Fashion is a world of extremes, where sartorial expression ranges from minimalist to maximalist aesthetics. Some designers may identify almost exclusively with one over the other; Calvin Klein, for instance, was known for fashion minimalism. However, the cyclical nature of fashion moves us through design periods alternately dominated by a minimalist or maximalist aesthetic, re-affirming Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In fashion, minimalism and maximalism define two extremes along the design spectrum. Minimalism, the aesthetic of less-is-more, is based on a reductive approach to design, and celebrates purity and restraint. Maximalism, on the other hand, accentuates the beauty of excess and redundancy. While these may be considered aesthetic opposites, both seek to challenge perception, and as forms of expression, they serve as indicators of the sociocultural and economic zeitgeist of the given time period.
Minimalism, at its essence, is the idea of “less is more” — exchanging what is expendable for what is invaluable in life. The ideals of minimalism have been around for centuries, manifesting itself in every branch of the creative arts, from sculpture and painting, to design, fashion, architecture, and land art.
Emerging in New York City in the early 1960s, the Minimal Art movement sought to simplify art to be entirely self referential. This was a reaction and rejection to the Abstract Expressionism of the previous decade, in which art was a reflection of the artist’s personal expression.
In materialistically driven cultures, consumers have the freedom to shed unnecessary weight, opting for a life of material simplicity. Intentionally choosing minimalism reintroduces a life less cluttered, clearing space for whatever is most important. This movement easily bleeds into the realm of fashion design and apparel.
Minimalistic style allows the wearer to appreciate materiality and silhouettes, all the while fitting beautifully. Minimal dressing often consists of an uncluttered color palette of black, whites, grays, neutrals, and the occasional pop of color. Jewelry ranges from delicate and simple, to bold and graphic, but always doubtlessly personal.
The modern minimalist’s look is classic and understated, with an unfussy elegance which appears effortless. Central to embracing minimalistic style is investing in pieces of superior fit. When garments fit well, personal style becomes transparent.
Maximalism is a celebration of excess and redundancy, where “more is more” takes precedence over its widely known sibling, “less is more”. You could argue that it is what we call “statement dressing”. Maximalist fashion is a parade of loud prints, bright colours, and embellishment; just think Moschino, Kenzo, or even Prada and Balmain! Or, you know, you can look at Miley Cyrus and her get-ups.Honestly, maximalist fashion isn’t a new concept. Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, fashion on the runway could be described as “maximalist”. However, as a reaction to the stock market crash, designers and labels wisely turned towards minimalism and the “recessionista” mindset was applauded, praising thriftiness and practicality in favour of frivolity.
“The beauty of excess”
While the economy continues to experience setbacks as it tries to recover, the general mood of the populace seems to be on the rise. Is it the recent legalisation of gay marriage, the widespread acceptance of self-expression, or the advances in gender equality in recent years? We’re not sure what’s the driving force here, but one thing’s certain: people are happier these days and their fashion choices reflect this cheerful change.
The rise of maximalist fashion is also a reaction against the long reign of minimalism.
“I’m so bored with minimalism. I’ve got a baby at home and the house is full of colour,” Tom Ford told The New York Times in 2013. Meanwhile, Paula Reed, the creative director of online retailer Mytheresa told The Wall Street Journal that “[t]here’s a baroque feeling for fabric and texture that we haven’t had around for a while.” As The Wall Street Journal’s J.J Martin noted, even “minimalist designers” like Céline’s Phoebe Philo have moved towards “the beauty of excess”.
So, what drives this cycle of minimalism and maximalism? The aesthetics reflect different values, and their waxing and waning popularity largely depends upon which of those values are central to culture at the time. Minimalism focuses on reducing waste, rejecting commercialism, embracing simplicity, and above all else: exceptionally high quality. The 90s, sobered by the AIDs epidemic and the end of the Cold War, took a more cautious approach to fashion than the previous decade. The later 2000s returned to minimalism after a hard-hitting recession and the establishment by Apple that the aesthetic of progress was sleek, simple, and precise. In the 2010s, online fashion communities rejected flashy materialism and instead chose to appreciate the elegance of a well-worn t-shirt and perfectly fitted jeans.
Maximalism, on the other hand, values diversity, eclecticism, experimenting, and risk-taking. The 80s were a rebellious decade, with queer activism, the AIDs crisis, second wave feminism, and more sending the status quo into a frenzy. Maximalism naturally fit with that defiant spirit. The early 2000s were saturated with excitement at the arrival of a new millennium, life-changing technologies, and the endless possibilities of the future. And the past several years have been one of the most turbulent and chaotic periods in America, and around the globe, since the Civil War. The fight against xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and sexism requires a mind that is open to hearing every side of every story. Communities are now more diverse and accepting than ever. And our desire to know and support others has come across in the maximalist clothing on today’s racks and runways. From Gucci to Zara to the hundreds of cult brands that have flourished on Instagram, you can find hints of Latinx embroidery, Indian jewelry, east Asian fabrics, African prints, glam drag, butch fashion, and much, much more. The current wave of maximalism is about pulling not just from all over your closet, but from all over the world. In addition, maximalism is the solution to minimalism’s elitist problem; not everyone can afford a perfectly curated capsule wardrobe, but a single trip to the thrift store can pull together a fantastic maximalist outfit. Anything can become part of an ensemble; thrifted jewels, hand-me-down shirts, and fabric patches from the scrap bin are all fair game.
Minimalism and maximalism will likely always remain in a cycle together, if the history of the runway is any clue. It’s hard to tell where the fashion world is headed in our unstable future. The climate crisis might invite minimalism, which aims to reduce production of clothing, or maximalism, which follows the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle code to a T. Multiculturalism might continue the diversification of fashion, or fear of difference might force a minimalist homogenization of the fashion world. Or it’s possible they’ll both exist together, equally – even within the same closet. Traditionally, each aesthetic has required a certain level of commitment. But the internet has changed the fashion world forever, and all bets are off.
– Rutuja Shinde
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