mah-jong : fashion for rebellion

rebellious design for an equal world

Talking about pattern pioneers this post just had to be written! I couldn’t possibly miss introducing one of the most iconic brands of the Swedish ’70s – MAH-JONG! I love to share this because Mah-jong is not well known abroad although it belongs to the classics of Swedish fashion and design history. The most interesting thing about it though, may not only be their innovative and bold design inspired back in the ’60s by the new English pop look of Carnaby Street, but their mix of rebellious fashion, lifestyle, and political dedication. They were not only designers but opinion leaders, refusing to use/abuse low paid seamstresses in developing countries, voicing themselves against the Vietnam war, working for a sustainable production line in natural materials and a unisex fashion for all sizes and ages. Thirty or so years before the anti-globalisation movement started, they already showed the connection between fashion capitalism in the West and the abuse of cheap working labour in the Third world.

the new ideal man

Mah-jong believed that soft, colourful clothes would change people and indeed they were right! They actually “created” a new type of “ideal man” that would influence generations of Swedish men up until this very day, sometimes referred to as the “Velourman” or “Man of Velvet”. Dressed in soft, comfortable clothes instead of suits, wearing backpack instead of a suitcase, he would stay home with the kids while his wife would make a career. Most things coming to mind when thinking of the typical Swedish man actually has it origins in the vision of these three young pattern designers! All this happened in the waves of the rising feminist movement and a strong political program for equality between men and women in Swedish working life. Mah-jong clothes became a symbol of equality, sexual liberation and emancipation. From being a hot label for young rebels in the ’60s they gradually evolved into being a political statement uniform of the ’70s, mostly worn by the leftwing orientated people.

Mahjong founders Helena Henschen, Veronica Nygren and Kristina Torsson. Photo Carl Johan De Geer
Mahjong founders Helena Henschen, Veronica Nygren and Kristina Torsson. Photo Carl Johan De Geer

the Mah-jong manifesto

It all began when three young designers – Helena Henschen, Veronica Nygren and Kristina Torsson – met in 1965 as students of the Faculty of Arts in Stockholm. They started a cooperation and named their company Mah-jong after the Chinese board game to evoke references to China as well as showing their political view. Initially, all their patterns had names from the Mah-jong game.

The MAH-JONG MANIFESTO

  1. The same models should exist from one year to another. They would not support fashion trends.
  2. They would only use fabrics from natural fibers.
  3. The line should fit all ages and sizes.
  4. Beautiful colours and patterns for everyone!
  5. The clothes should be produced in Sweden.

The original collections from the sixties were made of knitted fabrics in flamboyant colours influenced by contemporary British fashion whereas the clothes mostly associated with the brand are their silk tricot collections from the seventies where mixing and matching tunics, pants and accessories in different patterns made a coherent signature style. Plush and corduroy where two other materials often used in parts of the collections. The aim to produce everything in Sweden was of course very costly and contributed to the fact that Mah-jong didn’t survive more than ten years. But during these years it became the most influential brand ever seen in Sweden so far. Now we can see that many of their core values are topical again: antiglobalization, fair-trade, sustainable development, and ecological materials are what define many young movements today.

vamlingbolaget

One of the original founding members, Kristina Torsson, now has her studio in Gotland where she produces clothes lines in the very succession and spirit of Mah-jong, and mostly from the same materials. Her new brand is called Vamlingbolaget and she has over the years continued to create patterns that have become classics in their own right. But now and then she also makes a new edition of original Mah-jong patterns to the great joy of many who still remember the Mah-jong era in Swedish design!

All copyrights of the pictures belong to Vamlingbolaget or Carl Johan De Geer

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