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Modern Minimalism

by Kady Matsuzaki

Photography by Mae Davis

Minimalism often gets a bad rap.

Naysayers refer to it as lazy or a cop-out of high fashion—after all, a white shirt and plain black trousers, while classic, do not scream couture. But at its core, minimalism isn’t lazy or boring; it is simply misunderstood.

To get into the minimalist mindset, it comes down to the mantra “less is more.” There is an overlooked thoughtfulness that goes into minimalist dressing that is often mislabeled.

“Minimalism is taking the frills out of fashion,” said Maria Rojas (COM ’17). “It focuses on the lines, texture and material of clothing and how it translates onto a body.”

The practicality and functionality of minimalism are clear themes in its long history.

Minimalism began in the early 1900s as a response to social changes, especially having to do with women and the workplace. As women were freed from the household and allowed to work in factories during wartime, the clothing sent down the catwalk became simpler, more masculine and more practical. When the backlash to female empowerment came, minimalism disappeared, only to reappear in the ’80s and ’90s.

The minimalism we know now didn’t spur from social change but from economic change. The recession of 2008 sparked a renewed emphasis on finding the perfect basics and becoming functional yet fashionable, all while opposing the “more is more” mantra that had permeated the early 2000s.

“I think that sometimes simple, well-made pieces can make more of a statement than bold patterns or lots of color,” said Kelly McDunn (Questrom ’16). “I think that sometimes simple, well-made pieces can make more of a statement than bold patterns or lots of color.”

Emily Farr (COM ’16) agrees it’s the simplicity that makes minimalism such a statement.

“Minimalist fashion is wearing classic, simple and well-made pieces,” she said. “It makes more of a statement than what might be trendy at the moment.”

It’s the simplicity that has established minimalism as a staple in the fashion world, but, while it has remained in the flow of fashion trends over the years, each reincarnation is slightly different from its predecessors.

In the 1980s, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto at Comme de Garcons unveiled androgynous, black and white designs that were deliberately drab and distressed, in stark contrast to the brightly colored looks we now associate with the ’80s. Calvin Klein crowned himself the king of ’90s minimalism by creating basics, such as cotton slip dresses and the iconic Calvins underwear that highlighted the contours of the human body, as opposed to the genderless silhouette of the ’80s. Devoid of all color except black, white, grey and camel, ’90s minimalism was characterized by geometric definition, a severity that eschewed all adornment.

This commitment to austerity has been abandoned by modern minimalism. While minimalists do reject the overzealous trendiness that has become so common among fashion bloggers, they no longer shy away from thoughtful styling.

What makes modern minimalism so endearing is that it has created a fashion paradox: elaborate simplicity.

Styling is the key. You must know how to play with proportion and texture in order to create aesthetically interesting looks with a minimal color palette. Minimalism isn’t a simple slip dress; it’s pairing a simple slip dress with an oversized knit sweater and a pair of cutout heels. Alone, the pieces verge on anonymity, but together they stand out: subtle, but sure.

In an over-edited, over-shared, over-the-top culture, minimalism responds with thoughtfulness, simplicity and deliberateness. It’s the ease, effortlessness and breeziness of minimalism that makes it so appealing.

“[Minimalism] is simple,” said Sam Kim (COM ’19). “It’s simple, chic and timeless.”

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