Haute Couture & Fashion
(1) Haute Couture & Fashion
Malign Muses, Judith Clark’s groundbreaking 2005 exhibition at the Mode Museum in Antwerp, brought together and historical dress in a spectacular series of tableaux. The setting was designed to look like a 19th-century fairground, with simple plain wooden structures that evoked carousels, and oversized black and white fashion drawings by Ruben Toledo, which added to the feeling of magic and showmanship. The exhibition emphasized fashion’s excitement and spectacle. Intricate designs by John Galliano and Alexander McQueen mixed with interwar couture, including Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘skeleton dress’, a black sheath embellished with a padded bone structure. A dramatic 1950s Christian Dior evening dress in crisp silk, with a structured bodice and sweeping skirt, caught with a bow at the back, was shown, as was a delicate white muslin summer dress made in India in the late 19th century, and decorated with traditional chain stitch embroidery. Belgian designer Dries Van Noten’s jewel-coloured prints and burnished sequins of the late 1990s stood next to a vibrantly hued Christian Lacroix ensemble of the 1980s. This extravagant combination of garments was rendered comprehensible by Clark’s cleverly designed sets, which focused on the varied ways in which fashion uses historical references.
The exhibition’s theatrical staging connected to 18th-century Commedia del Arte shows and masquerades, and linked directly to contemporary designers’ use of drama and visual excess in their seasonal catwalk shows.
Malign Muses was later staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it was renamed as Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back. This new title expressed one of the contradictions at the heart of fashion. Fashion is obsessed with the new, yet it continually harks to the past. Clark deployed this central opposition to great effect, encouraging visitors to think about fashion’s rich history, as well as to connect it to current issues in fashion. This was achieved through the juxtaposition of garments from different periods, which used similar techniques, design motifs, or thematic concerns. It was also the result of Clark’s close collaboration with fashion historian and theorist Caroline Evans.
By using Evans’ important insights about fashion and history from her 2003 book Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness, Clark revealed fashion’s hidden impulses. Evans shows how influences from the past haunt fashion, as they do the wider culture. Such references can add validity to a new, radical design, and connect it to a hallowed earlier ideal. This was apparent in the fragile pleats of the Mme Gre`s dress included in the show, which looked to classical antiquity for inspiration. Fashion can even speak of our fears of death, in its constant search for youthfulness and the new, as evoked by Dutch duo Viktor and Rolf’s all-black gothic-inspired gown.
Visitors could therefore not only see the visual and material aspects of fashion’s uses of history, but through a series of playfully constructed vignettes, they were able to question the garments’ deeper meanings. In a continuation of the exhibition’s fairground theme, a series of carefully conceived optical illusions used mirrors to trick the viewer’s eye. Dresses seemed to appear then disappear, were glimpsed through spy-holes, or were magnified or reduced in size. Thus, visitors had to engage with what they were looking at, and question what they thought they could see. They were prompted to think about what fashion means. In contrast to clothing, which is usually defined as a more stable and functional form of dress that alters only gradually, fashion thrives on novelty and change. Its cyclical, seasonally shifting styles were evoked by Toledo’s circular drawing of a never-ending parade of silhouettes, each different from the next. Fashion is often also seen as a ‘value’ added to clothes to make them desirable to consumers. The exhibition sets’ glamour and theatricality reflected the ways that catwalk shows, advertising, and fashion photography seduce and tempt viewers by showing idealized visions of garments. Equally, fashion can be seen as homogenizing, encouraging everyone to dress in a certain way, but simultaneously about a search for individuality and expression. The contrast between couture’s dictatorial approaches to fashion in the mid-20th century, embodied by outfits by Dior, for example, was contrasted with the diversity of 1990s fashions to emphasize this contradiction.
This led visitors to understand the different types of fashion that can exist at any one moment. Even in Dior’s heyday, other kinds of fashionable clothing were available, whether in the form of Californian designers’ simple ready-to-wear styles, or Teddy boys’ confrontational fashions. Fashion can emanate from a variety of sources and can be manufactured by designers and magazines, or develop organically from street level. Malign Muses was therefore itself a significant moment in fashion history. It united seemingly disparate elements of past and present fashions, and presented them in such a way that visitors were entertained and enthralled by its sensual display, but led to understand that fashion is more than mere surface.
As the exhibition revealed, fashion thrives on contradiction. By some, it is seen as rarefied and elite, a luxury world of couture craftsmanship and high-end retailers. For others, it is fast and throwaway, available on every high street. It is increasingly global, with new ‘fashion cities’ evolving each year, yet can equally be local, a micro fashion specific to a small group. It inhabits intellectual texts and renowned museums but can be seen in television makeover shows and dedicated websites. It is this very ambiguity that makes it fascinating, and which can also provoke hostility and disdain.
Fashions can occur in any field, from academic theory to furniture design to dance styles. However, it is generally taken, especially in its singular form, to refer to fashions in clothing.We will explore the ways in which fashion functions, as an industry, and how it connects to wider cultural, social, and economic issues. Fashion’s emergence since the 1960s as a subject of serious academic debate has prompted its analysis as image, object, and text. Since then it has been examined from a number of important perspectives. The interdisciplinary nature of its study reflects its connection to historical, social, political, and economic contexts, for example, as well as to more specific issues, including gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class. Roland Barthes studied fashion in relation to the interplay of imagery and text in his semiotic analyses The Fashion System of 1967 and The Language of Fashion, which collected together texts from 1956 to 1969. Since the 1970s, cultural studies has become a platform from which to explore fashion and identity: Dick Hebdige’s text Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), for example, showed the ways in which street fashions evolved in relation to youth cultures. In 1985, Elizabeth Wilson’s book Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity represented an important assertion of fashion’s cultural and social importance from a feminist perspective. Art history has been a significant methodology, which enables close analysis of the ways fashion interconnects with visual culture, as epitomized in the work of Anne Hollander and Aileen Ribeiro. A museum-based approach was taken by Janet Arnold, for example, who made close studies of the cut and construction of clothing by looking at garments in museum collections. Various historical approaches have been important to examine the fashion industry’s nature and relationship to specific contextual issues. This area includes Beverly Lemire’s work from a business perspective, and that of Christopher Breward, in relation to cultural history. Since the 1990s, scholars from the social sciences have become particularly interested in fashion: Daniel Miller’s and Joanne Entwistle’s work are important examples of this trend. Caroline Evans’ impressively interdisciplinary work, which crosses between these approaches, is also very significant. Fashion’s study in colleges and universities has been equally diverse. It has been focused in art schools, as the academic component of design courses, but has spread to inhabit departments from art history to anthropology, as well as specialist courses at under and postgraduate levels.
This academic interest extends to the myriad museums that house important fashion collections including the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Kyoto Museum. Curatorial study of fashion has produced numerous important exhibitions and the vast numbers of visitors who attend such displays testify to the widespread interest in fashion. Importantly, exhibitions provide an easily accessible connection between curators’ specialist knowledge, current academic ideas and the central core of fashion, the garments themselves, and the images that help to create our ideas of what fashion is.
A vast, international fashion industry has developed since the Renaissance. Fashion is usually thought to have started in this period, as a product of developments in trade and finance, interest in individuality brought about by Humanist thought, and shifts in class structure that made visual display desirable, and attainable by a wider range of people. Dissemination of information about fashion, through engravings, travelling pedlars, letters, and, by the later 17th century, the development of fashion magazines, made fashion increasingly visible and desirable. As the fashion system developed, it grew to comprise apprenticeships, and later college courses, to educate new designers and craftspeople, manufacturing, whether by hand or later in a factory, of textile and fashion design, retailing, and a variety of promotional industries, from advertising to styling and catwalk show production. Fashion’s pace began to speed up by the later 18th century, and by the time the Industrial Revolution was at its height in the second half of the 19th century had grown to encompass a range of different types of fashion. By this point, haute couture, an elite form of fashion, with garments fitted on to individual clients, had evolved in France. Couturiers were to crystallize the notion of the designer as the creator not just of handmade clothes, but also of the idea of what was fashionable at a particular time. Important early couturiers such as Lucile explored the possibilities of fashion shows to generate more publicity for her design house by presenting her elaborate designs on professional mannequins. Lucile also saw the potential of another important strand of fashion, the growing ready-to-wear trade, which had the potential to produce a large number of clothes quickly and easily and make them available to a far wider audience. Lucile’s trips to America, where she sold her designs and even wrote popular fashion columns, underlined the interrelationship between couture styles and the development of fashionable readymade garments. Although Paris dominated ideals of high fashion, cities across the world produced their own designers and styles. By the late 20th century, fashion was truly globalized, with huge brands such as Esprit and Burberry sold across the world, and greater recognition of fashions that emanated from beyond the West.
Fashion is not merely clothes, nor is it just a collection of images. Rather, it is a vibrant form of visual and material culture that plays an important role in social and cultural life. It is a major economic force, amongst the top ten industries in developing countries. It shapes our bodies and the way we look at other people’s bodies. It can enable creative freedom to express alternative identities or dictate what is deemed beautiful and acceptable. It raises important ethical and moral questions and connects to fine art and popular culture.
(2) Haute Couture & Fashion
For Chanel’s spring 2008 couture catwalk show, a huge replica of the label’s signature cardigan jacket was placed on a revolving platform at the centre of the stage. Made from wood, but painted concrete grey, this monumental ‘jacket’ towered over the models, who emerged from its front opening, paraded past the audience of fashion press, buyers, and celebrities, pausing in front of its interlocked double ‘C’ logo, and then disappeared inside this iconic emblem of Coco Chanel’s legacy.
The models wore a simple palette, again reflecting the label’s heritage: graphic black and white was tempered with dove greys and palest pinks. Outfits were developed from the tweed cardigan jacket that literally and metaphorically dominates Chanel, but this classic garment was made contemporary, light and feminine, shredded into wispy fronds at its hem, or fitted and sequined, worn with tiny curving skirts that drew on the organic forms of seashells for their delicate silhouettes.
Both the show’s staging and the clothes shown epitomized the house’s origins, in their combination of Coco Chanel’s love of chic skirt suits, glittering costume jewellery, and tiered evening dresses, merged with current designer Karl Lagerfeld’s sharp eye for the contemporary.
Chanel’s evolution as one of the most famous and influential couture houses of the 20th century highlights many of the key elements to successful fashion design, and exposes the relationships between design, culture, commerce, and, crucially, personality. Coco Chanel’s emergence in the 1910s and 1920s as a prominent figure on society and fashion pages, her mythologized rise from nightclub singer to couturier, and gossip surrounding her lovers, gave her simple, modern styles an air of excitement and intrigue. Her designs were significant in their own right, and epitomized contemporary fashions for sleek, pared-down daywear, and more feminine, dramatic evening wear. She asserted that women should dress plainly, like their maids in little black dresses, although Claude Baille´n quotes Chanel as reminding women that ‘simplicity doesn’t mean poverty’. Her love of mixing real and costume jewellery and her borrowings from the male wardrobe became internationally famous. Coco Chanel’s biography provided the publicity and interest necessary to distinguish her house, and dramatize her as a designer and personality. Importantly, her diversification into accessories, jewellery, and perfumes, and the sale of her designs to American buyers, brought the essence of her fashions to a far wider market than could afford haute couture, and secured her financial success.
In the 1980s, fashion commentator Ernestine Carter characterized Chanel’s success as founded upon ‘the magic of the self’. As important as Coco Chanel’s undoubted design and styling skills were, it was her ability to market an idealized vision of herself, and to embody her own perfect customer, that made the label so appealing. Chanel designed herself, and then sold this image to the world. Many others have followed her example: since the 1980s, American designer Donna Karan has successfully projected an image of herself as a busy mother and businesswoman who has designed clothes for women like herself. In contrast, Donatella Versace is always photographed in high heels and ultraglamorous, tight-fitting clothes, her jetset lifestyle mirrored in the jewel-coloured luxury of the Versace label’s designs.
Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s present designer, represents a variation on this theme; rather than embodying the lifestyle of his customers, his personal style denotes his status as a cultured aesthete. If Coco Chanel was a fashion icon to her followers, embodying a modernist ideal of chic, streamlined femininity in the early 20th century, then Lagerfeld is a Regency dandy remodelled for contemporary times. The key elements of his personal style have remained constant throughout his stewardship of Chanel: dark suits, long hair pulled back into a ponytail and at times powdered white. Combined with the constantly flicking black fan he used to carry, his image harks back to the ancien regime. This evokes the elite status of couture, and the consistency of Chanel style, while his involvement in various art and pop cultural projects maintains his profile at the forefront of fashion.
When Chanel died in 1971, the house lost its cachet and its sales and fashion credibility dwindled. In Lagerfeld’s hands it has been revitalized. Since his arrival in 1983, he has designed collections for couture, ready-to-wear, and accessories that have balanced the need for a coherent signature, and the equally important desire for fashions that reflect and anticipate what women want to wear.
Lagerfeld’s experience in freelancing for various ready-to-wear labels, including Chloe´ and Fendi, had proved his design skills and his crucial ability to create clothes that set fashions, and flatter women’s bodies. He merged high and popular culture references to maintain Chanel’s relevance, and to invigorate its fashion status. His spring 2008 Chanel couture collection demonstrated this and showed his business acumen. While he kept older, loyal customers in mind with his variations on the cardigan jacket, the collection’s tone was youthful, with girlish flounces and froths of light fabrics counterpoised with its more sombre tones. Lagerfeld therefore looked towards the future to ensure Chanel’s survival, encouraging new, younger clients to wear this iconic label.
Evolution of the couturier
Historically, most clothing was ma de at home, or fabrics and trimmings were bought from a range of shops and made up by local tailors and dressmakers. By the end of the 17th century, certain tailors, particularly in
Although fashion has remained an essentially collaborative process, in terms of the number of people involved in its production, it came to be associated with the idea of a single individual’s design skills and fashion vision. The most famous early example of this shift was Rose Bertin, who created outfits and accessories for Marie Antoinette and a host of European and Russian aristocrats in the late 18th century. She was a marchande des modes, which meant she added trimmings to gowns. However, the marchande des modes’ role began to change, in part as a response to Bertin’s skill at creating a fashionable look. She drew inspiration from contemporary events, crafting a headdress incorporating a hot air balloon in honour of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon flights in the 1780s, for example. She generated publicity with such creations, and although other marchandes des modes, including Madames Eloffe and Mouillard, were also famous at this time, it was Bertin who best expressed the ebullience of contemporary Parisian fashion.
In this way, Bertin helped to disseminate Parisian fashion, and to assert its dominance of womenswear. Her development of a wide customer base and her close relationship with the French queen ensured her fashion status. Significantly, contemporary commentators noted with horror that Bertin behaved as though she was equal to her aristocratic clients. Her elevated status was another important shift that set the stage for the dictatorial ways of many designers. She was aware of her power and confident of the importance of her work, creating fashions, but also fashioning the image of her customers, who relied on her for their own status as fashion leaders. Indeed, her boutique, the Grand Mogul in
Her innovative styling and witty references to both historical and contemporary events showed her design skills, as well as her awareness of the importance of generating publicity. She therefore became a precursor to the couturiers, who were to evolve their own status as dictators of fashion in the 19th century.
The French Revolution effected a temporary halt in information about Parisian fashions reaching the rest of the world.However, once this was over, the luxury trades in
However, alongside leading dressmakers, there was another aspect of the fashion industry that was also involved in the evolution of the idea of the fashion designer. Art historian Françoise Tetart Vittu has shown that some artists worked in ways that mirror freelance designers today, with dressmakers buying highly detailed drawings of fashions from them. These would then be used as templates for garments, and would even be sent to customers as samples. Advertisements for the dressmakers would be attached to the back of the illustrations, along with prices for the outfit shown. By the middle of the 19th century, artists such as Charles Pilatte advertised themselves as ‘fashion and costume designers’ and appeared in Paris directories of the time under a list of ‘industrial designers’.
The idea of clothing needing to be designed by someone with fashion authority, and with particular skills in defining a silhouette, cut, and decoration, was evolving across the Western world. Each town would have its most fashionable dressmakers, and designs themselves were gaining commercial value as fashions began to change more rapidly along with the public’s desire for new styles. For the idea of the fashion designer to crystallize, there needed to be not only creative individuals ready to generate new fashions, but a growing demand for novelty and innovation. The 19th century saw the rise of the bourgeoisie and wealthy industrialists, whose newly found status was in part constructed through visual display, in their homes and, even more importantly, their clothes. Couture became a source of exclusivity and luxury for wider groups of women, with Americans amongst the most prolific customers in the second half of the century.
Added to this was the growth of fashion media, photography, and by the end of the century, film, which disseminated imagery of fashion more widely than ever before, and fuelled women’s desire for more variety and quicker turnover of styles. As the huge growth in cities led to greater anonymity, fashion became a major way to formulate identity and to make social, cultural, and financial status visible. It was also a source of pleasure and sensuality, with Parisian couture at the apex of this realm of fantasy and luxury.
While ‘industrial designers’ supplied fashion designs to the wider dressmaking trades, it was the evolution of the couturier that was to establish the role and image of the fashion designer. Although Charles Frederick Worth, the most famous couturier of the 1850s, succeeded in part because of sound business practices, this side of his work was masked by the drama of his creations, and his persona as a creative artist whose fashion pronouncements were to be followed without question. An Englishman who had honed his skills in the dressmaking section of department stores, he was able to distinguish himself early on in his career in part because he was a man in a profession dominated by women.
Indeed, in All Year Round in February 1863, Charles Dickens remarked with horror at the rise of the ‘bearded milliner’. As a man, Worth could promote himself in ways that would be seen as inappropriate for a woman, and he could treat his female clients differently, irrespective of their rank. His most famous designs comprised froths of ivory tulle, creating clouds around the wearer that would glimmer in candlelit ballrooms as the beading and sequins embroidered between the layers caught the light.
Other couturiers were also rising to prominence, often propelled to fame by their royal customers. In
In the first decades of the 20th century, designers such as Paul Poiret and Lucile became internationally famous. They dressed theatrical stars, aristocrats and the wealthy, and promoted their own identities as decadent socialites in their own right. Poiret was a fashion designer in the modern sense of the phrase. He was known for his signature luxurious style, and the radical, seasonally changing silhouettes he created. Georges Lepape’s fashion illustration shows Poiret’s famous Empire line silhouette of 1911, which broke away from the tightly corseted fashions of the Edwardian period. His lavishly embroidered gowns and opera coats were inspired by contemporary art and design, from modernism to the Ballets Russes, and the aura of his potent couture image was disseminated still further by sales of his own perfume line. Poiret’s contemporaries were equally adept at harnessing modern advertising and marketing methods to create the image of their fashion house. Most sold their designs to American wholesalers, for them to make up a strictly defined number of each model they had bought. This generated income for the couture houses, alongside money from the individually made garments that were the very definition of haute couture.
The interwar period was a
This is partly because design and innovation are the most valued aspects of fashion, since they are the basis for each collection and viewed as the most creative element of the process. Importantly, this focus on the individual is also a successful promotional tool, as it gives a focus for the identity of a fashion label, and quite literally, provides a ‘face’ for the design house.
Although not governed by the strict rules that apply to Parisian haute couture, other countries have developed their own couturiers and made-to-order industries. For example, in 1930s London, Norman Hartnell and Victor Stiebel asserted themselves as fashion designers rather than just court dressmakers, while in New York, Valentina evolved a dramatically simple style that drew on contemporary dance to create an American fashion identity, and in the 1960s in Rome, Valentino promoted a distinctively Italian form of couture that relied on overtly feminine luxury.
In the post-war period, fabric and labour costs increased, making couture even more expensive. Designers such as Christian Dior revelled in excess, after the hardships of the 1940s, with their focus on the traditions of couture craftsmanship, and led a decade in which couture continued to dominate international fashion trends.
Since the 1960s, despite the rise of throwaway youth fashions and the global fame of ready-to-wear designers, couture has maintained its visibility. Its significance has shifted, but certain couturiers, such as John Galliano at Dior, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, and Lagerfeld at Chanel, are still able to set fashions that disseminate through all levels of the market. Despite a falling number of clients, ready-to-wear lines, accessories, perfumes, and a huge number of other licensed ranges place couture at the forefront of the huge global luxury market. Although there are fewer haute couture customers in
(3) Haute Couture & Fashion
Jacques Fath 1951
Evolution of the ready-to-wear designer
In her 1937 book Clothes Line, the British fashion journalist Alison Settle wrote that the interconnected nature of the Parisian haute couture industry was crucial to its success. Fabric, dress, and accessory designers and makers were in close contact with each other, and could respond to developments within each field. Trends were therefore identified quickly and integrated into couturiers’ collections, allowing Paris to maintain its position at the forefront of fashion. Settle was also impressed by how embedded fashion was within French culture, with people of all social classes interested in clothing and style. As Settle noted, couturiers ‘forecast fashion by observing life’, and this approach was particularly significant in the evolution of the ready-to-wear fashion designer. Couturiers realized that many women wanted to buy clothes that were not just in line with contemporary styles, but which were made by a fashionable name.
From the early 1930s, designers began to create less expensive collections, which could reach out to this wider audience. Lucien Lelong, for example, started his ‘Lelong E´ dition’ line, selling readymade dresses at a fraction of the cost of his couture collection. Couturiers continued to work on readymade clothes; for example, in the 1950s, Jacques Fath designed a successful line for American manufacturer Joseph Halpert. However, when Pierre Cardin launched a ready-to-wear collection at Parisian department store Printemps in 1959, he was briefly expelled from the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which regulates the couture industry, for branching out in this way without seeking permission. At the same time, Cardin was exploring the potential market in the Far East, in his quest for global success. These moves, when considered in relation to his bold, modern style, were part of a shift in emphasis in French fashion, as couturiers strove to maintain their influence in response to the increasing success of ready-to-wear designers. In 1966, the launch of Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche boutiques chimed with popular culture and recognized women’s changing roles with trouser suits and vividly coloured separates. Saint Laurent showed that couturiers could set fashions through their ready-to-wear collections too.
In a 1994 interview with Alison Rawsthorn, one customer, Susan Train, described his new line as ‘so exciting. You could buy an entire wardrobe there: everything you needed.’ However, the 1960s is generally viewed as a key moment when mass-produced, youthful ready-to-wear began to lead fashion in a way it never had before. American designers such as Bonnie Cashin, British names, for example Mary Quant, and Italians, including Pucci, were all asserting their fashion influence at different levels of the market and shaping the way fashion was designed, sold, and worn.
While ready-to-wear clothes had been developing independently of Parisian haute couture since the 17th century, it was not until the 1920s that they were designed and marketed principally on their fashion values, rather than their price or quality. In Paris, this meant couturiers spent the following decades making agreements with department stores internationally to sell versions of their couture garments, as well as evolving their own lines. In America, manufacturers, including Townley, and stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue were quick to employ designers to work anonymously to develop fashion lines.It were in the 1930s that these designers began to emerge from anonymous back rooms and have their names included on labels.
In New York, Dorothy Shaver, vice-president of specialty store Lord & Taylor, began a series of campaigns promoting American ready-to-wear and made-to-order designers alongside each other.
Window and in-store displays included photographs of named designers shown with their fashion collections, encouraging a cult of personality that had previously been reserved for couturiers. This was partly an attempt to encourage homegrown talent while the hardships of the Great Depression made trips to Paris to source fashions too costly. It was also symptomatic of fashion designers’ need to group together in order to promote the status of their own fashion capitals. While Paris maintained its place at the heart of fashion, by the 1940s, in the absence of French influence during the war, New York had begun to assert its fashion status. Subsequently, cities across the world have followed the same process, investing in design education, holding their own fashion weeks to promote their designers’ collections, and seeking to sell both domestically and internationally. The role ofthe fashion designer is vital to this process, once again providing creative impetus combined with recognizable faces that could be used as the basis for promotional campaigns. In the 1980s, Antwerp and Tokyo each demonstrated their ability to develop distinctive fashion designers, with the rise of names such as Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten in Belgium, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garc¸ons and Yohji Yamamoto in Japan.
By the early 21st century, China and India, amongst others, were also investing in their fashion industries and cultivating their own seasonal shows. The way designers are trained influences their approach to creating a collection. For example, British art colleges emphasize the importance of research and individual creativity. This stress upon the artistic elements of the creative process produces designers, such as Alexander McQueen, who are inspired by history, fine art, and film. His collections have been staged on themed sets, with models writhing in a huge glass box, or sprayed by a mechanical paint jet as they turn slowly on a rotating platform. His models are styled as characters, part of a narrative that is told through clothes and setting. His cinematic approach was apparent in his spring 2008 collection, which was inspired by the 1968 film They Shoot Horses Don’t They? This prompted a Depression-era dance marathon theme, choreographed by avant-garde dancer Michael Clark. Models slid across a dance floor, dressed in fluid tea dresses and worn denims, their skin glistening and eyes glazed as if they had been dancing for hours, half-carried, half-dragged by male dancers. McQueen’s promotion of fashion as spectacle underpins the success of his label and testifies to his creative appeal.
In contrast, colleges in the United States tend to encourage designers to focus on creating clothes for a particular customer group and to keep business considerations and ease of manufacture at the forefront of their minds. They use industrial design as a model to promote an ideal of democratic design that aims towards the greatest number of potential consumers. The work of designers such as Bonnie Cashin from the 1930s to 1980s is a good example of how this approach can lead to measured collections that aim to address women’s clothing needs. Her designs looked streamlined, while demonstrating close attention to detail, with interesting buttons or belt buckles to enliven their plain silhouettes. In 1956, Cashin told writer Beryl Williams that she believed that 75% of a woman’s wardrobe comprised ‘timeless’ pieces, and stated that ‘all those clothes of mine were perfectly simple . . . they were simply the kind of clothes I liked to wear myself ’. She designed lifestyle clothes for work, socializing, and leisure time, while promoting herself as the embodiment of her easy-to-wear styles. This type of design has come to characterize American fashion, but its simplicity can make it difficult to define a distinct image for a label. Between the late 1970s and late 1990s, Calvin Klein used controversial advertising campaigns to gain publicity for his clothing and perfume lines.
Imagery such as the photograph of a teenage Kate Moss, nude and androgynous for Obsession in 1992, provided him with an edgy, contemporary image that belied the conservative styling of many of his designs. While these designers have relied on the idea of the individual as fashion originator, many fashion houses employ whole teams of designers to produce their lines. For this reason, Belgian designer Martin Margiela refuses to give individual interviews, and avoids having his photograph taken. All correspondence and press releases are signed ‘Maison Martin Margiela’. In 2001, in a faxed interview with fashion journalist Susannah Frankel on Maison Margiela’s alternative approach to fashion, the choice to use non-professional models was explained as part of this overall strategy: ‘We have nothing against professional or ‘‘top models’’ as individuals at all, we just feel that we prefer to focus on the clothes and not all that is put around them in and by the media.’
His labels are blank or stamped with the number of the collection a garment comes from. This deflects attention from the individual designer and suggests the collaborations necessary to make a fashion collection, while acting to distinguish his work. For other designers, the emphasis is placed more on their celebrity customers, who add a glamorous aura to their collections. In the early 21st century, American designer Zac Posen benefited from young Hollywood stars, including Natalie Portman, wearing his dresses on the red carpet. The coverage that stars receive at such events can boost sales for new designers, as well as established fashion houses, as shown by Julianne Moore’s successful championing of Stefano Pilati’s designs for Yves Saint Laurent.
Menswear designers have also risen to the fore during the 20th century, although they do not command the same level of attention as women swear designers. Designs tend to focus on suiting or leisurewear, and menswear is perceived as lacking the spectacle and excitement attached to women swear. However, designer names began to emerge in the 1960s, with, for example, Mr Fish in London and Nino Cerruti in Italy. Both exploited the more flamboyant designs of the decade to the full, with vibrant colours and pattern and unisex elements included in their designs.
Michael Fish evolved his style while working within the elite environment of Savile Row, before opening his own boutique in 1966. Meanwhile, Cerruti’s sleek designs evolved out of his family’s fabric business, launching his first full menswear collection in 1967. Parisian couturiers also branched out into menswear design, including Yves Saint Laurent in 1974. In the 1980s, designers continued to explore the parameters of menswear design, focusing on adaptations of the traditional suit. Giorgio Armani stripped out its stiff underpinnings to create soft, unstructured jackets in wools and linens, while Vivienne Westwood tested the limits of gender boundaries in fashion, adding beading and embroidery to jackets or putting male models in skirts and leggings.
Since the 1990s, the rich colours and textures of Dries Van Noten’s collections, and the innovative fabrics in Prada’s designs, for example, have shown that menswear design can attract attention for subtle details. The growth of male grooming and fitness culture has added to interest in the field. In the early 21st century, designers such as Raf Simons, and especially Hedi Slimane, who designed for Dior Homme from 2000 to 2007, developed a skinny silhouette for men, which was very influential. Slimane’s narrow trousers, monochrome palette, and tightly fitted jackets required a youthful physique that was androgynous and uncompromising.
The speed with which celebrities and rock stars, as well as high street stores, adopted this look demonstrated the power and influence that confident menswear design could have. One of the strongest reference points in menswear collections since the 1960s has been subcultural style. From the narrow suits worn by sixties Mods to the pastel leisurewear of eighties Casuals, street style balances individuality and group identity.
It therefore appeals to many men’s search for clothing that acts as a kind of uniform, while simultaneously allowing them to add their own personal touches. Members of subcultures in many ways design themselves through their style, by customizing garments or breaking mainstream rules about how clothing should be worn or combined. In the late 1970s, this DIY ethos was epitomized by Punks, who adorned their clothes with slogans and safety pins, ripping the fabric and creating their own individual interpretations of classic leather biker jackets and T-shirts. While since the mid-1990s Japanese teenagers of both sexes have made their own clothes, combining them with elements of traditional dress such as obi sashes to create a wide variety of styles, united by their love of exaggeration and fantasy. By referring to these practices, fashion designers can add a seemingly rebellious edge to their collections.
Indeed, since the 1990s, fashion consumers have increasingly sought to individualize their look by customizing garments and mixing designer, high street, and vintage clothes. This enables them to act as designers themselves, if not always of individual garments, then of the look and image they wish to convey. The idea of the ‘fashion victim’ of the 1980s who wore complete outfits by one designer has led many wearers in reaction to seek to express their own creativity through the way they adapt and style themselves, rather than relying on designers to construct an image for them. This approach mimics both subcultural style and the work of professional stylists. It reflects a developing knowingness amongst certain consumers, and their wish to be both part of fashion yet above its dictates. While the 20th century undoubtedly saw the establishment of the designer name as the guiding force in fashion, this has not gone unchallenged.
The 1980s was perhaps the apex of the cult of the designer, and while many labels are still revered, they must now compete both with a wider number of global rivals and with many consumers’ desire to design themselves, rather than unquestioningly obey fashion trends.
(4) Haute Couture & Fashion
Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes of 1981 shows a cluttered array of bright, jewel-coloured women’s pumps set against an inky-black background. Based on a photographic screen print, the shoes are shot from above, the viewer seemingly looking down on a wardrobe floor, crowded with odd shoes. A vertiginous tangerine stiletto presses up next to a more demure, tomato-red rounded toe; while a brocaded midnight-blue evening slipper lies next to a salmon-pink, bow-adorned court shoe. The colours are overlaid onto the image and produce a cartoonish pastiche of the multitude of styles and shapes of shoes available.
The picture is cropped to give the impression that the pile of shoes is limitless, glimpses of the pointed tip of a lilac boot, for example, peek in at the edge of the frame. The image is carefully composed; despite the apparent jumble, each shoe is artfully displayed, with just enough inner labels visible to reinforce their high fashion status. It evokes the fashion image and the shoe shop, and thus refers to the combination of visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Warhol’s painting is slick with the shine of polymer paint, an effect enhanced by the fact that the whole surface of the image is scattered with ‘diamond dust’, which glitters and dazzles the viewer as it catches the light. Its shimmering surface makes explicit reference to fashion’s glamour and ability to transform the mundane.
In the late 1950s, Warhol had worked as a commercial artist, with clients including I. Miller shoes. His drawings for them were sinuous and light, graphically evoking shoes’ seductive appeal. His alliance to commerce and love of popular culture meant that fashion was a perfect subject for him. It featured in his screen prints and other artworks, and he continually used clothing and accessories, including his famous silver wigs, to alter and play with his own identity. In the 1960s, he opened a boutique, Paraphenalia, selling a mix of fashionable labels such as Betsey Johnson and Foale and Tuffin. Paraphenalia’s launch included a performance by the Velvet Underground, and therefore united the varied strands of Warhol’s entrepreneurial artworks. He understood the alliance between fashion, art, music, and popular culture that was crystallized during this decade. The marriage of avant-garde pop music with throwaway, experimental clothes that relied on brightly coloured metals, plastics, and clashing prints did not merely express the creative excitement of the period, it helped to define its parameters. For Warhol, there was no hierarchy of art or design forms. Fashion was not condemned for its commercial imperative, or its transience.
Instead, these inherent qualities were flaunted in his work, as part of his fascination with the fast pace of contemporary life. Thus, the dazzling surface of Diamond Dust Shoes celebrated fashion’s focus on outer appearance and spectacle, while his boutique brought attention to the commercial transactions and consumerist drive at the heart of fashion, and indeed much of the contemporary art market. In Warhol’s art, fashion’s supposed flaws of ephemerality and materialism become comments on the culture that spawned it. For Warhol, elements of mass culture and high-end luxury could coexist, in the same way that they did in fashion magazines or Hollywood films. In his work, multiples and one-offs were given equal status, and he moved easily from one medium to another, fascinated as much by the possibilities of film as of screen printing or graphic design. Rather than feeling this limited his work, or that commerce should be excluded from art for it to be legitimate, Warhol embraced contradictions. In his 1977 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), he wrote of the blurred boundaries that drove his art: Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and now I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called ‘art’ or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.
Since the mid-19th century, fashion had increased in pace, reached out to a wider audience, embraced industrial processes, and used spectacular methods to sell its wares. Art also went through this cycle of change; art markets grew to embrace the middle classes, mechanical reproduction altered ideas of exclusivity, and institutional and private galleries re-thought the way artworks were displayed and sold. There also existed a crossover in thematic concerns between the two disciplines, from issues of identity and morality, to concerns over the way the artist or designer was perceived within the wider culture, and a focus on representation of and play with the body.
Fashion is occasionally cast as art, but this is problematic. Some designers have appropriated aspects of art practice in their own work, but they remain within the structure of the fashion industry and use these borrowed methods to explore the nature of fashion itself. When, for example, in their early career, Viktor and Rolf decided just to stage fashion shows rather than produce any saleable clothes, their designs became one-offs, rare pieces that existed only as comments on the role of the show within the fashion system, rather than wearable garments. However, their work remained within the context of the fashion world, discussed and reviewed by fashion journalists. It seemed like evolving advertising campaigns for the collections they later showed, which were put into production. Their work also served to underline the differences between types of designers. Viktor and Rolf’s interpretation of fashion incorporated a fascination with the role of the show, and its potential to test the boundaries of spectacle and display. They slip between art, theatre, and film in the staging of their collections. For autumn/winter 2000, the designers slowly dressed a single model in layer upon layer of garments, until she wore the whole collection. This commented on the process of fitting clothes on the body, which lies at the core of traditional fashion design. The exaggerated scale of the final clothes she was swathed in seemed to turn her into an immobile doll, a living mannequin, and the plaything of the designers. In 2002/3’s show, all the clothes were bright cobalt, and acted like the blue screen used to shoot special effects in television and cinema.
Film was projected across the models’ bodies, which made their figures disappear and seem to flicker as images hovered across their surface. In Viktor and Rolf’s designs and presentations, artistic methods are used to comment on the practice of fashion, but this does not necessarily turn their fashion into art. Their work is shown in the context of the international fashion weeks, it is directed to a fashion audience, and addresses the way clothing and body interact. Even when they were not putting their clothing into production, they followed the fashion seasons, and importantly, they adhered to the fundamental elements of fashion: fabric and body.
Fashion is sometimes compared to art in order to give it greater validity, depth, and purpose. However, this perhaps reveals more about Western concern that fashion lacks these qualities than it does about fashion’s actual significance. A Balenciaga dress from the 1950s, when displayed in a pristine glass case in a gallery, may appear like a work of art. However, it does not need to be described as such in order to convey its value or the skill that went into its creation. Like other design forms, such as architecture, fashion has its own particular concerns that prevent it from ever being purely art, craft, or industrial design. It is, rather, a three-dimensional design form that incorporates elements of all these approaches. It is Balenciaga’s exacting eye for precise form that brings balance and drama to the drape and structure of the fabric, combined with the craft skill of his atelier workers that turns it into an exceptional piece of fashion clothing. It does not need to be called art in order to validate its status, and this term ignores the reason, beyond his desire to create and test the parameters of fashion design, that Balenciaga’s dresses were brought into being: to clothe a woman, and, ultimately, to sell more designs. This should not be seen to diminish his achievement, but to help to understand the way he has worked to exploit these ‘limitations’ to create fashions that can inspire the viewer as much as the wearer.
Fashion should be understood on its own terms, and this makes its interactions with other aspects of art and culture more interesting. It opens up the way art, design, and commerce connect and overlap in some practitioners’ work. Indeed, one of the things that makes fashion so fascinating, and for some, so problematic, is the fact that it continually appropriates, reconfigures, and tests the boundaries of these definitions. Thus, fashion can highlight tensions concerning what is valued in a culture. Designers and artists as diverse as Andy Warhol and Viktor and Rolf produced work that played upon cultural contradictions and attitudes. In fashion’s case, focus on body and cloth, and the fact that it is, usually, designed to be worn and sold, distinguishes it from fine art. However, this does not prevent fashion from being meaningful, and the art world’s continued fascination with fashion underlines its cultural significance.
Portraiture and identity
Perhaps the most obvious connection between fashion and art is the role clothing has played within portrait painting. In the 16th century, the Reformation’s impact in Northern Europe led to a decline in commissions for religious paintings, and artists therefore turned to other subject matter. Since the Renaissance, humanist interest in the individual added to many members of the nobility’s desire to be portrayed by artists. The growth of portraiture established a relationship between artist and sitter, and between fashion and representation. Holbein’s paintings of the royal court and nobility of Northern Europe explored the visual effects that can be conveyed in paint, and suggested the tactile differences between, for example, satin, velvet, and wool. Holbein’s precision is apparent in the detailed drawings that he undertook in preparation for his portraits. Jewellery was sketched in all its intricacy, and the delicate layers of muslin, linen, and stiffening that woman’s headdresses comprised were explored with as much care as sitters’ faces and expressions. Holbein understood the role fashionable dress played in conveying his clients’ wealth and power, as well as their gender and status. These attributes were made manifest in his paintings, and turned into mementoes not just of past clothing styles, but of fashion’s role in constructing an identity that could be read and understood by contemporaries.
His portraits of Henry VIII portray the period’s visual excess, with padded layers of silk and brocade to add size and grandeur to his figure. Gold and jeweled trimmings and accessories increased this effect, and fabrics were slashed to reveal further lavish garments beneath. His portraits of women were equally rich in detail. Even his sombre 1538 painting of Christina of Denmark wearing mourning dress revealed the fabric’s richness. The soft shine of her long black satin gown is emphasized by the light falling on its deep folds and full, gathered shoulders. This is contrasted with the tawny red-brown fur that lines the gown, and the supple pale leather of her gloves. Holbein’s compositions, like those of artists across Europe at the time, placed focus on the sitters’ faces, while also giving great emphasis to displaying their clothing’s splendour.
This spectacle of fabric and jewellery is present in the work of artists from Titian to Hilliard. Even when, as in the portrait of Christina of Denmark, the dress is restrained and undecorated, the lushness of the materials plays a major role in establishing the sitter’s status. The significance of this display would have been easily comprehensible to contemporaries. Textiles were hugely expensive, and therefore greatly valued. The ability to purchase and wear an array of cloth of gold and silk velvets asserted the sitter’s wealth. Glimpses of white shirts and smocks, worn beneath the layers of outer garments, further reinforced sitters’ standing. Cleanliness was a mark of status, and servants were needed to keep linens laundered and white, and ruffs starched and properly pressed into their complicated shape.
Art did not merely serve to advertise royal and noble status; it also displayed character, taste, and the sitter’s relationship to fashion. While artists such as Holbein strove to paint contemporary fashions accurately, as part of the overall realist approach of his work, others used greater artistic licence. During the 17th century, Van Dyck and others often showed sitters in draped fabrics that curved around the body in impossible ways. They framed the body in allegorical dress, intended to evoke Greek muses or goddesses. Women were swathed in pastel satins that seemed to fly around the body and float over the surface of the skin. Men were shown in outfits that were part reality, part fancy dress.
While Van Dyck also painted fashionable dress, he frequently imposed his own unifying taste for light-reflecting surfaces and uninterrupted planes of colour. Thus, art mediated fashion, it was not just a record of what was worn and how, but of ideals of beauty, luxury, and taste.
Art’s relationship to fashion became more complex as fashions began to change seasonally during the 18th century, and some artists became uneasy about the effect of this on the status of their work. Some portraitists, such as Joshua Reynolds, wanted to strive for longevity and create a painting that would transcend its time. Fashion seemed to hamper these ambitions; it pulled a painting back into the time when it was created. As styles changed yearly, if not seasonally, portraits were precisely datable.
While for Van Dyck and his sitters classicized clothing was part of a playful interest in fancy dress, for Reynolds it was a serious attempt to break from fashion and propose an alternative way to guarantee the relevance of portraits for posterity. He therefore strove to erase fashion from his art, painting sitters in imagined swathes of fabric to relate the figure to classical drapery seen in ancient statuary. Fashion’s power to shape how body and beauty are perceived disrupted Reynolds’ intentions. Although the dress he often painted was plain, so was much of fashion in the last quarter of the 18th century, as was the long, narrow silhouette that he favoured. The sitter’s desire to be seen as modish also hampered his classicizing eye. Female clients persisted in wearing towering, powdered wigs, often topped with plumes of feathers. Their faces were also powdered white, with cheeks fashionably pinked.
This combination of the sitter’s wish to be seen as fashionable and the artist’s difficulty in breaking away from the dominant visual ideal of the day meant that it was almost impossible to paint a portrait that did not betray its date. In her book Seeing through Clothes, Anne Hollander proposed that: in civilised Western life the clothed figure looks more persuasive and comprehensible in art than it does in reality. Since this is so, the way clothes strike the eye comes to be mediated by current visual assumptions made in pictures of dressed people.
Hollander contends that it is not just the clothed body that is ‘learnt’ through its representation in art. She also argued that artists’ vision is trained by contemporary fashion and that even when a nude body is painted, the shape of the body and the way it is presented is tempered by prevailing fashionable ideals. The small, high breasts and low stomachs of Cranach’s nudes of the 15th century, Rubens’ full-bodied Three Graces of the 1630s, and Goya’s clothed and nude Maja of the early 19th century all bear witness to the impact of the fashionable silhouette on the way the body is portrayed. In each case, the shape of the clothed body, re-formed by corsetry, padding, and over garments, is imposed on the naked figure. Thus, the relationship between portraiture and fashion is deeply embedded, and demonstrates the interconnected nature of visual culture at any given time.
This interrelationship was to become more explicit in the 19th century, with artists such as Cézanne, Degas, and Monet using fashion plates as templates for their female figures and the clothes they wore. Since many people see fashion through imagery, whether paintings, drawings, fashion plates, or later photographs, the viewer, like the artist, is coached to understand the clothed bodies she sees around her in terms of these representations.
Indeed, Aileen Ribeiro has taken this idea further to suggest the materialism involved in commissioning and purchasing art was part of the same consumer culture that saw the growth of the fashion industry in the second half of the 19th century, and the comparably huge amounts charged by leading portraitists and couturiers such as Charles Frederick Worth. Ribeiro cites as evidence of this close alliance Margaret Oliphant’s observation in her book Dress of 1878 that ‘there is now a class who dress after pictures and when they buy a gown ask ‘‘will it paint?’’ ’.
Perhaps the most compelling example of this blurred line between fashion and its representation is the collection of over four hundred photographs taken by Pierre-Louis Pierson between 1856 and 1895 of Virginia Verasis, the Comtesse de Castiglione. She took an active role in the way she was dressed, styled, and posed. She therefore took on the role of artist herself, controlling both her presentation through fashion and her representation in the photographs. Her elaborately decorated dresses of the mid-19th century act like fashion photographs, while going beyond the remit of fashion imagery to construct an individual’s relationship to dress. Castiglione was aware that she was giving a performance in each image, and staged herself within a suitable environment, whether a studio setting or on a balcony. She demonstrated the power of ‘self-fashioning’, using dress to define and construct the way she was perceived and her body displayed. For her, the interconnections between fashion and art were a powerful tool to allow experimentation with various identities, since, as Pierre Apraxine and Xavier Demarge have argued: Castiglione’s use of her own body – the primary source of her art - and the way in which she orchestrated her public appearances [presaged] . . . such contemporary developments as body art and performance art.
Fashion’s significant role in visual culture, and the inextricable link between actual garments and their representation in art and magazines, meant artists tended to be ambiguous about its power.
While portraitists including Winterhalter and John Singer Sargent used their sitters’ fashionable dress to shape compositions and suggest the status and character of their sitters, others, most notably the Pre-Raphaelites, rejected fashion’s pervasive hold on ideals of beauty, style, and taste. By the 1870s, an Aesthetic dress movement had emerged which sought to offer an alternative to fashion’s restrictive definitions of the body, in particular the role of corsetry in moulding women’s bodies. Men and women turned instead to looser-fitting historicized styles. However, Aesthetic dress itself became a fashion, although it crystallized the idea that artists and those interested in fine art might dress in an alternative, anti-fashion style. While they might refuse contemporary trends, their studied indifference to their dress is implicit recognition of fashion’s role in shaping how they are perceived, and the power of dress in fashioning identity.
(5) Haute Couture & Fashion
“Waist Down” , the splendid exhibition of skirts designed by Miuccia Prada
Collaborations and representations
During the 20th century, there were numerous cross-fertilizations and collaborations between art and fashion. Haute couture’s developing aesthetic sensibilities combined advanced craft skills with individual designers’ vision and pressure to create a strong business practice to ensure prolonged success. Couturiers sought to establish their design houses’ identities in relation to contemporary beauty ideals and this necessarily saw them look to modern art as a visual prompt and inspiration.
In Paul Poiret’s hands, this meant an exploration of notions of the exotic, and, like Matisse, he travelled to Morocco to find alternatives to Western approaches to colour and form. Poiret’s fantasy of rich planes of colour, draped harem trousers, and loose tunics contributed to an ideal of femininity that had been increasingly apparent in both popular and elite culture since the late 19th century. Poiret and his wife Denise were photographed in orientalized robes, reclining on sofas at their infamous ‘One Thousand and Second Night’ party.
When viewed in conjunction with Poiret’s designs, these images promoted his couture house as luxurious and decadent. Importantly, they also positioned him as uncompromisingly modern, despite the historical references that underpinned many of his garments. Poiret was aware that he needed to cultivate an image of himself that drew on notions of the artist as an individual creative force, while also producing designs that could successfully be sold abroad, particularly to America. His work, in common with other couturiers, had to balance between the demands of the one-off outfit for a single client, which had more in common with the authenticity of fine art, and the commercial imperatives of creating designs that could be sold to and copied by manufacturers internationally.
Although Poiret strove to maintain an artistic image, and drew upon such influences as the Ballets Russes, he also undertook promotional tours to Czechoslovakia and America to increase awareness of his designs amongst a wider audience.
Nancy Troy has written of this delicate relationship between fine art practice and haute couture in the first decades of the 20th century. She identified shifts in each discipline that were a response to the increasingly blurred line between popular and elite culture, and therefore also to distinctions between the ‘authentic’ original and the reproduction. As she noted, designers and artists tried ‘to explore, control, and channel (though not necessarily to stave off) the supposedly corrupting influence of commerce and commodity culture’.
Couturiers had varied approaches both to managing these issues and to incorporating influences from contemporary art into their designs. Poiret’s work flourished under the influence of vibrant, often clashing colour and emphasis on theatrical self-presentation.
It is therefore unsurprising that when he made direct collaborations with artists, it was in textile designs by Matisse and Dufy, for example. Such connections between leading avant-garde artists and their equivalents within fashion seem both natural and mutually beneficial. Each side was able to experiment, exploring new ways to think about and present their ideas. Each potentially benefited by the association with another form of cutting-edge contemporary culture to combine the visual with the material.
Elsa Schiaparelli staged more extensive collaborations, most famously through her work with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. These connections produced clothes which gave life to Surrealist tenets, including Dali’s ‘lobster’ decorated dress. This brought the movement’s love of juxtapositions and complex relationship to notions of femininity into the physical realm, with Schiaparelli’s wearers turning their bodies into statements on art, culture, and sexuality.
For Madeleine Vionnet, an interest in contemporary art’s preoccupations was seen in her technical explorations of the three-dimensional planes of a garment, inspired by the fragmented representational style of Italian Futurism. Her work with Ernesto Thayaht showed a dynamic union between his spatial experiments and her concern for the relationship between body and fabric. His fashion plates of her designs made this link explicit, rendering her designs as Futurist ideals of femininity. The models’ bodies and clothes were fractured to show not just their three dimensions, but to suggest their lines of movement and their intrinsic modernity.
If Poiret’s association with art was through his desire for luxury and freedom in design expression, then Vionnet’s was part of a search for new methods to address the body and the way it was represented. Both couturiers were also widely copied, despite the intricacy of their designs. Their concern about manufacturers’ profligate use of their work exposed the contradictions inherent within modern fashion (and, indeed, art). As Troy has shown, what was at stake was not just ideals of artistic integrity; copying could also undermine their businesses and jeopardize their profits.
Given art and fashion’s growing push into the commercial world, it was inevitable that artists and designers would look to mass-produced ready-to-wear as another site for collaboration. Such projects brought tensions between the two disciplines, and their relationship to industry and finance to the fore. This could be through political belief in the power of art to change the lives of the masses, as seen in Russian Constructivist Vavara Stepanova’s designs of the 1920s. While most of her contemporaries shunned fashion for its ephemerality, she felt that, despite its problematic associations with capitalism and business, it was bound to become more rational, in the same way that she perceived ‘daily life’ in the Soviet Union to be. She therefore broke with her fellow Constructivists to state that: It would be a mistake to think that fashion could be eliminated or that it is an unnecessary profit-making adjunct. Fashion presents, in a readily understandable way, the complex set of lines and forms predominant in a particular time period – the external attributes of the epoch.
Fashion’s ability to connect more directly with the wider community has made it an ideal medium for artists who want to connect their work to the popular sphere. This might follow in the traditions established by Poiret at the start of the 20th century, as seen in the witty prints designed by Picasso, amongst others, for a series of American textile designs in the 1950s, and used by designers including Claire McCardell. In the early 1980s, Vivienne Westwood’s work with graffiti artist Keith Haring was closer in spirit to Schiaparelli’s collaborations with artists. In each case, their joint work represented a common interest and intent, in Westwood and Haring’s example in street culture and challenging accepted ideas of the body, which translated into clothes decorated with an artist’s drawings.
The commercial and consumer ethic at the heart of much collaboration between fashion and art became more manifest in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. While Rei Kawakubo’s rigorous intellectual approach to fashion is without question, it is interesting to see how successfully she has negotiated the potentially fraught relationships between artistic endeavour, fashion, and consumption. Peter Wollen has compared Japanese designers’ approach to these interconnections to that of Wiener Werksta¨tte artists, who sought to design clothes as part of a ‘total environment’. This environment includes, perhaps most significantly, the retail space, which for Comme des Garc¸ons has become a temple for Kawakubo’s design aesthetic and a site of continuing collaborations. Leading architects, including Future Systems, designed boutiques for her in New York, Tokyo, and Paris. Her interior displays ape iconic modernist works, such as the apparently haphazard design of her Warsaw guerrilla store, which made reference to Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer’s ground-breaking presentation of identical chairs fixed to the walls in the German section of the Society of French Interior Designers annual exhibition of 1930.
Kawakubo, like other designers including Agne`s B, has taken this ambiguity between commercial retail space and gallery further, to hold exhibitions in her boutiques. In Comme des Garc¸ons’ Tokyo store, displays have included Cindy Sherman’s photography, which itself appropriates fashion practices. Such exhibitions are not new, for example New York department store Lord & Taylor held a show on Art Deco in the late 1920s, while Selfridges in London showed Henry Moore’s work in the 1930s. However, by the end of the century connections were more complex and links between the two areas more firmly embedded, especially within the work of artists and designers dealing with the body and identity.
At the start of the 21st century, the relationship between art and fashion remains as fraught as it is revealing of cultural values and subconscious desires. The lines between fashion in art and art in fashion became hazier, but so did the distinctions between the spaces in which each was shown. Shops, galleries, and museums employed similar approaches to display and fore grounded consumption of art, fashion, and the cultural kudos attached to each. For example, Louis Vuitton sponsored a party for the launch of its spring/summer 2008 collection of handbags decorated with prints by Richard Prince. The party was held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, on the last night of Prince’s exhibition there, drawing comment from some areas of the press on the problems of commercial sponsorship and the status of fashion in the gallery. This demonstrated how art and fashion, although inextricably linked, can both gain and lose from comparisons made when they are brought into close proximity.
Miuccia Prada has been very active in examining these crosscurrents. In 1993, she established the Fondazione Prada to support and promote art. She also commissioned architects, including Rem Koolhaas, to design iconic ‘epicentre’ stores for her, which would provide a space for art exhibitions to be held alongside her clothing on the shop floor. This included huge photographic prints by Andreas Gursky at her store in Soho, New York. The fact that Gursky’s work has frequently critiqued consumer culture adds an ironic edge to Prada’s display of his photographs. Thus, architect, artist, and designer are presented as knowing and self-aware, creating fashion, art, and buildings, while simultaneously commenting on these practices.
Miuccia Prada’s complicated relationship with fashion and art was best expressed in her exhibition Waist Down: Miuccia Prada, Art and Creativity, which examined the evolution of skirt design within her collections. Designed by Koolhaas’ architectural team, the show travelled internationally, held in venues such as the Peace Hotel in Shanghai in 2005. The exhibition used experimental display methods; skirts hung from the ceiling on special mechanized hangers which spun them round, or were spread out and encased in plastic to look like decorative jellyfish. Prada’s financial acumen and global success enabled such innovative design to be possible, and her connections within the art and design world facilitated its realization.
However, Prada herself seemed intrigued by the ambiguity of these connections, and yet conflicted about how this linked fashion and touring exhibition Waist Down included creative displays of Prada skirts art. When the exhibition travelled to her New York boutique in 2006, she commented to journalist Carl Swanson that ‘shops are where art used to be’, but went on to demur over the status of her exhibition and the other works displayed at her epicentre store, stating that:
It’s a place for experimentation. But it’s not by chance that the exhibition is in the store. Because it started with the idea of putting more things to discuss, mainly about my work, in the store. It’s like an explanation of the work. It’s not at all anything connected with art. It’s just to make the store more interesting.
This contradiction lies at the heart of fashion’s relationship with art. Collaborations between artists and fashion designers can produce interesting results, but there can be discomfort from both sides about how such work is perceived. As important aspects of visual culture, fashion and art both represent and construct ideas about, for example, the body, beauty, and identity. Nevertheless, art’s commercial side is revealed by its closeness to fashion, and fashion can seem to be using art to provide it with gravitas. What is revealed by such crossover projects is that each medium has the potential to be both consumerist and conceptual, meaningful and about surface display. It is these similarities that bring fashion and art together, and which add interesting tensions to their relationship.