As fashion designers’ works are exhibited in galleries worldwide with resounding success, Aoife Valentine considers whether fashion can really be considered art
At any one time in the world today, there are multiple galleries and museums around the world hosting large fashion exhibitions and displays. Be this as it may, there is still a clearly competitive love/hate relationship between both the art and fashion worlds, with neither quite willing to accept the links between the two. The connections seem obvious when viewing these exhibitions, which often display the most intricate, creative and least wearable designer clothes in existence.
This was never more obvious than at last year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition, which celebrated the late Alexander McQueen’s almost twenty-year career as a fashion designer. The exhibition attracted impressive numbers, achieving the accolades of the Institute’s biggest opening day, and coming within the top ten most visited exhibitions at the Museum. These numbers are a mere testament to Lee McQueen’s visionary genius, which was truly understood and translated in his work.
His unparalleled designs marked a significant shift, not only in design practices, but also in how fashion itself was perceived as a form of installation, performance, and art. His seemingly intuitive eye for design produced probably the most innovative creative visions in contemporary fashion. His work was, in theory, wearable art, which addressed questions on topics from politics and religion, to sexuality and class issues. His designs were a vehicle to express his ideas, complex concepts, and he designed with the intent of challenging as many boundaries as he possibly could.
While McQueen’s clothes always had an air of magic and decadence about them, it was constantly accompanied by an overhanging, somewhat sinister vibe. His collections were more often than not difficult to watch while coming down the runway, as they intended to channel the cultural apprehensions or uncertainties at play in his own mind, often resulting in a range of clothes and accessories that were thematically quite dark, frequently to the point of exhibiting perceived misogyny.
Yves Saint Laurent once said that he had “always given the highest importance of all to respect for this craft, which is not exactly an art, but which needs an artist to exist.”
It would be incredibly difficult to argue that McQueen was anything less than an artist, as the notoriety associated with his creative vision cannot be under-exaggerated. However, of the one hundred outfits and seventy accessories on display at the Met, there were pieces which could only be described as works of art, including a gown made of rows of razor-thin clam shells, an aluminium corset with an incredibly realistic spine with accompanying tail protruding out from the back, and a dress made out of glass medical slides with a full skirt of black ostrich feathers. In his VOSS S/S 2001 collection, he featured a coat and a dress both appliquéd with roundels in the shape of chrysanthemums, and in his 1996 ‘Highland Rape’ collection, many tartan numbers were sent down the runway on semi-naked, blood-spattered models covered in heather and bracken. His work was not designed to be thrown in any old wardrobe, or indeed, ever worn off the runway. It is difficult to see them as anything other than wearable pieces of art, created by an imaginative artist aiming to be nothing short of transcendent.
Christian Dior is well known for taking much of his inspiration from art and at the ‘Inspiration Dior’ exhibition in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, over 120 of Dior’s greatest couture designs were juxtaposed with sixty of Pushkin’s greatest works, openly highlighting the central relationship between fashion and art. It was intended to show the artistic base behind Dior’s work, underscore the brand’s vast history and most pertinently, according to the exhibition’s curator, to make visitors understand that Christian Dior was indeed an artist.
A director for fashion was hired for the opening of the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in the Lincoln Centre last year, allowing fashion to be included with opera, theatre, dance, music and film in its constant line-up of featured arts. This was an extremely significant indicator of an intellectual trend that has been appearing in various forms for several decades now. It marks a shift in fashion towards shedding its cultural stigma, as it becomes increasingly recognised as being a significant cultural activity.
Fashion specifies no vehicle in particular, and in that, it recognises cultural significance as a medium. Perhaps in the past, it has been fashion’s perceived fickleness that has made it somewhat suspect, seen possibly as a means to entice the gullible or put down the hoi polloi, but it is steadily losing this image, and being reframed as a performance art instead of a visual medium. At its most masterful, fashion truly is an art.