial exposure to what I thought was some higher level of art and music in contemporary culture, it went hand in hand with the androgynous look, it was a symbol of cool, and some examples of this was to be found in the work of greats like artists Vaughn Bode and Jefferey Catherine Jones, and musically, bands like Roxy Music, The Tubes, and of course, David Bowie. This look carried into the early '80s, certainly, personified by Annie Lennox in the Eurythmics and Adam Ant, among others, and into the art of European artists such as Daniel Torres and Enki Bilal, and Moebius.
As the early '80s kicked in, all of this was reflected in the change of fashion design coming out of New York and Europe as well, and the "power suit" designs of Armani, Ralph Lauren, Anne Klein and many others was a visual artists's dream with the jutting angles and tapering widths. Which incidentally goes back to the 1920s and the designs of Coco Chanel.
So, rather than a departure, it felt I was following in the footsteps of a naturally progressing culture --- looking back, I feel very fortunate to have been able to have been around in these times, and in the company of friends who enjoyed and shared the same interests as well.
If you enjoy fashion in action, and share these same interests? That Kickstarter is waiting for you, with just under two weeks left to go, and some tremendous perks on offer.