The debate over whether fashion is or is not art has been a topic of controversy throughout the postmodern era. As early as the 1850’s, Charles Frederick Worth—the founding father of haute couture—was creating designs that imbued the role of the modern garment with a more Veblenian aspect: his designs were less articles of clothing than they were a medium for social advancement. He fought for his creations to be viewed in the same manner one would view a painted masterpiece, namely in the consumption of sign value. In Worth’s opinion, the difference between a canvas and a garment as a vehicle for artistic authenticity was merely a technicality.
Fashion continued to work against its reputation as art’s ‘other’ following the turn of the 20th century. In the early years of the 1900’s, both art and fashion enthusiastically embraced the potential of industrialization and catered to society’s needs for simpler, more streamlined clothing as well as avant-garde art forms that broke down distinctions between art and design. Both creative classes worked to produce beautiful and functional items that would, in essence, contribute towards a better way of living. In the later half of the 20th century, the debate over fashionable art and fashion lost its speculative nature, and became a very real site for juxtaposition in the hands of British and American Pop artists in the 1960’s and 70’s. Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas, editors of Fashion and Art, describe the effects of the Pop movement quite succinctly, explaining how Pop artists “depicted the world as a maelstrom of visual values in which it was barely possible to distinguish between good and bad, famous and infamous, living or dead, past and present. Pop culture left it all up for the taking.”
So what does all of this have to do with today’s art world? Well, put simply, the last decade has shown an increase in fashion and art collaborations like we’ve never seen before. Museums, private galleries, and art fairs have all opened their doors to the commercial and cultural potential inherent in the crossover of creative industries. Similarly, fashion designers have continued to embrace the ways in which art can serve as a platform for garnering cultural capital amongst the public, and enhancing or broadening a brand’s clientele. Postmodernity marks the point at which there came a recognition that art, as a dialectical progression, is either false or no longer relevant. In this sense, the discussion over whether art and fashion can function on behalf of a shared set of motivations and cultural concerns becomes less of a debate and more of an honest acceptance, and by extension, a scholarly examination. As such, academics, theorists, and experts from both the fashion and art fields have finally begun to turn their attention toward creating a conceptual framework in which they can examine the points at which fashion and art meet—rather than where and how they diverge from one another.
March of 2015 marked the opening of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition features 60 new items, making it a third larger than its 2011 counterpart at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—which was, in fact, one of the most successful shows in the museum’s history. That same month, Tate Britain opened a week-long exhibition, Working Progress, covering the renowned collaboration between artist Nick Waplington and designer Alexander McQueen. Two months later, the Met’s Costume Institute held its 67th annual Met Gala, titled China: Through the Looking Glass. The Gala marks the opening of the Institute’s annual fashion exhibition, this year dedicated to honoring the importance of Orientalism as a source of inspiration in the fashion and art industries. All of this serves as an indication of how the the public sector, namely the traditional art museum, has capitalized on the potential of the fashion exhibition as a particularly lucrative way of increasing visitor numbers. As the 21st century forced public museums to shift their focus towards an audience-centered and experience-generative mission, epitomized by the phenomenon of the blockbuster exhibition, the fashion exhibition served as a way in which the cult-like high art institution could transcend mainstream popular culture and attract the attention—and the attendance—of the public.
However, the financial success of the fashion exhibition aside, a recognition of how the levels of transaction for fashion and art distinctly differ from one another is necessary in order to begin to understand the complex synergies between them. While a fashion object can (somewhat) easily enter a museum and cease to exist as consumable merchandise, taking on the role of the art installation rather than a commercially-driven mass-market product, the transition has historically been much more difficult for the art object. While the museum is able to bestow upon the fashion object a sense of historical and cultural legitimacy, the same kind of trade-off simply doesn’t hold true for fine art that enters the mass-market sphere. No matter how financially successful the endeavor may be, the artist inevitably falls subject to considerable criticism as to whether or not the project hurts or helps the notion of artistic authenticity. Collaborations such as the one between H&M and Jeff Koons or the partnership between Takashi Murakami and Louis Vuitton may seem like harmless Warholian simulacrum, but they often seriously call into question the artist’s legitimacy as a bastion for creative culture, as well as how society is to understand the value of meaning in art. Many would argue that art as a rarified vehicle for reflection and meaning-cultivation is rendered useless amongst all the trappings of ostentatious wealth and/or commercially driven mass-manufactured products. Even Murakami himself stated in a 2003 interview with Time magazine that following his partnership with Louis Vuitton, he needed to take a break from the commercial realm and re-establish himself as a fine artist. What is interesting to note is Murakami’s acknowledgement of the threat that art and commerce were becoming indistinguishable, especially given the artist’s own history of actively promoting his art as strictly commercial (he even included a mini Louis Vuitton bag in his travelling ©Murakami show across the United States).
Enter stage left: the branded artist. If for nothing else, the contemporary artists of today will be remembered for the explosive rise of branding in art. Some have mastered the task of branding in a more conceptual manner, such as Norwegian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Draget, the creators of the befuddling 2005 site-specific work Prada Marfa. Others, such as Koons and Damien Hirst, have taken a much more literal approach, sacrificing the traditional creative process for one that more closely resembles the process behind mass-production. Then there are the artist-fashion house partnerships seen in the window displays of high-end department stores like Barney’s and Selfridges, where it’s nearly indistinguishable who is branding who. What is clear is that artists and designers have collectively accepted that their practices no longer need to be treated as mutually exclusive. The critical crossover between the two, the juxtaposition behind the object versus the intent, is an area that artists and designers are more openly comfortable with exploring. Today it is more apparent than ever that creative classes can work together to achieve things that other industries can’t. Their history is a cultural one, and it is increasingly looked upon as one that when shared, can add to—rather than take away from—an enhanced understanding and sense of cultural creative fullness in art and every day life.