Art, Identity, Migration
Whether fashion will ever be considered art is impossible to say, however, it is undeniable that there are strong crossovers: simply put, couture has permeated art.
Fashion is no longer restricted to shop fronts and catwalks, but instead it is allowed a place in spaces traditionally reserved for ‘art’. Fashion’s claim is not unfounded either: it is aesthetically evocative and reflective of its time, with the inherent tensions between aesthetic value and functionality further endorsing its artistic potential.
Exhibitions like the V&A’s Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s disclose fashion’s ability to mirror habits and tastes and reveal an aptitude for expressing concepts that are not precisely fashion-orientated. In this exhibition there is a direct connection made between the burgeoning 80s London Club culture and fashion – some ‘outfits’ resemble an installation piece as opposed to a functional item of clothing. A sense of theatricality radiates from these flamboyant outfits: they become cathartic effigies of culture – and surely, in their own way, art. Lady Gaga is a contemporary example of this. Her elaborate outfits are statement ‘pieces’, such as her latest creation: Volantis. How and where do we draw the line between considering this art or merely clothing when it functions as both?
Flicking through a publication like Vanity Fair it would be permissible to mistake the fashion spread for a work of art – especially when concept, beauty and narrative are abundant. Take for example Robert Mapplethorpe: Fashion show, a recent exhibit at the Alison Jacques Gallery. This show recalls the artist’s fashion collaborations alongside snaps from his life. These ‘fashion’ photos, created for French and Italian Vogue, show Mapplethorpe’s appreciation for geometric framing through the body, they defy racial conventions in style, and align accessories with fetish: they are essentially fashion photos, intended to sell fashion, and yet they are also art.
Fashion has always been a silent presence in art, even if just a signifier; an individual is made recognisable as anything from the working class to the bourgeoisie according to what they are depicted wearing. Let us consider the art of Chaim Soutine. He painted figures in the attire of their trade, thus, the sitter is given a social context. Combined with the artist’s expressionist manner their personalities are granted a rounded representation.
Browsing Ben Uri’s online collection I discovered Maternal Torah – Torat Imecha, 2008, by Jacqueline Nicholls, which I propose is an example of art represented in fashion. Nicholls appropriates a recognisable clothing item: she fuses elements of a traditional cover for the sefer torah (Jewish scrolls of the law, read in the synagogue service) with a woman’s corset. In this way the connotations implied by the corset add intrinsic meanings that transcend its functionality. She explains that the Torah is traditionally considered a feminine object and thus:
‘The corset seems to be a perfect metaphor for Torah, and halacha (Jewish Law) – it gives shape, support, constrains and eroticises.’
Torat Imecha, on the other hand, refers to a proverb that reminds children to listen to their father’s instructions, but not forget their mother’s Torah. The union between meaning and materiality enables Nicholls to dissect cultural rites through a familiar garment and amplify theoretical associations. Maternal Torah was part of the exhibition Schmatte Couture,2008, presented by the Ben Uri Gallery, and curated by artist Sarah Lightman. As an exhibition it conceptually critiqued clothing through art and vice versa, toying with the cultural resonance of both art and fashion and clothing’s ability to document and educate people about societies and their histories.
Rage, 2008, by Sophie Robertson, also featured in Schmatte Couture, further considers society through fashion. Rage is a ‘toilette’ scene presenting us with a young woman in a state of undress, anger contorts her face, connected, perhaps, to the garment that she is fruitlessly struggling with. Given the context one cannot overlook the link between clothing and femininity and ultimately the constraints that fashion – implemented by society – has placed upon ‘woman’. Roberta Weinstein, in her Fantasmaseries, uses clothing to explore childhood and ‘ghosts’, thus attributing to the humble dress the ability to stir up both emotion and the past. Fashion is not merely a device of modesty or practicality (any hope of that was buried when the Stiletto came to prominence). Fashion is loaded with meaning and as a result it has the capacity to transcend the aesthetic, to induce feeling and thought in the individual, and, most importantly, critically consider society.
While fashion can be viewed as an emblem of social standing, tied to consumerism and vanity, perhaps it’s time we allowed fashion to shed this cultural stigma. Just maybe we can appreciate the linear journey through history that fashion has taken and that it reflects: we might even agree with Coco Channel that:
‘Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.’
Perhaps we might conclude that, wild and imaginative, it has the power to help us see the world anew, bears cultural relevance, and if Sarah Lucas’s fried eggs on a toilet seat can find a place in art then why shouldn’t the sleek silhouettes of Jean Paul Gaultier (The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk will show at the Barbican from 9th April 2014 – 17th August 2014)?
By Marie Cahalane