Mind the Frills and the Ruffles.
No Ding! Not my Thing!

Fashion and design: one is seen as flimsy, the other as beautifully useful objects. Yet here are both disciplines, dressing our everyday life. From use to abuse, in funny ways or more painful ones: when sequins leave marks on the skin, or a door handle falls out, we realize how close our encounters with fashion and design are. Edith in den Fashion-Städten is nothing more than a series of travel notes and reviews on exhibitions and events done by a confused traveler trying to make sense of these hazy everyday encounters and the politics of the body accompanying them.

The first of the series recounts a trip to the city of Ulm during spring, to the HfG Archive, namely Ulm’s School of Design, which in the 1950s and 1960s brought together work and life on its campus, while approaching design and environmental design. The exhibition the Archive hosted, Nicht mein Ding, addressed the issue of gender in design and was a good starting point for a discussion on how gender gets to be represented, but also some of the difficulties arising within the process.

What is fit or unfit? »Girls dress-up dolls, boys play with cars« or »that’s not a woman’s work« used to leave a rash on my skin. My »weapon« of choice turned out to be a power drill, even if I was never able to measure things right. As my mother once told me, we all have different abilities, but it’s not gender that decides them; yet, I would add, it does bamboozle us into that. What do we do with things? When tools or clothes fail? Can they still fit?

Walking the streets of design, I found myself in Ulm at the HfG Archive. There, Nicht mein Ding – Gender im Design [Not my Thing – Gender in Design] began a discussion about gender through uncanny and sometimes comical associations everyday objects might perform. In the vein of both Bauhaus and Ulm’s School of Design, the exhibition asked how we want to live and what »design for everyone« means today. The issue at stake? One that hooks us since we are born: »is it a boy or a girl?« This duality, as activist on gender norms Riki Anne Wilchins might argue, forms itself like a reflex: »Two-ness is not something ›out there;‹ but a product of the way we see. We look for that two-ness. Our categories assume that we see it.« [1] Like a sophisticated toolkit, the show thus unraveled into games and boxes of objects and images pushing the button on the designer’s double figure: simultaneously devising gendered artifacts and aiming to reconfigure them. A soft-air gun adorned in pink glitter and feathers shined near an image of a boy hairdressing the action figure Thor (Domenique Gehrke, 2010), while the Who’s She? board game reclaimed the need for historical female role models (Zuzanna Kozerska-Girard, 2018). Wondering if your furniture is neutral or not?, a voting game for chairs, poked our perception of how we think of artifacts. I couldn’t help but recall Lucas Maassen’s Carl the Chair: »It’s not about an age or a gender as much as durability or style,« the talking chair would say, but it went by Carl and indulged in lacquer. [2]

»Every morning, the spaces we inhabit, the objects we encounter, what we put on, influence our experience. How bodies get to be distributed – which people are more equal than others, whether in terms of gender, race or class – is always a matter of designing, as are ways of being.«

If we emphasize playfulness, it’s because our roleplay is played out through games, teaching us early how to make sense of the world. Jeong Mee Yoon’s The Pink and Blue Project notably overlaid this aspect in saturated hues of a supposedly universal color code. The photographs portray children and their belongings in a cluster ultimately revealing what we make of children and their preferences. The code, however, took its contemporary proportions by marketing strategies of the 1960s-consumerist drive through a gender fever that never diminished. [3]


Advertising, the saying goes, is the heart of commerce, indistinguishable from the product itself. Normative ideas pushed in advertising by 1950s and 1960s glory got mixed in with video clips of comical inversions. Misogynistic slogans objectifying women revamped with men in the servile role, like a tie ad depicting the husband serving breakfast in bed to a business wife (»show him who’s boss.«) Beliefs and people’s habits weigh on design as much as advertising ingrains them. Changing perspectives means bringing together both image and product, but otherwise. Gillette’s new commercial, for example, switched the competitive discourse to one of care, comparing the effects of »toughen up the kid so it won’t be a sissy« to new masculine traits of togetherness and respect. On display, close to a bright orange shaver, the Basik kit for shaving put creams, razors, and pipe draining powder into a no-gender package. (Saana Hellsten, 2014) To put it simply, we all face body-hair politics. And what about the persistent pink tax for women’s products? How do we address the taxation on women’s bodies in the first place? Dominating the show’s entrance, a lacquer pink breastfeeding bench (Ivana Preiss and Filip Vasić, 2018) shielded women from intrusive eyes in a safe space. If female agency becomes a recurrence, maybe this is an example of such taxation sneaking in, even with good intentions. The question of whether childrearing needs veiling still evokes polemical reactions.

Inhabiting the kitchen installation, this gender mish-mash manifested with flour and spilling gypsum bags, Bosch tools, cooking bowls, and a refrigerator filled with spray cans. The mess performed a chaotic constructor-cook work site, laughing at the stereotype of who belongs in the kitchen. Reading closer than one should – like your writer’s lousy habit – it’s in the kitchen where we all meet. But this is still the southern Germany of thriving motor cities and neon Bosch signs mounted on historical towers, recalling where the money flows. If Bosch tools were feminized somewhere else, the IXO 2010 screwdriver in Swarovski diamonds brought me back to market issues. Limited editions or not, objects are never neutral but always instrumental: who gains access to what, how, whose value, what does useful mean. »In a consumer society like ours, reality takes shape through buying goods. The moment money is exchanged, a possible future becomes real.« [4] The industrial makeovers for masses left a taste for waste, and even an idealization of the body, calculated in design as something that, like machines, can be tuned to function almost frictionlessly, according to mathematical elegance. [5] Looking at the algorithms that follow our preferences today, we’re clenched in our own fantasies. The question then is not only to poke fun at or reverse the body, but how to re-imagine it out of standardized measurements, gender bias, and clogged perception so that will eventually hint at other lives, beyond market limitations.

Oddly enough, fashion made just a cameo – in kids’ clothing, Nike’s sports gear for Muslim women (2017), or beauty aesthetics – otherwise remaining something of a design interruption. Fashion, nevertheless, owns up to a history of messing with gender as much as enforcing it. In its fusion of garment elements, its disregards of assigned who wears what, not only made the Queer a default, but contested gender’s placement in the anatomical body. [6]

»Limited editions or not, objects are never neutral but always instrumental: who gains access to what, how, whose value, what does useful mean.«

Judith Butler famously argued that gender is neither an end nor a goal, but a mode of becoming, a »doing« that only exists in the practices which brings it into being. Interactions are the ones making and unmaking the body. [7] Every morning, the spaces we inhabit, the objects we encounter, what we put on, influence our experience. How bodies get to be distributed – which people are more equal than others, whether in terms of gender, race or class – is always a matter of designing, as are ways of being. The possibilities of »queerness« or rather »queering« design – as theorist and designer Ece Canlı sketches – proposes design(ing) as an ever-fluid state. The arch-key is »designing with the people« (rather than for the people), entering the everyday life of improvised functionality and failure, misreading and appropriation – a design enabling non-expertise. [8] Such an open process could take nuanced and less predictable outcomes and approach an »equality of intelligence.« Design is a terrain of possible dissent. [9] We dissent when we don’t fit; when we don’t meet expectations, in the breaches of our ways of thinking, even if they sometimes resemble to a tempest in a teapot.




  1. Jump Up Riki Anne Wilchins particularly addressed what it means to find recognition beyond this gendered heteronormative way, talking about transgender and nonconformism toward gender in terms of something experienced. As Wilchins further underlined: »No matter what gender I do, the only question is: Are you a man or a woman?« In: GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, Los Angeles 2000, p.43.
  2. Jump Up Carl the Chair interviewed by curator of architecture and design Paola Antonelli, as part of Lucas Maassen’s project The Sitcom! – a pilot episode featuring the life of four chairs, like actors with their own personalities and life challenges. Dutch Design Week, 2013. The interview is meant to explain the project. In: Design as Fiction, ed. Alex Coles, EP/Volume 2, Berlin, p. 32.
  3. Jump Up As Dora Vanette explains: »Pink, in its proximity to the commanding power of red, was thought to suit boys, while blue was considered more passive, and consequently best suited for girls. In the last 40 years, the opposite has become completely naturalized—a testament to the power of trend to make people see reflections of innate preferences in arbitrary fashions.« The color binary found its way then through toys and took another upheaval with the more recent prenatal gender reveal parties. »The Complicated Gender History of Pink and Blue,« online, A Woman’s Thing, January 29, 2019, https://awomensthing.org/blog/childs-play-pink-blue-gender-history/.
  4. Jump Up Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby: Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming, London 2013, pp.37–38.
  5. Jump Up Beatriz Colomina, Mark Wigley: Are we Human? Notes on an Archeology of Design, Zürich 2016, pp. 149–152.
  6. Jump Up Alison Bancroft, How Fashion is Queer, 2014, cited by Elizabeth Wissinger: »Judith Butler: Fashion and Performativity,« in: eds. Agnès Rocamora, Anneke Smelik Thinking through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists, London 2016, p. 293.
  7. Jump Up Ibid, pp. 287 –89.
  8. Jump Up Ece Canli: »Queering Design: A Theoretical View on Design vs. Gender Performativity.« UD’14 Design Conference, Aveiro, Portugal, 29 November 2014, pp. 185–190.
  9. Jump Up Marjanne van Helvert, and many others: In: The Responsible Object: A history of Design Ideology for the Future, Amsterdam 2016.