It’s art, but is it fashion? It’s fashion, but is it art? A perplexing question if ever there was one, and one that seems to provoke as much debate as the chicken and egg conundrum. It’s not that one is more important than the other; it is the differences that ensure the two are forever intertwined. Fashion, and clothes are made a practical reason, and whilst they can be considered an accurate historical reference, a reflection of cultural shifts, that fact will always remain. Art wants to be cool, just like fashion, whilst fashion wants be taken seriously, just like art- a paradox if ever there was one.
Fashion designers have been borrowing from art since Charles Frederick Worth ‘the father of haute couture’ visited the National Portrait Gallery in the mid 1800’s and the historic portraits provided inspiration for his later designs. More obvious examples include Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 Mondrian inspired shift dress- the flat planes were the ideal surface for some dramatic colour blocking, and Giovanni Versace’s plundering of just about anything- from Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe print to Byzantine motifs...these examples are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Similarly artists have collaborated with brands, resulting in a new version of a celebrity designer. The irreverent wit and subtle humour of artists, including Tracey Emin (for Longchamp) and the East London art collective FRED (for Mulberry), are however frequently eclipsed by visionary fashion designers, whose clothes are dictated by intellectual design principles. Hussein Chalayan is perhaps the consummate example of this inclination- his SS2000 ‘Airplane’ dress was made from fibreglass and resin, and featured side and rear flaps that when opened via remote control, opened to reveal frothy pink tulle. Describing his designs as ‘monuments’- monuments to ideas- Chalayan successfully combines perfection and creativity with unwearability.
Recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Design Museum, Chalayn’s place as a Master of Ideas seems assured. But not too long ago, in 2003, just as Zandra Rhodes was opening her Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, Alice Rawsthorn (at the time director of the Design Museum) observed ‘fashion has a practical purpose…the result may be as gorgeous as a vintage Balenciaga ballgown…but it is still an item of clothing intended to be worn. Why pretend that it is anything else?’
Despite this view, and perhaps inspired by the unprecedented success of ‘Mario Testino: Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery in 2002, the Design Museum staged at retrospective of Manolo Blahnik- who was already a household name thanks to his role in Sex and The City. Despite scepticism from the director the exhibition proved to be another crowd pleaser, and was swiftly followed by the ‘Art and Craft of Giovanni Versace’ at the V&A, and, most surprisingly of all, Giorgio Armani at the Royal Academy- an establishment usually concerned with fine art, rather than dresses.
Fashion photography has enjoyed a similar renaissance- once regarded as little more than a poor relation to documentary photography, or revered only for its Masters- Irving Penn, Helmut Newton- it is now regarded as one of the most accessible forms of contemporary art. ‘In Fashion Photo’ formed a central component to last years Art Basel Miami, and the boldly colourful and hyper-real images, from photographers including Miles Aldridge- were some of the most popular photos on display.
Fashion and art seem to step into the others territories to frequently to recall, and it is testament to fashions’ ability to constantly reinvent itself that the genres remain distinct. But where to next? Nick Knight’s
SHOWstudio successfully combines both art and fashion, merging the two disciplines to create something unique that plays to the strengths of both. His most recent films for Gareth Pugh are visually stunning; yet demonstrate the power of the Pugh’s unique designs. Fashion film, embraced as the ‘next thing’ by brands and advertisers is still very much in its infancy. Quite what this means for fashion is unclear. Has it been accepted as an art form, or is it still regarded by many as nothing more than a popular applied art?