Clothes make the person, and that is as true for a designer dress as it is for a pair of jeans, a formal suit or trackpants. Clothes are an expression of one’s individuality and a reflection of society.

An exhibition called “Dress Code: Are You Playing With Fashion?” at the Bundeskunsthalle, the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn, explores the daily sartorial transformation as a way of presenting oneself and the worldwide production of fashion in the last decades.

“Fashion is an important social, interactive tool — a medium for us to show up differently depending on our mood,” says Eva Kraus, the new director-general of the museum. One of her first assignments was to bring the big fashion event from Japan to Bonn. 

From Armani to Yamamoto

What do people wear on the streets? How do styles vary in different countries and cultural circles? The exhibition displays renowned designers, including Giorgio Armani, Aseedonclöud, Burberry, Chanel, Comme des Garcons, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gucci, Martin Margiela, Moschino, Issey Miyake, Louis Vuitton and Yohji Yamamoto, and their designs are juxtaposed with contemporary art.

A photograph of Eva Kraus, director-general at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn

Museum director Eva Kraus: ‘Fashion is an important social tool’

Dress codes however, says Kraus, only prescribe the framework. What we decide to use from our closets depends on the occasion, which could be a party, a business appointment, hanging out with friends. It is also a way of showing identification to a social group.

The latter has increased with public displays on online networks in the last decades. “On social media, ‘to see and to be seen’ has become extremely important,” says Kraus. “How should I present myself, what should I wear? How do I want to be seen?” 

“Do I show myself as casual or flamboyant or do I want to be counted among the average or express diversity — that’s what it is about these days and that is important.” The role of fashion as a means of expression is still not widely discussed in Germany, according to Eva Kraus.

Dress code trumps taste

Obviously, taste plays a role in fashion, but dress codes play a more important role, regardless of whether we follow them or consciously avoid them. Social media is a playground for the fashion-conscious, where influencers as well as other celebrities compete for clicks and outreach. You see sweatpants paired with a formal blazer or an oversized hoodie with a Dior bag and comfortable sneakers.

Two mannequins in colorful clothes, photos of various models in the background.

Increasingly, anything goes in fashion

Sweatpants especially have fought their way to become an acceptable part of our fashion vocabulary, with a new trend called Athflow. Just 10 years ago, the legendary fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld lamented: “A person who wears sweatpants has lost all control over his life!”

Bring on the comfy clothes

Carl Tillessen, best-selling author and fashion expert at the Deutsches Mode Institut (German Fashion Institute) in Cologne speaks of a “polarization” that has been triggered by the COVID pandemic.

A photograph of Carl Tillessen, fashion expert

Fashion expert Carl Tillessen: comfy clothes are here to stay

“We have been wearing comfortable clothes for over a year — jogging pants, bathroom slippers, leggings. History shows that people will never give up the comfort they have won.”

What the corset meant for women 100 years ago has been replaced by high heels, restrictive suits and ties. It might take some time before the business dress code changes completely, but that has visibly evolved over the past few years — and no one will be returning to the corset.  

On the other hand, another extreme type of fashion developed for night clubs, for instance. “People will go totally crazy, wearing 15-centimeter high heels or a micro-minidress.” 

It remains to be seen how much of the style that was common before the pandemic will disappear for good.

The exhibition “Dress Code” is on show at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany until September 12. The museum reopens to the public on May 23. 

This article was translated from German.