I See Through You, Yet I Cannot Have You
Helmut Lang and Elfie Semotan
on the Edges of the Material

Edith in den Fashion-Städten is nothing more than a series of travel notes and reviews on exhibitions and events written by a confused traveler trying to make sense of these hazy everyday encounters and the politics of the body accompanying them. The first installment in the series recounted a trip to the archive of Ulm’s School of Design, while the second journey brought our writer to the capital cities of Vienna and Berlin. Permanently on view, the Helmut Lang archive in Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts inspired Edith to rethink body politics in the light of transparent materials and male gazes, while photographer Elfie Semotan’s show Contradiction at C/O Berlin continues her lines of inquiry on the eroticized gazes and desire in fashion. Accompanying the text, Lázár has created the playlist Transparencies on SoundCloud.

Imagine an aluminum box, a glass cover reflecting neon white light, then a delicate piece of cloth taking shape, almost floating. In transparent textures, as if spotted under X-rays, garments appear like shells or skins, hanging loose, waiting to be a part of the body once more. Sensuality and desire steadily arise, woven into an elastic sculpture.

There’s not much I can tell you about the Austrian designer Helmut Lang that hasn’t found its way into the pool of data that fashion magazines like Dazed, I-D or 032c often stir and add to. Browsing through them, there’s a sort of ritornelle of references to techno and club culture, the provocative garments that I always found so easygoing while at the same time revealing. A sea of black radiating from fabrics and collections alike; poetry, and Lang’s retreat into the art world. In Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), I couldn’t help but stare at the row of transparencies brought from the designer’s dedicated archive. Donated to the museum after a studio fire destroyed many objects and most of the materials’ documentation in 2010, the remaining artifacts are now curated to underline his designs’ subtleties.

Fashion made transparency appealing, a voyeuristic dance entangling desire and access to an otherwise undisclosed body. But the game is not that simple. Light garments and see-through fabrics place »the gaze« in an ambivalent state, because they can disturb what is permeated to be seen and what is hidden. They imply a body exposed. But also a body in charge of itself. »You see this,« but it’s because the person wearing the clothes allows you to, thus reclaiming ownership over their own body. How and what kind of body surfaces through the mesh puts that ambivalence into play when »is my body fit enough for a mesh top?« is answered with »it doesn’t matter.« Revealing the body can in this way address the normative and constrictive rules perpetually trying to »domesticate« it. Gendered behavior, making the body »decent,« or how we mold it to specific beauty ideals: mesh can both highlight this and present us with a difference. If the line between reclaiming the body by exposing it and the fitness culture of our time has become a battleground, it’s because the body’s visibility leaves it vulnerable to scrutiny. Nude and transparent textures might reveal different body shapes like in Kanye West’s – hated or acclaimed – Yeezy show collections in collaboration with artist Vanessa Beecroft, [1] but Kim Kardashian’s use of them in everyday life sculpts and insulates her body as an idealized one. The pressure to perform, however, falls on both sides. For Helmut Lang, clothing opens gaps to disclose skin and eroticize the body differently. The iconic seductive traits of a male nipple through tank tops, elongated androgynous silhouettes of females, or bondage elements inserted in office wear, make from fashion a surface for worlds that transgress and touch the body, confronting gender. Experiments with technologically improved fabrics place the garment’s materiality at the core of the process – that first encounter lingering on the skin.

If club (and techno) culture make a specific reference for these »looks,« it’s because they function similar to what Foucault named heterotopias; spaces that construct their order on the margins of our own [2] – there’s the night-life with its dress codes and bouncer’s in/exclusions. Subverting would be a proper association if fashion hadn’t become used to tossing it like confetti, reduced to an empty vessel justifying slight deviations. Ironically, while the designer’s aesthetics rippled through the younger generation of »cool kids« in the fashion industry (from Alexander Wang to Vetements or Hood by Air), the club scene gave rise more blatantly to another type of uniform confining the body to a particular »defiance« one should incorporate. In reverse, Lang’s approach was always a question of intimacy in encounters. What remains of his renowned collaboration with artist Jenny Holzer is a sort of poetry, a piece of advertising in bold letters that take you back to a lover’s scent:

I talk
I smile
I bite
I bite your lip
I breathe your breath
I smell you on my skin

Today’s overabundance of images appears in contrast to a particular material experience they still retain, sparked by a tactile sensation emerging from our daily encounters with objects. [3] In an otherwise frozen display, accessories and catwalk images of Lang’s collections, advertising campaigns of men in bondage, slices of poetry, or the bright red ad that used to embellish New York cabs – were all carefully arranged for study. Despite their sensuality, an exercise in imagination is required to be able to perform the archive. I could picture these artifacts as units, much like to those we use to fashion ourselves to create a specific look. Since we can easily recall their touch on our skin, clothes perhaps are what most often hold textures legible in images. Elfie Semotan – a long-time collaborator of the designer – elaborates in fashion photographs the textural feeling of images, offering a vast visual material into the intricacies of fashion and fashion spaces. Connected by an imaginary thread that runs from the late nineteenth-century Viennese interiors of the MAK to C/O Berlin (in the postwar Amerikahaus near Berlin’s Zoo), the Austrian photographer’s retrospective, Contradiction, wires clothes to culture and shows how we wear ourselves through them. As if under the similar transparent cover of Lang’s delicate garments, a blue wall covered in a tapestry of Polaroids, portraits, zooms on bodies and garments alike, backstage snaps, and photographic editorials of Semotan’s collaborations with the designer gave way to the much-needed performativity lacking at MAK. Sometimes performativity is a metaphor, arising from an image almost in movement.

In Contradiction, this sensibility toward the captured subject is highlighted by a sort of spontaneity of movement and expression that runs from celebrity portraits to models caught up in fashion shootings. Like the late Sibylle Bergemann – the German photographer subverting fashion in the GDR era – Semotan used quotidian elements and open space in fashion images to tell the story of the body in performativity. Melancholy, irony, sassiness, vulnerability make the people indistinguishable from what they wear. Images borrow still-movie techniques, like sequences that seem extracted from a larger narrative. There’s a subtle eroticism catching the eye; sexuality being played out. Lang used subtraction as strategy, but here the photographer over-sexualizes, as in the ad of women in lingerie uttering »I dare you!« While in its time such things were scorned by feminists, today maybe reclaiming female sexual desire in an overt way – fashion as a means – is less a motif of outrage. Ultra-femininity has been acknowledged as just another strategy of navigating what is still a male-dominated worldview. [4]

At times overtly quoting contemporary artists and artistic practices, the photographs make playful and witty inversions engaging with eccentricities as in the pastel and joyous captures, inspired by Diane Arbus. There’s a similar undertone in her glimpse into American everyday life – fashioned-up on the brink of masquerade – or in the series of models posing as Peggy Guggenheim. Such convergences of fashion and art evoke theorists Adam Geczy and Vicki Karamina’s suggestion that fashion is the medium through which contemporary art can become accessible and relatable [5] and come out of its ivory tower. The images move in a sort of fluidity with the textures of dresses and the bodies as an undistinguishable unit; they resemble both a movie still and a performance act in which something is about to happen.

In between images and garments connecting Helmut Lang and Elfie Semotan, the delicate understanding of a body, is reminiscent of a proximity to the others. If sex already had a canonical status in everyday discourse, the titillating pleasure of looking/being looked at, »[w]hat seems less popular is the concept of the body/dress relationship as an amorous one.« It is love that somehow got labeled as obscene along with everything sentimental. [6] When in love, though, the other’s identity always sprawls with no sense of proportion.

»I’m having a relationship with your jacket« I once told a lover. I fell in love with the soft suede texture brushing against my skin whenever I embraced him. The way it always stood in my way, its heaviness like a cocoon, which then made room for me, wrapped around me as if I was part of my beloved while his smell lingered on my skin afterward. I could see through, as if transparent, that it was a warm spot of in-between.

»I look for you« – Helmut Lang’s transparencies seem to say.
»I dare you« – Elfie Semotan’s portraits gaze back at you.
»I dare you/ I smell you on my skin« – Love, as French theorist Roland Barthes says, might as well be unspeakable. But just like perfume, it lingers unseen.


  1. Jump Up Kanye West’s Yeezy, Adidas, collections have been a visual extension of his own sense of style and the previous collaborations with artist Vanesa Beecroft for whom female bodies have always been a central point. Nude in this sense got translated as under-garments or bodysuits merging with the body and the transparencies of mesh and stockings overlaid, that gave a perspective on atypical models and other body types than those already promoted by the industry. For more about how his collections were received see: https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/23629/1/did-kanye-s-adidas-collection-deserve-the-hate and the: https://www.thecut.com/2016/02/yeezy-season-one-where-are-they-now.html
  2. Jump Up Following Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopia, in Space, the City and Social Theory: Social Relations and Urban Forms, Fran Tonkiss argues that clubs as »heterotopias of pleasure« remain outside »normality« through the way they invert time – the nightlife –, temporarily points of meeting for people, »spoken and unspoken« dress codes. Polity Press, 2005, p.133. This »outside normality« becomes also a space for performing queerness without scrutiny, a sort of safe space making.
  3. Jump Up Sophie Woodward and Tom Fisher, »Fashioning through materials: Material Culture, Materiality and Processes of Materialization,« in: Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, Vol. 5, Nr. 1, 2014.
  4. Jump Up Janice Miller, “Sigmund Freud: More than a Fetish: Fashion and Psychoanalysis” in: Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, I.B. Tauris, 2016, pp. 56–58.
  5. Jump Up In the introduction to Fashion and Art, Vicki Karaminas and Adam Geczy argue that since the nineteenth century, fashion has become a means for popularizing art and its crossover into everyday life. Fashion and Art, eds. Vicki Karaminas, Adam Geczy, Berg, 2012, pp. 1–2.
  6. Jump Up Alexandra Warwick and Danni Cavallaro, Fashioning the Frame: Boundaries, Dress and the Body, Berg, 1998, p. 48.