White Walls, Designer Dresses

White Walls, Designer Dresses

The Fashioning of Modern Architecture

By Mark Wigley





In a daring revisionist history of modern architecture, Mark Wigley opens up a new understanding of the historical avant-garde. He explores the most obvious, but least discussed, feature of modern architecture: white walls. Although the white wall exemplifies the stripping away of the decorative masquerade costumes worn by nineteenth-century buildings, Wigley argues that modern buildings are not naked. The white wall is itself a form of clothing—the newly athletic body of the building, like that of its occupants, wears a new kind of garment and these garments are meant to match. Not only did almost all modern architects literally design dresses, Wigley points out, their arguments for a modern architecture were taken from the logic of clothing reform. Architecture was understood as a form of dress design.

Wigley follows the trajectory of this key subtext by closely reading the statements and designs of most of the protagonists, demonstrating that it renders modern architecture's relationship with the psychosexual economy of fashion much more ambiguous than the architects' endlessly repeated rejections of fashion would suggest. Indeed, Wigley asserts, the very intensity of these rejections is a symptom of how deeply they are embedded in the world of clothing. By drawing on arguments about the relationship between clothing and architecture first formulated in the middle of the nineteenth century, modern architects in fact presented a sophisticated theory of the surface, modernizing architecture by transforming the status of the surface.

White Walls, Designer Dresses shows how this seemingly incidental clothing logic actually organizes the detailed design of the modern building, dictating a system of polychromy, understood as a multicolored outfit. The familiar image of modern architecture as white turns out to be the effect of a historiographical tradition that has worked hard to suppress the color of the surfaces of the buildings that it describes. Wigley analyzes this suppression in terms of the sexual logic that invariably accompanies discussions of clothing and color, recovering those sensuously colored surfaces and the extraordinary arguments about clothing that were used to defend them.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262231855 452 pp. | 8 in x 10 in 131 illus.


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262731454 452 pp. | 8 in x 10 in 131 illus.


  • A brilliant and masterful work that forces one to reconsider essential aspects of modernities, obsessions, and representations.

    Mark Jarzombek


  • Mark Wigley's book is a major challenge to the received history of twentieth-century architecture. Its brilliant inquiry into the exceptional role played by 'whiteness' in modern design brings to light all the unexamined assumptions and rhetorical operations through which a certain image of the modern has become entrenched in architectural thought. A virtuoso reader of buildings and texts, Wigley shows how much had to be forgotten, finessed, or placed beyond question for the canonical histories of the modern movement to do their work. In the process, he brings the discussion of modern architecture to a new level of conceptual sharpness and historical self-awareness.

    Norman Bryson

    Harvard University

  • A brilliant and masterful work that forces one to reconsider essential aspects of modernities, obsessions, and representations.

    Mark Jarzombek

    Associate Professor, History Theory Criticism Program, MIT

  • Crucial issues are at stake in Mark Wigley's revision of the discourse about modern architecture. Wigley shows that the emblem of modernism's neutrality—the white wall—is inspearable from what that wall is traditionally assumed to transcend—fashion. When the two are polarized, the white surface becomes an agent of white, masculine, heterosexual control. This book's importance extends beyond the discipline of architecture to all fields debating the question of 'spatial politics,' for Wigley reveals that authoritarian logic underpinning any discourse about space—or any space of politics—that claims to be outside fashion.

    Rosalyn Deutsche