High Fashion: Wearable Art or Just Art?

Share Button
Original ensemble by Jean Yu. Photograph of ensemble by Mete Ozeren. Image courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York

Original ensemble by Jean Yu.
Photograph of ensemble by Mete Ozeren. Image courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York, used with permission, all rights reserved.

A chiffon dress featuring broom bristles (from a real broom) or an off-the-shoulder crochet dress featuring triangles and dots like a geometric design; do we call it high fashion – or art? A group of New York fashion designers takes a sculptural approach to clothing and creates wearable creations that are sometimes impractical to wear. But can clothes be art?

According to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, “Fashion has always found inspiration in unpredictable sources: art, life, history–there are no boundaries.” Indeed, one can also say that since designers create fashion as well as design it, fashion is art in and of itself – even without other art media as its inspiration.

Taking this into consideration, the American Folk Art Museum challenged thirteen well-known fashion designers to seek inspiration from other arts, particularly the art collection at the American Folk Art Museum, to create fashionable works of art.

Fashion as Wearable Art

Designers typically design wearable art, resulting in creative endeavours that imply a unique and very serious artistic statement, for people to wear as clothing or jewellery. The medium of expression in wearable art, or artwear, remains unlimited. It doesn’t matter if the fashion design is woven, crocheted, bejewelled, feathered, dyed, painted, or simply sewn; it’s the fusion of the end product with the human body that makes the artistic statement. Wearable art is incomplete until someone actually wears it, or hangs it on a hanger or dressmakers’ body form for admiration and interpretation.

The origin of wearable art is debatable. Some historians claim that it started in the 1960s with the growing pop culture of that era. Others claim it started in the 1920s and 1930s with artistic jewellery designs. But perhaps wearable art began during the beginning of fashion. The early Egyptian rulers donned gold embellished garments; monarchs throughout the centuries wore elaborate robes and jewels and crowns. They wore these creations with great reverence as they created a statement about the person who wore the outfit – as well as his or her power and importance.

Wearable Art Awards

When Julie Schafler Dale published her book, Art to Wear in 1992, wearable art had already defined its place in society. Then, the art world and the fashion world started to take this collaboration of creativity a little more seriously. Fashion experts established awards and exhibitions to recognize new and upcoming talent in the venue of wearable art. The Port Moody Arts Centre Society in Port Moody, British Columbia, points out that it established its annual Wearable Art Awards in 2002 to encourage “local, Canadian and international artists of all mediums to submit evocative, imaginative, and thought-provoking creations for the human body.”

Minimalism in Art and Fashion

Korean-born fashion designer, Jean Yu, is a minimalist artist. She normally works with delicate silks and organza, to create folded and draped lingerie and dresses. Asked to participate in the American Folk Art Museum exhibition which opens January 21st, Yu sought inspiration in David Alvarez’s wooden porcupine figurine found in the museum’s collection.

Porcupine David Alvarez (b. 1953) Santa Fe, New Mexico c. 1981 Paint on cottonwood with straw, marbles, and plastic 19 x 13 x 35" Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Elizabeth Wecter, 1985.20.4 Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York

Porcupine: David Alvarez (b. 1953) Santa Fe, New Mexico c. 1981 Paint on cottonwood with straw, marbles, and plastic 19 x 13 x 35″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Elizabeth Wecter, 1985.20.4
Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Alvarez’s porcupine demanded something prickly, so Yu ripped apart an ordinary broom, using the bristles to emulate the porcupine’s quills. Yu commented to Lamar Anderson of the American Folk Art Museum on her impression of the bristles when she ripped apart the broom. It “opened up and spread out into this beautiful globe.”

She designed a black chiffon minidress and fastened the straw broom bristles on one shoulder of the dress, the bristles fanning out like a spray of prickliness, much like the prickly porcupine quills.

Fashion and Art

Fashion and art, are they one and the same? Does not fashion express a statement about culture using particular media to emphasize its point? While some artists manipulate clothing as an artistic medium, others use fashion designs to create an effect, to make a visual impression, to stand out and to be reflective.

Alexis Carreňo has been studying the relationships between fashion and art, and there are a lot of similarities, as well as differences. His ultimate work is a PhD thesis on art and fashion, but currently he is the guest curator of the new exhibition Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art, which is showing at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. I had the privilege of interviewing Alexis about his studies and about this exhibit.

EJHO: The press release reads: “Fashion is cannibalistic. In its attempt to capture the essence of the present—a moment in permanent flux—fashion steals images and concepts from a varied range of disciplines: psychoanalysis, cinema, literature, music, mass media, politics—and art.” Perhaps you could explain this abstract concept.

AC: I like to think of fashion as a creature that “devours” images and concepts from everywhere to embody the sense of newness, modernity and change in contemporary culture.

EJHO: Does fashion really relate to the other fine arts? It is created, it is unique, it uses different materials (media), it defines the person who ultimately showcases the finished product. But is it art? Or, is it art only if the artist, in this case the fashion designer, says that it’s art?

AC: Fashion is a medium that has its own discourse (history of fashion) timing (i.e. fashion weeks), forms of presentations (live models, runway show) and a place of interchange (market, stores, advertisement, magazines). Fashion is in the process of being recognized by cultural institutions. This is not happening because fashion is similar to fine arts. Rather, fashion is being recognized because it is in itself a cultural and aesthetic phenomenon worth of analysis and preservation. There is something unique about fashion that cannot be communicated through any other artistic medium. Any analysis of contemporary society must include fashion as part of it. Otherwise, it would be incomplete.

EJHO: The press release also states: “Fashion, unlike art, is a field framed by many restrictions.” Cannot all forms of fine art be considered “framed by restrictions”? There is the frame in which a painting hangs (or doesn’t hang), the implication of a required title (or non-title) to define (or merely identify) the work, the space (gallery space) in which it eventually hangs, the pre-conceived notions and biases of the viewing public … and the list goes on. How is the creative form of fashion so different in its restrictions?

AC: Fashion is a creative endeavor with a business side. The restrictions in the fashion system have to do with market and costumers. Designers working in mainstream fashion have to create wearable clothes. Many innovative fashions are finally rejected because they cannot be sold or are too expensive to be produced. The balance between experimentation and commercial success in fashion is rare. Comme de Garçon is a great example to illustrate this point. Rei Kawakubo creates experimental garments with great economic success.

EJHO: The exhibition seems to place fashion in the category of folk art. Is it just folk art? Or is it comparable to the ‘fine art’ works of other contemporary artists? Franc Fernandez, a fashion designer, designed Lady Gaga’s controversial meat dress. Jan Sterbak, a visual artist, created “Flesh Dress for An Albino Anorectic”. How do either of these works compare (or differ) from the works in this exhibit?

AC: No, we are not placing fashion in the category of folk art. We are asking what happened when fashion is placed in a conversation with folk art. Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic is an ensemble created by an artist. In this case, Sterbak used the language of fashion to make an artwork. Folk Couture doesn’t address the topic of artists creating fashion. We explored the topic of fashion designers using folk art as a source of inspiration to create a new garment.

Lady Gaga’s meat dress can be considered an appropriation of Sterbak’s dress. Gaga used an artistic strategy to draw the attention of the mass media. She also wanted to make a political statement with the dress. I don’t think any of the dresses in Folk Couture are trying to provoke extreme reactions in the viewers or make a political statement. The ensembles included in Folk Couture are meant to start a conversation about art, fashion, inspiration, and creative process.

Interestingly, there are many examples of the use of quilting techniques in fashion history that are associated in the public imagination with folk art. However, there many expressions of folk art created by both early American folk artisans and contemporary self-taught artists that are far less explored by fashion designers. The garments created for Folk Couture reveal this diversity of expressions.

EJHO: In this exhibit, you have challenged several designers to explore their own creative process, to study the art works in the collection of the American Folk Museum, and to create an expression that compares to one of these works. How did you come up with this idea in the first place? And, how did these designers respond to your concept?

AC: The idea came from the museum’s board of trustees. They commissioned me to select and invite fashion designers who would be interested in the project. I worked in the selection of designers with Dr. Valerie Steele, the director of the museum at FIT. We chose designers who either have referenced art in their collections or created edgy/experimental garments. The designers’ responses to this project varied from cerebral to emotional. In some cases, the designers created garments that are extensions of their own particular aesthetics and philosophies. Others designers took risks and presented clothing that they would not include in their collections.

EJHO: How does fashion design become a creation predominantly worn by women? Are any of the finished designs in this exhibit created exclusively for the male body?

AC: Fashion is prominently associated with women and gay men, because fashion is linked to superficiality, seduction and femininity in Western Culture. The exhibition A Queer history of fashion: from the closet to the catwalk (Fashion Institute of Technology) explored the fascinating relationship between fashion and gender, from the perspective of the LGBTQ community. Women’s clothes are more fanciful, and experimental than men’s fashions. Women are allowed to play with identity roles through fashion and explore the eroticism of clothes. Yet this is changing. Some designers are challenging conventions with new silhouettes and colors for men. I truly believe that the future of fashion is in men’s wear. 

Inspired Art & Couture

In this exhibit, fashion designers sought different inspirational elements in the museum’s art collection. From dots and triangles and patterns of angular cut-outs to “unwearable” fashion made of fragile materials, the designers expect that the exhibit will definitely challenge the viewer to look at the world of high fashion and wearable art in a totally new perspective.

Decoded Arts thanks Alexis Carreňo for taking the time to discuss this exhibit!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *