The Couture Week in Paris is over and I religiously followed all the reports about the shows. It was a nice distraction from work and an art history exam I was preparing for. In a podcast by The Business of Fashion (BoF) wrapping up the Couture Week and menswear shows, Imran Amed (BoF’s founder) and Tim Blanks (editor-at-large) made references between the most recent shows and classic artists such as Caravaggio. Switching between the fashion reports and art papers I wondered why it is still such a big discussion if fashion can actually be considered art.
Most academic art (history) institutions with a rather classic approach do not regard fashion as part of their curriculum. Fashion may be discussed in case it is relevant for a certain artwork or movement – if it is dealt with at all. Exceptions are some schools in Paris, London and New York – and museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum in New York focussing on the history of fashion.
I personally have always considered fashion as wearable art. Of course, not every trend, brand or items. Just like painting, sculpture and architecture, fashion is a form of expressing your character, your thoughts and sometimes even political convictions.
Think about the obvious examples which are directly related to the fine arts: Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian Dress or Elsa Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress inspired by Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone. These works were a close collaboration of two artists – yes, also a fashion designer is an artist in my opinion – or a designer was inspired by a work of art. Why would we regard Dalí’s Lobster Phone as a work of art but not Schiaparelli’s dress?
In fashion, partly in Pret-à-Porter but in particular when it comes to Haute Couture, meticulous and long processes are required for designing the garments and bringing them to life. Think about lavish stitchings or handmade laces. A designer probably puts as much effort into his concept and process as a painter, a sculptor or an architect. And when we think of all the big names – Dior, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent – they all were really close to art, and sometimes active members themselves of the art scene.
Just like art, fashion can be a testimony of what happened at a certain time: What did people wear in the Middle Ages when they worked in the fields? Why were crinolines so popular for high society women in the France of Louis XIV’s? Why did the mini skirt appear in the 1960s?
The last example leads to another argument for why fashion is an art form. Art is often used to criticise political movements or governments. A simple example like the mini skirt shows that fashion can be a similar instrument. The mini skirt did not just come around on a whim. It was a sign for women’s liberation, to rebel agains the parents’ generation and to ask for equal rights. We can hardly imagine it today, but wearing a skirt showing a woman’s knees was a scandal in the early 1960s. The “flapper” movement of the 1920s exemplifies the liberation of women from the corset – in a fashionable but even more in a political sense. And it did not happen in the 1920s by chance: In a lot of countries, this was the time when women gained the rights to vote.
In today’s fashion world, we may feel that fashion may have moved away from the artistic perspective towards one of pure consumption. A lot of the currently trendy items will soon be forgotten. However, I firmly believe that there will be some designs which will be remembered like the iconic Schiaparelli dress. It remains to be seen which items will make history.
It might be tough to see how one’s political opinion may be expressed by the current “logomania”, ugly sneakers or plastic items on the runways when we should actually reduce plastic consumption. But maybe, these items will serve as testimonies of our society in a few hundred years – a consumption driven, empty society which has everything and nothing worth fighting for. Can we only blame fashion for this? Is fashion not just the above-mentioned testimony of what is going on in our society? Maybe it is necessary to look behind that surface and think about what fashion will be a testimony about. Maybe it is us who need to change. And fashion will reflect that change.