The editors of Fashion and Art (F&A), Adam Geczy & Viki Karamininas, would agree with Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, New York, who claims that any distinction between fashion and art is ridiculous, ‘Fashion at its highest level is an art form!’.1 However, as the editors of F&A note, if fashion really aspired to be art it would be ruinous.2 For those given to consider art’s influence on ‘capitalism’s favourite child’, F&A offers a significant archive of essays collected from historians, sociologists, academics and professionals that traverse the field of fashion.3
Geczy and Karamaninas introduce this collection of essays on fashion and art with Lady Gaga’s spectacular entrance to receive MTV’s Video of the Year Award in 2010. The video clip sees Lady Gaga flanked either side by ex-military personnel exited from the US Armed Forces for being gay or lesbian and wearing her risqué prosciutto ensemble — a protest against the US military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. However, as the editors point out, Gaga’s outfit was prefigured twenty-four years earlier by the work of a Canadian artist; Jana Sterbak’s piece Vanitas: Dress for an Albino Anorectic 1987 was a series of skirts made from raw steak, articulating her concerns about fashion and self-image. Whether Lady Gaga took her inspiration from Sterbak or not, ‘capitalism’s favourite child’ would seem to be a dedicated follower of art.
Despite the proliferation of museum retrospectives for fashionistas, beginning in 1983 with Yves Saint Laurent at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more recently, in 2010, Valentino at the Queensland Art Gallery, it is interesting to note the number of designers who do not identify as artists. Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs would all align with Karl Lagerfeld when he quips ‘art is art, fashion is fashion’. While art has its own quirky logic and specific genealogy, commercial pressures remain the determining parameter of the fashion industry. Of course, there is a significant history of designers who have identified as artists, not least of all the father of haute couture Charles Worth. Contemporary designers, such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Hussein Chalayan, appear to deploy art as a marketing strategy, which the museum industry seems keen to embrace. However, Patricia Bickers, editor of Art Monthly UK, wonders if this bond between fashion and art isn’t merely a marriage of convenience and denotes the vast sums of money changing hands in the name of fashion and art. For example, under the curatorial direction of Germano Celant, the Guggenheim New York raised US$15 million for their 1999 Giorgio Armani exhibition.4
The perennial challenge facing any student of art or fashion is always the gulf between art as a conceptual practice and art as commodity production. In her paper ‘Conceptual Fashion’, Hazel Clark (Research Chair of Fashion, Parsons New School for Design, New York), details a short history of collaboration between artists and fashion designers. Beginning with Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli and their infamous lobster telephones and shoe hats, Clark moves onto Phillip Treacy’s Lobster Hats for Isabella Blow and Lady Gaga. Clark then considers the process of productions undertaken by Issey Miyake — the first fashion designer to be featured on the front cover of Art Forum magazine in 1982 — before introducing Ma Ke, who integrated her conceptual-art-line Wuyong (Useless) into her commercial fashion line Exception de Mixmind. As Clark notes, it was Ma Ke’s Useless art line that secured her an invitation to the 2007 Paris Fashion Week, ultimately winning her the award as World Outstanding Chinese Designer of the Year in 2009.
In her essay ‘Dressing Up’, Mary Gluck (Professor of History and Comparative Literature, Brown University, Rhode Island), reminds us that anyone embarking on an artistic career without a livelihood will soon find themselves facing bohemia, which Henri Murger defined in his 1848 play La vie de bohème as a stage of artistic life which precedes either the academy or the morgue.4 Gluck denotes the era when artists dressed flamboyantly, grew long hair and beards, etc. Forget the 1960s, ‘the end of bohemia’ was signified by the riots, which erupted on the opening night of Victor Hugo’s play Hernani and spread into the streets of Paris in 1830. What ignited this ‘Battle of Hernani’ was the socio-economic pressures of industrialisation and commercialisation. Does all this sound too familiar? Gluck argues that it is the losses incurred in the ‘battle for bohemia’ that gave rise to Charles Baudelaire’s image of the flâneur. More than the peripatetic dandy, the flâneur was a figure of letters drawn onto the streets, not simply to survey, but to locate the gap in the market.
Today, when public patronage for the arts is predicated upon a ‘contribution to knowledge’ clause underpinning all art and academic funding, and when art and academic research is quantified in terms of a gap in this knowledge, Fashion and Art revises the critical perspectives that once divided these two disciplines. When historical distinctions between art and fashion prove irrelevant, Fashion and Art offers a critical update for anyone considering a future in fashion or art in the twenty-first century.
Gary Willis is a post-conceptual painter and the author of The Key Issues Concerning Contemporary Art.