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The debate about whether fashion is art is a well-trodden one. The links between the two forms of culture go back at least to Renaissance times when master painters like Jacopo Bellini, Antonio Pisanello and Antonio del Pollaiuolo were not just depicting the fashions of their day in their work but also dreaming up new designs and creating textile patterns and embroidery which were later copied onto actual garments
in a curious case of life imitating art.
By the turn of the twentieth century, fashion and art had forged such a solid bond that artists were often as happy to work in the medium of textiles as in the medium of painting. A couturier like Paul Poiret had no problem moving freely in artistic circles and often worked together with artists. He collected Impressionist art when the movement was still new and hotly contested, he was close to the Fauvist painter Francis Picabia and was known to greatly admire both Picasso and Matisse. Indeed, Poiret, who belonged to the Société des Artistes Décorateurs, founded in 1901 for the display and promotion of modern French art, saw himself as an artist, and allegedly said, ‘I have always liked painters. It seems to me that we are in the same trade and that they are my colleagues.’
Whereas fashion designers in the late nineteenth century drew on Art Nouveau in the heavily corseted S-curved silhouettes of the day, or used the often abstract aesthetic of the Vienna Secession Movement as a base for textile design, throughout the first half of the twentieth century fashion trends could be said to follow the developments in modern art. Echoes of Modernism could be found in all from the very first uncorseted, tubular and elemental shapes that marked the new pre-World War I silhouette, and the same outline continued to make itself heard throughout the gay 1920s and extended well into the following decade with its penchant for streamlined, body-hugging dresses.
In the mid-twentieth century, the man who arguably single-handedly did the most to demystify the process of art making and level it with its more frivolous cousin, fashion, was, of course, Andy Warhol. Fundamental as he was to further forging the ties between fashion and art, he once famously quipped, ‘Why do people think artists are special? It's just another job.’ Rather ironically, however, when, ten years ago, the Grand Palais in Paris was on the cusp of opening a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s portraits, the curator was confronted with Pierre Bergé, the late partner of Yves Saint Laurent. Bergé balked at the curator’s decision to hang YSL’s portrait amongst the other fashion designers in the show; instead he was adamant that the study of Saint Laurent should be where it clearly belonged, amongst the artists. YSL, who once famously made a dress based on Mondrian’s celebrated Neo-Plasticist paintings, was nothing short of an artiste according to Bergé – hell, even Warhol had said so!
The rather hackneyed view that art is, in its infinite holiness, somehow superior to fashion on the ladder of cultural hierarchy is, despite the various ties between the two, a common one. Fashion, in comparison to art, is fickle, trivial and rather suspect. Throughout history fashion has, with little variation, been considered to be a tool for the display and enforcement of social status. Despite the patronage of various artists, it has been accused of countless crimes against humanity, by the left as well as the right, and has been granted little significance in culture apart from as a sign of conspicuous consumption, greed, snobbery, desire and waste. Whereas the changing fashion in the fine arts, music or literature has been regarded as a mighty development in the pursuit of truth and beauty, the never-ending fluctuations in dress have more often than not been regarded as merely a way to con the masses into buying more stuff they don't need.
Nevertheless, glamour and style have a universal attraction and fashion's march into mainstream culture has been a significant one. Despite the ominous croaking of its critics, fashion has taken over the museums, the art fairs and our TV screens. Fashion models are the icons of our times and actresses and singers are gladly diversifying into fashion to keep their name in the papers and help pay for that swimming pool under construction in Tulum. But regardless of how fashion soars on the mainstream cultural agenda, that old hierarchy appears to remain firmly in place. Fashion designers continue to be ‘inspired' by art, and use obscure references to little known and long-forgotten artists so often that it's hard to shake the feeling that it is but a way to cover up a simmering inferiority complex.
Elsa Schiaparelli once leaned on Picasso and Braque and Emilio Pucci referenced Op Art, and fashion designers of every ilk have continued to swagger down this tried and tested path. In 1965 YSL made the cover of French Vogue's September issue with his Mondrian dress and the innumerable cheap copies that followed in its wake proved what a great success his tactic had been. In the early 2000s, Marc Jacobs famously brought Takashi Murakami to Louis Vuitton in a marriage of art and commerce that resulted in the sale of so many LV embossed bags that the union lasted for thirteen years, and spawned several other high profile ‘collaborations' between the brand and various artists – most recently Jeff Koons in 2017.
This type of mutually beneficial back-slapping has become so common that fashion/art collaborations barely raise an eyebrow anymore, nor do we pause to think as various art movements continue to be used as inspiration for fashion designers. Artists on the other hand have been slower to proudly proclaim fashion as the motivation behind their work. Some – Atelier E.B., Cheryl Donegan and Pia Camil for instance – make garments within a fine art context, others – BLESS, Bernadette Corporation, Susan Cianciolo – straddle the boundary between artist and designer with finesse, and others still – Eckhaus Latta and Slow and Steady Wins the Race come to mind here – operate within the fashion industry, but have also created installations within art institutions.
So, is fashion art? Well, perhaps more apt to ask is why, in these otherwise so democratic times, this question continues to matter. That fashion can share some of the attributes of fine art, be suitable for a museum exhibit or reflect the changes in contemporary culture we all know by now. Equally, we know that the fine arts have emerged as a vast industry, churning out one art star after another, all with great potential for investment.
In other words, fashion may not be art, but then again, is art even art anymore? Nevertheless, when luxury groups like LVMH and Kering still seem more keen to invest in contemporary art than in the furthering of their own discipline, be it through foundations dedicated to fashion or the development of fashion academia, it is difficult to get rid of the nagging suspicion that old orders are,
indeed, hard to escape.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg founded Vestoj in 2009 as a platform for critical thinking in fashion. Today she creates the annual Vestoj Journal, Vestoj Online and the live performative Vestoj Salons. She lives in Paris, and produces Vestoj under the partial patronage of London College of Fashion, where she also works as a Senior Research Fellow in Fashion Theory and Practice.