Art and fashion
When one considers “fashion,” as distinct from “clothing,” “costume,” or “dress,” it is as a socially shared concept of what is to be worn at a particular point in time rather than an esoteric, ritualistic, or utilitarian cover or decoration of the body. The concept of fashion’s point of origin in the mid-nineteenth century is contemporary with a fundamental change in the market for works of art. This was not accidental, since the institution of fashion, as clothing that adheres to particular modes of production, representation, and consumption, was connected to the emergence of similar structures in the creation and dissemination of works of art. Fashion came into being with the advent of the couture industry in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, when a bourgeois audience began to demand constant change as an intellectual, aesthetic, and, above all, economic stimulus for modern times. This is not to say that the notion of fashion did not exist previously. The timing qualifies the term as denoting clothing that is produced according to a certain seasonal rhythm, in quantities large enough to have an effect on sartorial appearances within a society, that can be exported as a “style,” and that is consumed according to a prescribed agenda. Correspondingly, art as an autonomous production of subjective expression not bound directly to ecclesiastical or monarchist decrees emerged through the foundation of a bourgeois culture after the European revolutions between 1830 and 1848, when artistic education, independent structures of display, and expanded commercial possibilities allowed for a new creation and distribution of art. Thus, there exists a shared point of origin due to socioeconomic foundations in western Europe. Although fashion was produced elsewhere, too, it was this “Western” concept that eventually determined its global idiom and reception.
The year 1868 saw “La Chambre syndicale de la confection de la couture pour dames et fillettes” establish the guidelines for the production and promotion of high fashion and the popularization of complex new fabrics through weavers such as Joseph Marie Jacquard and through the development of the sewing machine by men such as Thimonnier Barthélemy. It was also the time when the art market expanded significantly due to technical advances in the reproduction of artworks, the establishment of museums such as le Louvre (which became property of the French state in 1848), and the opening of commercial galleries by the Durand-Ruels and Bernheim-Jeune (late 1850s, early 1860s) in the French capital. Therefore, art and fashion together began to leave the confines of private spaces and made the consumption of commodities public. Paintings were no longer exclusive to collections in haute bourgeois drawing rooms, and clothing was no longer individually commissioned from the comfort of one’s own home. To view art and to buy gowns one had to venture out into the public, into a commercial setting. Contrary to the social and political impetus of the bourgeois toward increased privacy, the consumption of fashion in particular ran as part of a wide social current — being a la mode became a highly publicized statement in art as well as in clothing.
Art and fashion differ significantly in their respective attitudes to history. Art looks at its own historical tradition and, importantly, at the communication of history (historiography), as points of friction and contrast. History for artists consists of mythical or ideological narratives that can be illustrated, debated, and re-assessed in the context of artistic tradition. Styles or motifs are quoted, as in the historicism of academic painting, for example, but this process is consciously reflected upon. The costumes in European history paintings of the nineteenth century are often remodeled and redrawn to fit contemporary ideals of the past. Thus, for example, a subject wearing Roman toga is depicted with a contemporary hairstyle and contemporary makeup, and the face and body of the painterly subject follows modern perceptions rather than adhering to any archaeological evidence. The beholder of such artworks understands that historical authenticity is impossible but expects the painter or sculptor to communicate both the spirit of the past and its present interpretation. For fashion, too, authenticity is regarded as impossible; moreover, it is undesirable for the material impact of the design. Fashion’s imperative, that is, its absolute contemporariness, has to be observed always. A costume for the stage might endeavor to evoke historical accuracy, but a piece of clothing created within the fashion industry has to transcend historical copy and be an absolute part of the present. In contrast to art, fashion is not expected to conform to ideals of reflection or visual truthfulness and integrity. Fashion is afforded a liberal view of history as a stylistic, pictorial sourcebook. The design of a dress or accessory can be a willful quotation that uses only one particular aspect of the history (such as the cut of a sleeve or waistline, or the setting for a jewel) while operating overall in a deliberately ahistorical manner. In fashion the evocation of a historical period has to be immediate yet not necessarily correct in its aspects; visual impact and easy reading of the design take preference over historical accuracy in material or shape. History is filtered in fashion through the present; it is constantly updated and thus rewritten.
These diverging attitudes to history within art and fashion are not simply due to material reasoning, although the dress in fashion, as opposed to costume design, has to exist in the contemporary market and can thus not be seen as only retrospective or pedantic in its historical detail. The purported seriousness of art in its relation to history and its Platonic equation of truth with beauty renders art the established basis from which fluctuating fashions can draw inspiration. Fashion uses art, analogous to history, as a visual model for its contemporary interpretation. The elevated position that is given to the fine arts in occidental culture is employed by fashion to raise the cultural capital of its creations. When fashion design displays an overt reference to a painterly style or motif, or quotes a particular artwork, the standing and value that the artist or work has accrued in the course of history is also transferred to the fashion design. This transferral occurs in a number of ways: (1) the artist becomes fashion (not costume) designer. One example is Giacomo Balla’s menswear of 1914, which cites his own paintings; (2) the designer employs artists for the decoration of the garment, as when Salvador Dali worked for Elsa Schiaparelli in 1937; (3) fashion renders a contemporary style in painting a decorative motif on the dress, as in Yves Saint Laurent’s Pop Art collection of 1966; (4) the presentation of the collection becomes an art-historical tableaux vivant, such as Vivienne Westwood’s catwalk of 1994, which cited the works of Franz-Xaver Winterhalter and other artists of the Second Empire; (5) the rendition of fashion in a magazine or other promotional media inserts the design into an art environment, as in Karl Lagerfeld’s photos of 1997 that deliberately copy Bauhaus motifs. Conversely, fashion — in dress, accessories, makeup, and so forth — provides the source of inspiration for artists, especially in portraiture. The depiction of women in couture clothing on the canvases of Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso, for example, show how the extravagant shapes or colors of the designer’s creation guide the pictorial representation by the painter. Here, the new perception of the body that fashion can instigate through vibrant textiles, constricting or revealing fabrics, elongation of members through extravagant sleeves or extensions or forms through bustles and padded hips, for example, inspires the artist to take a new look at corporeal representation.
Art and sartorial fashion have always shared terms to describe their procedure. Both the pictorial work of art as well as the couture dress are traditionally sketched out, and both are then transferred from a paper template to canvas (the toile). And while the painting exists as the final outcome of the artist’s vision, the toile in couture subsequently needs a further transposition into fabrics in order to appear finished. These procedural similarities do not exclusively define the character of modern painting or contemporary couture, but they go some way to explain why fashion designers have traditionally felt a strong kinship with painters and sculptors in regard to the making of their garments. In the nineteenth century haute couturiers saw themselves as artists in the development of their designs and their frames of reference (shown, for example, in the titles of dresses that allude to pieces of music, histories, allegories, motifs, or styles in painting), but also in subjective perception of the body, which in turn prompted the challenge to sexual mores. By the early 2000s this challenge had become less important than the recourse to and structural engagement with the traditional kinship of couturier and artist, evidenced when the Maison Martin Margiela proposed the paper template or toile to be worn as dress proper.
The parallels in the development of art and fashion in the avants-gardes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries thus became visible through shared patterns and methods and styles of production, but also in adopting moral reflection, oppositional expressions, and attitudes toward commodification. At first the comparatively small group of couturiers and couturières of the second half of the 1800s, styled themselves along the established lines of artistic bohemians. From Charles Frederick Worth and Émile Pingat in the 1870s to John Redfern in the 1880s, they occupied studios and received clients in salons — thus echoing the environment for working and exhibiting in the fine arts (for example, the Parisian Salon as seasonal event). The furnishing of these rooms with collections of portrait paintings and assorted wall hangings indicate the cross-references and quotations that underscore the relationship between art and fashion.
While fashion used from the outset painterly tradition as a culturally established frame of reference and stylistic sourcebook, art looked to fashion for decorative solution in three dimensions and for structural inspiration in regard to repeatedly coined styles and the constant propagating of “originality” as a commodity. With the subjectivism and professed decadence of the fin de siècle, the profusion of decoration was shared between artworks and clothes; expressive hyperbole was de rigueur for both fields, as seen in fashion by Jacques Doucet or the Callot Sisters.
The turn of the century saw an emancipation of the body and simultaneously that of fashion’s female clientele. More couturières established economic independence within the fashion industry (for instance, Jeanne Lanvin or Jeanne Paquin), and this was reflected in the cultural climate on the whole. An emerging performativity in art (for example, opera and ballet became much more dynamic), and the sense of physical experimentation that pervaded performances by, for example, the Ballets Russes, combined with the abolition of the corset through the commercial adaptation of non-Western costume, freed the body for new movements outside socially prescribed spaces. This led to a rapid succession of art movements that proclaimed the breaking up of corporeality (cubism), its progression in space (futurism), or the construction of a communal body politic (constructivism, Bauhaus)—efforts that were structurally inspired by and became visually reflected in contemporary couture. Fashion presented the body as a fluid concept that could be determined through a sartorial shell, not as mere social agency but as an aesthetic concept. Madeleine Vionnet, for instance, demonstrated how dress shapes the proportion of the body, and Gabrielle Chanel showed how to liberate its posture.
With political mass movements in the years between the wars the uniformity of dress became significant. Politically committed artists used the unifying potential of clothes to demonstrate equality, and nonobjective painting provided, literally, a pattern book for the abstraction in cut and decoration, which dispensed with societal signifiers. Postwar artistic reflections of consumer society and the culture industry caused an ambivalent intimacy between art and fashion, as the former looked at the latter for the expression of codified consumption that was to be critically assessed, while the latter viewed painterly solutions, for example in Pop Art, as affirmation of its structural significance. The art market in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s coined in quick succession a series of artistic styles that resembled seasonal proclamation in couture.
With the creative expansion of ready-to-wear, the need for stylistic inspirations multiplied, and the past and recent history of art was increasingly required to serve as source material. Now, the concept of using the fashion industry not for its structural and procedural differences but employing its tropes directly for the production and representation of art has become widespread. Contemporary art cites fashion not just as an aesthetic model, but also as a field of reference in which the challenges and perils of modern life are glamorously played out. The engagement with fashion in contemporary art is also curatorial, that is, in displaying—often experimental — clothing in museums and galleries, pairing dress and art in exhibitions about material objects or notions of beauty, or using the fashion industry to fund art projects. The curatorial awareness of fashion leads in some cases to the institutional support of collections; for example, the first catwalks of the Dutch duo Viktor and Rolf were made possible only through the support and acquisition policies of the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and the Groninger Museum in Groningen. This implies the positioning of fashion in contemporary culture as one of many interchangeable manifestations, rather than as a structurally distinct medium within a cultural hierarchy. The use of fashion’s material basis (textiles, fabrics) and, significantly, its mode of representation through particular photographs, catwalk performances, and so forth, is used in contemporary art to play along with the late modernist staging of the culture industry.
The production of couture adopted the idea of the independent, subjective artist and developed this stance despite the growing commercial pressure and industrialization of the industry’s progress toward ready-to-wear. In the fashion industry there exists a pronounced dialectic that is expressed in the need for stylistic, some would say artistic, innovation that cannot be catered for by the manufacturing process that had given rise to couture as the basis for the fashion market established in the early twenty-first century. Designers perceive themselves as removed from the production process in auxiliary industries like weaving in a way that is similar to the painter who professes to be removed from the maker of the canvas or paper. Thus, from the birth of haute couture onward, fashion has had to accommodate the problem of relying on a design process that contradicts its procedural basis. This is the reason for the oscillating parameters of art and fashion and for the curious hovering of the latter around the former. The dialectic of fashion found in an individualized creation that exists within mass manufacture (which establishes its social coinage in the first place) was recognized willingly by the art market itself. The dialectic does not necessarily show itself in creation, although there has been, at least since Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, a profusion of objects that covet a “designed” look and that are alienated from the artists through their handing over of the actual production to others (such as craftsmen, designers, studio assistants), but it is evidenced in representation, promotion, and consumption, in which fashion’s principle is increasingly approximated by art in its advertising, gallery openings, growth of multiples, or museum shops, and in the fact that more and more foundations for contemporary art, as well as for music, architecture, and so forth, are now run by fashion companies, who thus embrace the cultural credibility that rests on the consumption of “high” art.
Within the realm of fashion it is at times difficult to separate neatly the production process from reception and consumption because the interrelation of the three segments constitutes its methodological core. Fashion is largely conceived through trend prediction and marketing analyses that attempt to anticipate as correctly as possible its manner and level of consumption. Correspondingly, fashion coverage, even outside identifiable promotional vehicles, reflects directly the interests of the designer or manufacturer. This, of course, appears as very different from artistic creation that might be influenced by demands from gallerists or commissions — increasingly so in late modernism — but still asserts subjectivism to guarantee itself creative autonomy and institutional independence.
The parallel consumption of art (in exhibitions) and fashion (in catwalk shows or shops) comes at the tail end of the change in modernity that moved from acquiring material goods for their functional purpose, through conspicuous consumption, in which objects are bought for their societal significance, to consuming the products as a spectacle, as entertainment within a saturated market. At the beginning art was consumed for “educational” purposes, to instruct the senses in what was understood to be morally just. It celebrated the dominant spirituality of the culture and favorably documented the established political system. Throughout the Enlightenment (as well as comparable tendencies outside occidental culture) the consumption of art began to operate along lines of individualized perception, and the communication of ideal beauty was understood to be based on temporal and spatial aspects and no longer as an unchangeable cogent. With the rise of a middle class that was socially mobile and less culturally dependent on one structure alone, art turned to the reflection and subsequent critique of its consumers. It no longer presented an unobtainable ideal of sentimental or spiritual perfection but introduced the vernacular, the popular, and the visceral into its discourse. The personal worldview of a particular consumer base took over from the universal understanding that had been propagated for the whole of a culture before. Western modernism challenged such particularity by looking again at quasi-scientific inquiries that should establish general principles for the aesthetic and social meaning of art. Yet such “empirical” principles were subject to change with every art movement that was usurping the one before and wiping the sociocultural slate clean for new individualized rules to be inscribed onto it. In the early 2000s, with the tropes of later modernism determining our understanding of art, its consumption has shifted from edification to entertainment.
In contrast, the consumption of fashion originates in the pragmatic triumvirate of protection, modesty, and decoration. Clothes were first acquired for their utilitarian value, providing warmth, pious cover of the body, and adornment. The latter quickly became the ubiquitous signifier of consumption in which social status was shown through the splendor and profusion of fabrics and accessories. However, sartorial aspirations were still constricted by sumptuary laws and customs. No matter how much money the consumer might spend, certain colors or materials remained the proviso of nobility or clergy. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consumption became increasingly conspicuous; that is, fashion was consumed as the most obvious sign of material wealth. More than carriages or town houses, sumptuous garments acted as an immediate signpost of the social position that its wearer desired. Because fashion is a more direct but less expensive manifestation of wealth, compared with architecture or art collections, conspicuous consumption of clothes could be used by the nouveaux riches to present a façade of financial and social success that did not necessarily exist. Unlike art, the consumption of fashion is not based primarily on knowledge or education but functions through visual awareness, a type of sensuality and perception of the corporeal self. Obviously, couture, like fine art, was acquired originally by the most affluent parts of society, but fashion was still comparatively affordable for the aspiring middle classes, even if its constant change meant seasonal outlay rather than a one-off investment in a painting or sculpture.
Art can be consumed through beholding the object in a (more or less) public space without having to purchase it. The subsequent mental consumption, that is, its appreciation, possible interpretation, analysis or debate, occurs within the subjective personal domain. (This is apart from the art “professional” — artist, gallerist, critic, curator, for instance — who has to publicly communicate the result of such consumption.) In a reverse fashion, clothing is consumed by slipping on the dress or jacket and moving from personal confines, such as a changing room or bedroom, into a public space that is the shop, workplace, or social gathering. Modern media allows individuals to increasingly consume art in the privacy of their own homes. Concerts recorded on CD, films on DVD, and virtual museums on the Internet remove the necessity to withdraw from public space into one’s own imagination. However, the principle of moving from the public to the private in art, and conversely from the private to the public in fashion, still separates the two fields. To consume clothes conspicuously and to consume art self-effacingly show a divide between materialist objective and subjective contemplation. Here, fashion’s ontology marks it out as a public commodity, despite its very proximity to the individual, while the work of art ambiguously remains a more distant ideal (socially as well as physically) that is integrated into a wider cultural discourse and cannot readily be appropriated for personal consumption.
Consumption in the culture industry habitually operated between the poles of ephemeral following of fashion and the establishment of permanent structures in art. The distinction between understanding an object as “consumable,” accepting its limited life span as characteristic, and the understanding object as a document or illustration of such consumption, separates fashion from art. When an object has become accepted as fashion it immediately ceases to exist. As sociologist Georg Simmel postulated at the beginning of the last century, fashion dies at the very moment it comes into being, in the instance when the cut of a dress or the shape of a coat is accepted into the cultural mainstream. In order to guarantee its survival in commodity culture, fashion has to constantly reinvent itself and proclaim a new style that supplants the previous one. Modern art, in contrast, is seen to come into being only when its progressive shapes are canonized. Even in its most fugitive performance it always claims its right to lasting values—whereas clothes cannot mean to be permanent; otherwise parts of the textile and fashion industries would have to cease production. The dialectic (not binary pairing) of ephemerality and permanence shape the respective reception of modern art and modern fashion. Art has to remain mobile to reflect and interpret the ever-increasing speed of changes in modernity, yet it must appear permanent, lest it would be regarded as insubstantial. Fashion intends to be lasting—the greatest achievement of a designer is to create a “classic”— in order to be accepted as a substantial cultural fact, yet simultaneously needs to be ephemeral for immanent material as well as conceptual reasons.
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