Fashion and Art

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

What can we learn about art from fashion? At their worst, fashion and art are regarded as superficial, driven by money, vanity and social pressures. Both are elitist, excessive and subject to continual change. On the other hand, both can be fun and creative, adding pleasure and meaning to everyday things.

Fashion may be easier to define than art. Fashion has a practical side and a psychological side. People wear clothes appropriate to changing seasons, weather, social rituals and other conditions. People also wear clothes for show. If you want to attract attention, imagination counts. Clothes are not fixed items. They express personality, social conformity, daring, and individuality. Clothes can be appropriate or inappropriate for the time and place in which they appear. Make a mistake and you might appear ridiculous. Or inspired.

From Mondrian to Michael Jackson, designers take inspiration from art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

From Mondrian to Michael Jackson, designers take inspiration from art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

Clothes that stand still too long can make those who wear them seem hopelessly dated, out of touch with the changing times. Clothes are subject to trends, as are people. There can be no question about this: clothes get people talking. People are judged, fairly or not, on what they wear and how they wear it.

Woman with Jackson Pollock Painting

A model poses before a Jackson Pollock painting for a 1951 Vogue story.

Fashion is all about context and so is art. Jackson Pollock’s paintings made marvellous backdrops for models in the 1950s. The model above looks like she’s entered the dream world of the painting. Today’s art is all about immersion and altering environments.

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform our experience of space. 'Virtuality squared' 2014

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform experience. ‘Virtuality squared’ 2014

We connect clothes with concepts of style, taste and coolness. These are things we admire and want to emulate. Being comfortable in your own skin. Feeling at home wherever you go, operating easily with the world around you, knowing what you can get away with.

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

I draw and paint pictures to relieve tension, to amuse myself, to try to make sense of the world. The tension around clothes and social events can be disconcerting at times. My wife and I discuss wardrobes for an upcoming wedding. Should we spend hundreds of dollars on a suit or dress that will only be worn once? I dig out old clothes, try on new clothes, send pants to the tailor for adjustments. Then I paint a picture of Kathleen and myself in evening wear, bodies fused together, glamorous mannequins, more than a little absurd.

Fashion demands consensus, as does art. Some styles are too outrageous or too impractical for mainstream tastes. Street fashions fight back with unpredictable results.

The one thing artists cannot control is what people will connect with, talk about and share with others. Through art and clothes we participate in a world of change and, by participating, we influence the direction of that change.

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

 

If you’re interested in theories of fashion, the site “love to know” offers a nice overview.

Alexander McQueen: Fashion Rebel

Model Natalia Vodianova in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen's 2003 Spring:Summer collection 'Irere.' Photo by Peter Lindbergh

Model Natalia Vodianova poses in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen’s 2003 Spring:Summer collection ‘Irere.’ Photo by Peter Lindbergh

I recently came across the excellent bio, Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy by Judith Watt, Harper 2012. McQueen (1969-2010) was a fashion god who jettisoned clothing into an age of everyday spectacle and jarring culture clash. McQueen’s runway shows were multi-media extravaganzas that dumbfounded critics and electrified the fashion world. Watt’s biography succinctly overviews the designer’s various collections, interspersed with memories from colleagues and friends. I was struck by the range of McQueen’s inspirations, from punk rock to science fiction, from London’s gay club culture to Scottish history, from the popular mythology of Jack the Ripper to the heroics of Joan of Arc, from the horror films of Kubrick to the romantic films of Hitchcock, from installation art to the paintings of Goya, Bosch and Van Eyck, from modern materials to the natural forms and patterns of birds, butterflies, flowers, snakes, seaweed, moss and ice.

Plastic and LED. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

Low tech, high tech. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

In his early shows, when McQueen had little money for materials, he cut clothes out of clear plastic bags, sewing the pieces in layers and placing red mud and water between the layers to give a look of splattered blood and flesh. While the plastic revealed the models’ bodies, the mud obscured areas, adding a sense of trauma and mysterious inner life. In his rebellion from the norm, McQueen combined ripped clothes and tailored suits, elongated the torso and created strange cocoon-shaped silhouettes. He experimented with unusual materials such as cigarette butts in place of sequins, and had princess dresses splattered on stage with robotic paint machines. Later works featured stuffed birds in head-dresses, parachute capes billowing behind models in elevated wind tunnels, plaster-coated corsets, body armour and Armadillo shoes. Even the Alexander McQueen label attached to clothes was unusual, featuring a lock of hair encased in plastic.

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

His collections often had a narrative element. He turned runways into winter landscapes, dance marathons and glassed-in mental asylums. “Irene,” Spring/ Summer 2003, started with a film clip of a shipwrecked woman. She washes ashore in a spectacular oyster dress, setting off encounters with natives of South America, models adorned with red and white face paint, gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors in tight fitting leather body suits, and clothes saturated with the colours of the Amazon rain forest. “Plato’s Atlantis” imagines the aftermath of global warming, with humans evolving into semi-aquatic creatures to adopt to a new water-based world.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen's "jellyfish dress" from Plato's Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wearing a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from :The Girl who Lived in the Tree" collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen’s “jellyfish dress” from Plato’s Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wears a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from “The Girl who Lived in the Tree” collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

 

The site AnOther posts an interview with Andrew Bolton, curator of “Savage Beauty” at the Met, 2011. Bolton explains the title of his McQueen retrospective: “Originally the idea came from a book called The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss, in which he describes two different types of people: ‘the bricoleur’ who is a jack-of-all-trades and ‘the engineer’ who is an artist. I thought both identities tally with McQueen. He looked everywhere for his inspirations and in that sense he was a bricoleur; but he was also a wonderful artist who had a great sense of virtuosity and incredible conceptual complexity, which was shown through his runway presentations. McQueen merged those two identities and that is where the title comes from. Also, in most of McQueen’s collections there were these dichotomies, whether it was to do with beauty and terror, lightness and darkness or life and death. The title is also a play on these contrasts.”

McQueen at work during his Givenchy years, 1996-2001

McQueen at work during his Givenchy years, 1996-2001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also recommend the film McQueen and I. Though it’s a rather sad story of the friendship between McQueen and fashion editor Isabella Blow, the documentary offers insights from collaborators and features clips of several shows that hint at McQueen’s unique vision and compelling sense of theatre.

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, "Bellmer la Poupée," SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, "Irere," SS 2003

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, “Bellmer la Poupée,” SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, “Irere,” SS 2003