One of the more hotly debated questions in the art world is whether fashion is an art form. It often surfaces when a museum mounts a major exhibit of the work of a particular designer, era or subject. Opinions are hotly held on both sides of the matter.
Last year the Dallas Museum of Art hosted an extensive retrospective of the work of French designer Jean Paul Gautier. In 2011, an Alexander McQueen exhibition turned out to be one of the ten most well attended shows in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This week at the Metropolitan, an exhibit opens called “Punk: Chaos to Couture” which examines the fashion and style of the punk rock era. Few people will question the suitability of having clothing — say, the uniform of a Revolutionary War soldier — in a history museum. But do such things belong in an art museum? Are they really art?
The answer is a resounding “Yes,” and all it takes is a slight adjustment of perspective to appreciate it. About McQueen’s work, for example, the Met’s press release explained that his “iconic designs constitute the work of an artist whose medium of expression was fashion.”
That is the key: The designer is an artist and the medium in which he or she works is clothing, just as the painter works out his vision on canvas, the sculptor in metal or marble, or the composer through musical notes.
The skills involved are similar. For starters, a fashion designer has to be able to draw, and most are very skilled in this regard. Like all other artists, he has to begin by translating an idea into something visible. In that way, a fashion designer’s task is the same as that which faced Picasso — how does one take an idea of an image and make it material?
My wife Dr. Lorynn Divita, an associate professor of apparel merchandising at Baylor, last week staged the annual fashion show for design students in her department. She explains that like other art, “fashion design uses the principles of line, color, shape, form, and texture.”
But, she notes, there’s “the added challenge of having to include a space for a head, two arms and two legs; for a wearer to move, sit and be comfortable.” Picasso certainly never had to worry about the comfort of his cubist women.
One often groups Picasso, Mondrian, Rothko and Matisse together as painters whose work makes an immediate visual impact. Not just because of their revolutionary formal approach, but because of the way in which color — and fields of color — work within the limited medium in which they operate. Not coincidentally, these are some of the painters most often quoted by fashion designers. (The Mondrian dress is perhaps the most obvious example but there are countless others)
It’s also no coincidence that artists like Picasso and Matisse, along with intensely colorful painters like Natalia Goncharova and André Derain, designed costumes for the dancers of the groundbreaking and controversial Ballets Russes in the 1920s. In 2010, many of their ballet costumes were part of a big exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum that then traveled the world to rave reviews.
In large part it’s the ubiquity and utilitarian nature of clothing that often works against our seeing high fashion as art. But it’s precisely the identity as art that sets some expressions of fashion apart from the everyday manifestations of jeans and T-shirts, in the very same way that, in the hand of a master, a mere picture becomes a work of art.
David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.