Florentine architects Archizoom Associati first presented their sartorial manifesto Dressing is Easy as a stop-motion animation at the XV Milan Triennale in 1973. It was a “do-it-yourself system” to produce essential and neutral items of clothing based on a piece of fabric measuring 70×70 cm stitched together with colored thread. The object itself came in the form of a kit or “domestic assembly case,” containing an instruction manual, squares of fabric, scissors, needles and thread.
Dressing made easy
In 1971, Archizoom began to experiment with clothing. Their first project was “Dressing Design: Nearest Habitat System,” which consisted of a system of garments to be worn in Archizoom’s No-Stop-City. Conceived between 1968–1971, the No-Stop-City was the group’s earliest vision of the city of the future. Homogeneous and utilitarian, it was designed in the image factories and supermarkets, places defined by their functionality. What emerged was a design for an endlessly sprawling city that was artificially ventilated and illuminated, defying the principles of traditional architecture based on natural lighting and ventilation. Their “continuous residential structure” eliminated the need for spaces between buildings, therefore eliminating façades and more importantly the social divisions that denote poverty and inequality. It was perhaps their most far-reaching attempt to imagine a world devoid of any figurative references — a world populated by natural objects, ready-made industrial products and transient people living in impermanent dwellings. In this architectural blankness, made of a limitless grid similar to an empty canvas, everything becomes possible, from the most extreme consumerism to the total emancipation of individuals from the constraints of industrial society. Andrea Branzi, a founding member of Archizoom, later wrote: “the city became a collection of beds, tables, chairs, …cupboards,” and indeed clothes.
The architects did not limit themselves to furnishing the No-Stop-City— clothing also had to undergo a radical change. Picture a closet that works all year round, regardless of the season; by simply adding and subtracting elements, the consumer is ready for any circumstance. The Dressing Design was meant to be a modular open structure that included a body —a tank suit, a long-sleeved loose fitting overall, a multi-functional gauze shirt, fury socks, decorated synthetic fur coats and, my personal favorites, belted girdles or ‘Limb Girdles,’ which were synthetic fur protection that could be latched onto legs or arms during the winter months. All these items were multifunctional and incorporated multiple typologies in one. The body or tank suit, for example, might have buttons running down its front, a collar, pockets, short sleeves, long sleeves or a turtle-neck. It could serve as a swimsuit, as underwear, as a shirt or on its own (the No-Stop-City was artificially ventilated thus eliminating seasons). Dressing Design was part of a wider anti-fashion movement that was reacting against rigid sartorial traditions, seasonal fashions and gender-specific clothing. In fact, most of the designs were unisex and one-size fits all. It was prêt-à-porter and anticipated the adoption of gym clothing for everyday use.
However, unlike Archizoom’s later designs, the No-Stop-City and its sartorial culture saw a plethora of industrially produced objects at their center.
Branzi explains that they “looked on fashion as material culture” as well as “a theoretical model for a new kind of production” that saw flexibility as its guiding philosophy: “it was no longer society that must resemble the factory in every way, but the factory that had to try to adapt to society.” For Archizoom, sartorial design was an opportunity to invent a “different way of using clothing” that no longer followed the rules and shapes of the human form, but allowed the material and the way it was cut to dictate that form. This formula is already visible in ‘Dressing Design’ with its unisex, one size fits all composition, but with ‘Dressing is Easy’ and its geometric forms, the human body is little more than the underlying pretext.
If one turns to the pages of the manifesto itself and to its origami-like drawings it feels as if one is looking at an architectural kit, but for the production of clothing; the objects’ production techniques are transposed onto the making of supple and ephemeral garments. An emphasis on the visual representation of the process is powerful and far beyond the practical requirements: it is visually rhetorical.
The Dressing is Easy manifesto is dotted with explanatory captions (in English and Italian) that set out the process and its potential, and highlight the advantages of its novel approach. Traditional sartorial techniques and terms are replaced by Archizoom’s instructions and the use of words like “problems,” “complexities,” “industrial,” “waste” vs. “facilitate,” “possibility,” and “elementary.” What was once complex is now easy and problem free. The apparently rigid design reveals itself not only to be simple to execute but also creatively flexible and in line with post-modern notions that reject a single point of view. With personalized stitching, the freedom to assemble different elements, or even use one garment for many different functions—an apron through the simple act of folding can become a skirt—the object becomes multi-functional, one-size fits all, unisex, in sum a flexible lifestyle.
Archizoom present us with an archetype, their approach is pure, perfect, Platonic. Dressing is Easy is perhaps the most successful material embodiment of their effort to destroy culture. The garments emerge not from a culture, but from a formula. The body is reduced to the perfect geometric forms that bring to mind the “tradition of the Neo-Platonic diagrams of the Renaissance artists who inscribed the human body in a circle or square in correct proportion. Each part of the bodily measurement was turned into a square, and in this conception the Union of the human figure with geometry was prefigured.”
Through this union of body and geometric form, all cultural excesses are stripped away. And the formula extends to the experience of wearing these easy garments. Just by looking at the images of both the garments and the process of making them, a sense of liberation is tangible — a cultural liberation that is achieved first through the act of making and then through the act of wearing. This, I believe, is what makes Dressing is Easy a truly radical object.
The Destruction of Culture
Dressing is Easy was part of a wider effort by Archizoom and other Italian radical architectural groups coming out of Florence in the late 1960s and 1970s to wipe the slate clean and demolish capitalism’s modes of production through design. In 1972, Andrea Branzi writes in Casabella: “the precise role of today’s avant-garde is the “technical destruction of culture. By culture,” he continues, “I mean all the values and meanings—moral, religious, and aesthetic—of the society in which we find ourselves.” The text, entitled ‘La Gioconda Sbarbata: The Role of the Avant-Garde’, is the first of several articles Branzi wrote for Casabella between 1972 and 1976 in which he contextualizes the projects and objects designed by Archizoom. The ‘technical destruction of culture’ took the form of technical destruction of objects. This was to be achieved by abolishing the distinction between producer and consumer, through the simplification and reduction of the techniques and practical ways of making that required such high levels of specialization in order to produce western culture and the increasingly complex objects it so fetishized.
This objective began to take shape in 1971 when Archizoom and Superstudio contributed to an issue of IN dedicated to “the destruction of the object.” Transforming the production and therefore the meaning of objects, by going back to their functional roots, would transform man’s needs and therefore man’s behavior. The home would become an empty, yet well-equipped neutral space or a “cavity with fittings” in which the true meaning of things could be discerned more clearly: “The destruction of all cultural and moral structures is an operation whose goal is the removal of any barriers that prevent a direct knowledge of reality.” (Radical Notes, p.182)
This is what Archizoom meant by easy. It was born out of what they saw as an urgent need to simplify our mode of existence. The word is first used by Branzi in the very same text on the role of the Avant-Garde, which closes with the statement:
“We must arrive at this historical appointment with all the structures and technologies that render culture a product of specialists, unusable for the masses, already undermined and destroyed. Today, creating music, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, engaging in any other physical activity requires a technical knowledge of the particular subject matter. The avant-garde destroys these techniques, prefacing any operation it undertakes with one program only: “Art is Easy.””
By the time Archizoom contributed to the seminal MOMA 1972 exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” the slogan had become “Living is Easy.” The group presented an empty room in which visitors were encouraged to free themselves and imagine their own domestic setting with the help of a recorded voice describing an interior. Devoid of the objects that inevitably would give the space cultural meaning, impose patterns of behavior, and therefore constrain the imagination of its “inhabitant,” Archizoom turned their backs on the formal Avant-Garde of the period that was focused on designing “machines for living.”
There was more: Branzi and Archizoom argued that, ‘To reject culture is to reject work.’ This, he said “will be the biggest collective discovery of this century.” Freedom from work would return power to the masses to re-appropriate and shape their environments. After all, with the abolition of specialization and the simplification of modes of production it would be possible to enter a future that no longer depended on the capitalist system established by the industrial revolution, thus significantly reducing the amount of work shared by society. The home would become a “gymnasium in which to experiment with one’s own creative faculties, atrophied by centuries of productive work; the house as an equipped parking lot where one can act out directly the very phenomenon of living.” Archizoom, unlike the architects of the Modern Movement, saw design rather than architecture as the agent of change.
The search for a ‘Neutral Base’
Archizoom were specific about the materials they used in the production of the Dressing is Easy prototypes. Lucia Bartolini, the Archizoom member that oversaw most of the project, sourced non-precious mostly white cotton fabrics used in domestic settings for table-cloths, sheets or the lining of hunting jackets. Others were made of cooked wool as well as denim.
Blue Jeans were a source of inspiration as they had established a precedent for neutral garments worn by very different social groups and used in different ways. They were “devoid of any really expressive features,” while being “practical and robust.” Archizoom saw jeans as “the ‘neutral base’ out of which developed the most advanced fashions of the post-war years.” Thus, in order to design a ‘neutral’ product, it was not enough to reduce the complexities of shape and stitching: the materials had to follow the same logic.
While devising the designs for Dressing is Easy, Archizoom were in close dialogue with the Milan fashion designer, Nanni Strada. Her research, although different, was also closely linked to methods of production, geometric shapes, neutrality, material and most importantly, the abandonment of traditional sartorial methods and seasonal constraints. In 1974, just a few months after Casabella published ‘Dressing is Easy,’ they did a feature on Strada and her fashion system entitled ‘The Cloak and the Skin.’ Rather than proposing a domestic sewing kit, Strada’s Skin line abandoned stitching entirely producing a “continuous elastic surface which can be pressed in one hand and lengthened 3 or 4 times, but takes shape only with use.” It was a one-size fits all bodysuit: “a garment (that) becomes a skin.”
Strada’s Cloak, to be worn over the skin, was an entirely different experiment, comparable to Archizoom’s geometrical designs. The cloak “leaned on the body, with its own form and folding” and its stitches acted as testament to the process applied in making it. Strada, unlike Archizoom, designed for women and although her designs are largely forgotten by the mainstream today, her innovations had a strong impact at the time. The British feminist author, Brigid Keenan, writes about Strada’s ingenuity in a chapter entitled ‘Freedom Fighters’ in her book The Women We Wanted to Look Like. By stripping away excess, all the way down to the skin in Strada’s case and down to geometry in the case of Archizoom, in order to find a “neutral base”, both designers achieved something extremely powerful that touches us at a profound, almost inexpressible level. The neutral base could very well be the instinctive base.
The Hammer and the Destruction of Work
If you look closely, one of the photographs in the Casabella Dressing is Easy article features a tool in the pocket of one of the garments. Surely it is there to draw attention to the existence of pockets, a very useful component. But it is perhaps also an homage to the Global Tools project. This project was initiated in 1973 by Superstudio and involved several radical architecture groups across Italy, including Archizoom.
Global Tools embodied a search for and an investigation into basic tools for living and how they were made. Again in an effort to reduce the distance between producer and consumer. The project took the form of a counter-school of architecture, which eventually came to be called a ‘non-school.’ The non-school program was organized around several themes: “the body, construction, communication, survival and theory” Much like the American Whole Earth Catalogue, they sought to catalogue basic tools and techniques and focus on “real needs rather than the commodification of desire.” Dressing is Easy was conceived against the Global Tools backdrop and can be interpreted as a global tool for dressing and living in and of itself.
What I find most beautiful about Archizoom Associati’s project, Dressing is Easy, is that its formula works with as well as without the surrounding ideology they devised. By examining the project within the context of their other work one is forced to examine the mechanisms of production and consumption that to a large extent still characterize our society today. But, if you happen to flip through the pages of Dressing is Easy by chance, as I did, ignorant of the philosophy that shaped it, one cannot but be profoundly touched by the simplicity of the plans and the garments. You are immediately gripped, transported by a desire to make and wear the wrap-around tunics, shirts and trousers. You can imagine whatever you like. This is because Dressing is Easy is an archetype. It is still contemporary; it escapes nostalgia and the category of period fashion. With this object, Archizoom truly succeeded in destroying culture and creating something that is timeless and at the same time perpetually radical.