Relationship Between Fashion and Art?

Relationship Between Fashion and Art?

Written By Adam Geczy

It doesn't take much to see that the line between fashion and art has rapidly begun to collapse in the last two decades. Fashion has made its way into prominent museums, and artists are being enlisted into high-profile fashion houses. But this has not always been the case. Art has long been touted as superior to fashion. Art is serious, fashion is frivolous. What is the history of the at times agonistic relationship between art and fashion?

History and Significance

Fashion’s relationship with art is closely bound with the beginning of the ‘fashion system’ in the late eighteenth century, that is, in the transition from clothing and dress to fashion as a social and economic modulator of class and taste.

The ties between fashion and art are close but are nonetheless fraught. They are discussed more in fashion circles than by critics and historians of art, for whom it is a common blind-spot.

The ties between fashion and art are close but are nonetheless fraught. They are discussed more in fashion circles than by critics and historians of art, for whom it is a common blind-spot.

This has resulted in the recent need to make three subtle distinctions in terminology. The first is fashionable art. This is a direct product of globalization. Curators and collectors seek the illusion of cohesion and drum up desirability in an art market whose diversity is too complex to ascribe a tenable set of values.

The second is art and fashion, in which objects of fashion vie for, or achieve, the status of works of art. Finally, there is fashion and art, which discusses the many cross-overs between the two fields.

It is the last two terms that concern us here. Contemporary debates, mainly by fashion theorists, tend to eschew a tone that attempts to plead a higher art-like status for particular items of fashion. Rather it is taken as a given, albeit contested.

Fashion and art occupy different territories and are different kinds of industries with their respective economic flows. However, within the traditional art historical discourse that grew out of the end of the nineteenth century, to discuss fashion was undesirable or not a matter of concern. Fashion was considered 'feminine' in a negative sense: fickle and vain. Even today, 'fashionable' can be used in a negative sense where art is not.

Developments in fashion itself and the growth of the relatively new discipline of fashion theory in the last few decades has reoriented this stance dramatically.

Since the Renaissance, which in art and culture is the beginning in the West of personal agency, invention, and authorship, artists played an important role in other fields that were only then designated as anterior to fine arts.

Being active in pageants and diversions was also a useful way of gaining favour with patrons, leading to prestigious commissions. Leonardo da Vinci made set designs for François I, and Paulo Veronese, who showed as much interest in physical theatre as theatre in his painting, designed the costumes for Sophocles' Oedipus Rex—the first staging of the play since antiquity—for the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, which was designed by Palladio.

Veronese, who was also known for his flamboyant clothes, was far from an exception: his contemporaries in Venice, the portal for the trade of rich fabrics and spices with the East, such as Titian, Jacopo Bassano, and Giovanni Bellini, were adept at the representation of sumptuous clothing. The modern restaurant Harry's Bar in Venice named the dish of raw meat, the Carpaccio, after the vivid reds in the fabrics represented in his St Ursula Cycle held at the Accademia.

While we must not forget the numerous clothing designs that the painter of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David, did for official revolutionary costume, the major watershed in the art-fashion mix arrives in the birth of haute couture itself, in the figure of Charles Frederick Worth.

Charles Frederick Worth

Before Worth, fashion was mostly a matter of instructing a seamstress or couriers in what one wanted, guided by images in the feuilletons and affiches, the early examples of fashion publications, which had begun to be widely circulated by the mid-eighteenth century.

Notably, Worth attached ‘haute’ to ‘couture’ in measure with ‘fine’ art (or beaux-arts in French), to distinguish it from ‘lower’ forms, from illustration to gastronomy.

Worth was partly taking his cue from possibly the first celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, who ushered in the notion of haute cuisine that began in the Napoleonic era.

Worth dignified himself as the equivalent of an artist with the adjective' high', ensuring that his garments be known as his 'creations'. Worth received full ratification when he became regularly patronized by the Empress Eugénie, not long after establishing his house in 1858. He was asked—commissioned as we may say for artists and architects—to ‘create’ dresses for some of the most famous beauties and noblewomen of the day.

Fashion may be accused of evanescence—of passing as soon as it appears—but Worth's creations were preserved in time thanks mainly to the German painter Franz-Xaver Winterhalter, a court painter to Napoleon III.

Winterhalter was a consummate technician, excelling in texture, particularly the diaphanous laces and rich silks that Worth used to flatter his clients, such that his larger paintings with more than one female sitter can be an overwhelming riot of texture.

Worth and Winterhalter's de facto collaboration was also tempered because they were both keen plunderers from art history. Before Worth, art appreciation has been left to specialists, and art historical references were arcane to the uninitiated.

It was Worth who brought a welter of art historical references into the home, popularizing the work of artists from Gainsborough to van Dyck to Vigée-Lebrun, from whom he obtained his inspiration.

Equally, Winterhalter drew liberally from these painters and artists such as Watteau, Titian, and Raphael.

Hence Worth’s dresses, citing painting, were then painted with reference to still more paintings, begetting a room of mirrors that also forms a useful model for thinking about how fashion is represented, which is to use an intricate and array of sources, overt or latent.

In the case of Worth and Winterhalter, the density of quotations from great painters of the past did not necessarily make for great art, however. Still, the example does serve to highlight the way fashion was embedded in art from its beginnings.

Artists of both the upper and middle rung would continue their fascination with fashion, which has been the subject of some large exhibitions in recent time (such as the one staged by the Musée D’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012-2013).

Just before fashion made its rise to the ranks of art, the most radical artists of the day became of the day such as Gustave Courbet, became preoccupied with representing workers. In contrast, others turned to themselves as a work of art commensurate with their creative works.

The Dandy and the Living Work of Art

Charles Baudelaire and his contemporary Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly were among the first to commit serious attention to the notion of the dandy, which culminated in the latter’s first substantive study, Du Dandysme et de George Brummel (1845). Both gallingly and intriguingly, Barbey states at the outset that the dandy elides description.

But the focus on the figure of Beau Brummel, a former friend of the Prince Regent George IV, served to make the point that the dandy was himself the work of art: clothing, speech, poise, and pose were a winning aggregate that turned an individual into a character that was noticeably performing at self.

Here appearances were all: fashion was seamless with bodily movements and locations. Dandies embodied the combination of attractiveness and indecipherability similar to that of an enticing work of art.

The dandy would continue to have favourable currency for artists to the present day, from Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol. Warhol had a sizeable and manifold role to play in moderation between the art and fashion industries (also exposing the art market's leaning to fashionability) of art and fashion and was the greatest dandy of the postwar era. This artist performed at being the artist.

Representations of Fashion in Art

Now to return to the representation of fashion in art. Before fashion photography, the primary way of circulating fashion ideas was through drawings, which were assisted by notable artists such as Léon Bakst, Georges Lepape, Paul Iribe, and Alphonse Mucha. Paul Poiret maintained a close relationship with the avant-garde artists of his day, as did Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, many of whose designs were strongly influenced by Surrealist and avant-garde styles ranging from Salvador Dalì to Jean Cocteau.

These garments were photographed rather than reproduced by illustration, making them look too eccentric since it was from art that the ideas had germinated; it made no sense to translate them back again.

Early Fashion Photography

The early days of fashion photography were relatively stark; the fashion shoot as we know it only arrived in 1912 at Lucien Vogel's initiation, editor of both the Gazette du Bon Ton and Jardin des Modes.

Executed for the latest collection by Paul Poiret, the photographer was Edward Steichen, a Luxembourg born artist who had had a close association with Alfred Stieglitz and his publication Camera Work (1903-1917), the first severe and concerted venture to defend photography as a legitimate art form.

Steichen was a highly proficient draftsman and painter before turning to photography at around twenty, where he proved equally proficient in pictorialism.

This background in art proved to be enormously appropriate to the task of the first fashion shoot, where the figures (mannequins) were placed within dreamy settings. Indeed if the birth of the first fashion shoot seems sudden and lucky, a glance at Steichen's earlier photography makes the progression seem more predictable.

His photographic landscapes have a subdued, atmospheric quality evocative of the work of artists of the Barbizon School such as Daubigny and Corot and the elegantly abstracted, stylized moodiness of the landscapes of Whistler and Klimt.

Before he devoted himself almost solely to photography, the paintings of his twenties reveal a persistence with contemplative landscapes and portraits with mysterious chiaroscuro (the use of dramatic light and shade) effects.

It was the feeling of mystery that he ably infused into his early fashion scenes, heightening the ‘Oriental’ allure of Poiret’s designs.

Steichen was easily able to convey a sense of a setting and meld the models seamlessly with their environments, creating an all-pervading mood and ‘look’.

Despite Steichen’s avowed indifference to photography as an art form when he assumed the head curatorship of MoMA in 1947, some of the biggest influences on art photography is fashion and commercial photography.

But again, there was always an area of substantial overlap. For example, one of Man Ray's most famous images, Noir et Blanche—a Brancusi-like face of a woman rests on a table while she holds up a dark African mask—first appeared in Paris Vogue in 1926. Out of interest and for money, Man Ray never severed his ties with the commercial world.

Photography Toward the Present Day

Horst P. Horst (known just as Horst), himself also a friend of many Surrealists and deeply influenced by them, was also the single most significant influence on Robert Mapplethorpe.

Richard Avedon, who the art world would like posthumously to claim for themselves—his restate is represented by the world’s biggest (meaning the confluence of prestige and profitability) commercial gallery, Gagosian—was rooted deeply in the fashion world.

Indeed, his output for commercial purposes far outweighs the production intended for more artistic pretensions. His contemporary who also altered the course of fashion and celebrity photography, Irving Penn, would also make forays into art photography, although the latter had a far more contrived quality.

And Helmut Newton, whose influence on art photography as well as a variety of filmic forms has been inestimable, stipulated that he was never an artist.

The Interests of The Avant-Garde in Clothing and Costume

When it came to the artistic avant-garde's interest in clothing and costume, there is no shortage of examples. From the end of the nineteenth-century, it became discernible that artists were experimenting with alternative forms of clothing, not only as a means of mobile, wearable expression, but also as a counter to a commercial market's interests inexorably on the rise.

Artists from Van de Velde to Klimt designed their own clothing to distinguish themselves as creative sensibilities. Klimt himself posed for many photographs wearing his flowing monastic gown complete with embroidered decorative lapels of Byzantine taste.

The Russian Constructivists such as Rodchenko designed their own Constructivist clothing, while Sonia Delaunay sympathetically translated her own abstract Orphist fantasies into textiles and clothing. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, whose life spanned from 1909 to 1929, attracted some of the finest artists of its day, the most prominent of all being the rivals Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse., but also included Joaàn Mirò, André Derain and Georges Rouault. Coco Chanel was also a designer.

The Mondrian Dress

Perhaps the most citable event in the years after the Second World War is the Mondrian dress launched by Yves Saint Laurent for his autumn collection in 1965. Piet Mondrian was a central, if not synonymous member, of the De Stijl movement in Holland, and later emigrated to New York where he died in 1944.

At this time, he was venerated amongst a relatively small circle of artists, critics, and historians, whose esteem came from the artist's monastic drive to find a style that transcended nature through a mystical union of colour and line with the invisible forces.

Today, his style is perhaps as widely known in the popular imagination as the waterlilies of Monet or the cracked-up faces of Picasso, a popularity reducible to this dress.

In the first version, Laurent uses the bold black horizontal and vertical lines—notably, he was also sensitive to how in Mondrian they are of uneven width—against the white ground and the blocks of primary colours.

The result is a classic garment in the literal sense: instantly noticeable, clean of line yet visually striking.

The Mondrian dress also presented a dynamic break with earlier appropriations of painting in garments. Mondrian’s painting (no specific one, but a generic approximation to go with the line and flow of the garment) was not merely grafted as an image onto the dress but became one with it.

It is this structural unity that deflects possible complaints of an adulteration of the original artist’s intentions. For, after all, a worn garment is embedded in lived, temporal life, while Mondrian was only interested in life’s essence freed from time, yet time is inscribed within fashion itself.

In addition to the harmonic nature of the garment between colour and line is its popularization of avant-garde art. While designers from Versace to Lacroix drew liberally and lavishly from art, particularly the Baroque of the seventeenth century, no garment has the same resonance or achieves such a lively tension between the aims of art and modalities of fashion.

Feminist Art to Lady Gaga

But it seems that even when artists use clothing as a trope, it is again through popular fashion and the fashion industry that it becomes more broadly known and debated. When Canadian artist Jana Sterbak first exhibited her dress made of meat, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic in 1987 did not receive much attention, but it was the centre of controversy in a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in 1991.

Versions of the work are the artist or a tailor's dummy clad in a dress made of slabs of meat sewn together. As the title suggests, the work is about bodily vanity and the passing of beauty, but it is also a profoundly feminist work that comments on how women's bodies are objectified pieces of meat.

Despite the furore, the work became part of the feminist canon of contemporary art known by students and specialists until Lady Gaga appeared at the 2010 MTV awards in a dress and hat of raw meat. Similar objections of purists to YSL and Mondrian inevitably resurface in such a case: is Lady Gaga trivializing the work of a serious contemporary artist and subverting the original message, in this case, in the exploitation of sex and glamour? If hard to answer, what is sure is that it brought attention back to Sterbak.

The example of Lady Gaga’s rendition of the meat dress is the climax of a trend that begins in the late ‘70s, first with the so-called revolution of Japanese fashion and subsequently the generation of designers, such as those from Britain and Belgium, whose work is sculptural on the one hand, or who engage in a socio-political critique on par with art, on the other.

Japanese Fashion Wave

The wave of Japanese fashion that begins with Kenzo in Paris includes luminaries such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, and Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons) witnessed a distinct change in the way garments were cut and worn. This, in turn, also caused a rethinking of the garment's overall silhouette such that it complemented rather than echoed the body.

At about the same time as architecture, taking its cue from Frank Lloyd Wright was evolving into a style that resembled up-scale sculptural forms, there evolved a new direction for fashion in which the body was a support for a series of contrivances in which references to the natural and technological were thoroughly confounded.

These qualities also lent themselves to display; the body does not appear empty as displays of more classic designers such as Dior.

Indeed, garments by designers like Miyake have the appearance of being made solely for the sake of display.

Fashion and Art on the Catwalk

The new wave of fashion with discernible critical import appears with Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela's figures. While both their houses are established based on commercial and wearable styles, these are buttressed by collections and isolated examples that mix performance, masquerade, and installation.

One very citable example of this is McQueen's 2001 VOSS collection, whose launch began with a glass box that reflected the audience, but when lit revealed a chamber full of moths with a model dressed in nothing but a gas mask. The glass walls then gave to, shattering to the ground.

When Nick Knight commented that he found it ‘a great political statement about power in the industry’, given that while the box was mirrored, the audience was made to feel inhibited and self-conscious.

Political Fashion

This kind of work is what Knight prefers to call ‘Political Fashion’, but its similarities with art are close to self-evident, except that perhaps the economies of scale are what few artists can manage.

Other contemporary fashion designers such as Walter Van Beirendonck achieve a fusion between the sculptural and the critical/political in blending popular culture, subcultural fashion, folk art, and architecture.

Jean-Paul Gaultier, known for his broad-ranging talents, in 2003 sponsored an exhibit at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the title: Braveheart: Men in Skirts, which included the work of Dries van Noten and Vivienne Westwood.

Westwood herself emerged on the fashion scene in the 1980s with her then partner Malcolm McLaren used collections and catwalks for trenchant social commentary and as opportunities for political activism. Memorable titles included Savages (1981), Punkature (1982), and the Propaganda Collection (2005-6), a response to political deception.

Now and the Future

With the onward march of virtual platforms, both the art and fashion industries find the moving image harder and harder to ignore. In this regard, we are now seeing a series of no less complex and inventive confluences. The (imaginary) autonomy of art and fashion becomes disturbed by film genre and music video. These renegotiations of genre, media, and history that flow from digital technologies (such as 3D printing for one) and the Internet suggest that the historically delineated genre (painting, noir film) are increasingly just semantic touchstones separated only by the logistical imperatives of industry and commerce.


Breward, Christopher and Caroline Evans eds. (2005), Fashion and Modernity, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Evans, Caroline (2003), Fashion at the Edge, New Haven and London: Hale University Press.

Geczy, Adam and Vicki Karaminas (2013), Fashion and Art, London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Innes Homer, William (1974) ‘Edward Steichen as Painter and Photographer 1897-1908’, American Art Journal 6.2.

Lehmann, Ulrich (2002), Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Lipovetsky, Gilles (1994), The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. Translated by Catherine Porter, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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