Fashion as Art

I am surrounded by dyes, paint brushes and fabrics; strips of rainbow-hued silks dangle down from the ceiling. I feel (as the dryer whirs behind me, and someone power-washes a screen printing board nearby) that I have been transported to another land, one of the whimsical forests of Disney, perhaps, morphed into an artist’s workshop. I am in the studio of Waller and Wood.

As Carole Waller leads one of her classes, the room buzzes with creativity and the women take their paint brushes to fabric. The finality of each movement terrifies me; down goes the brush and wham – a permanent imprint is made. But, I remind myself, such is the nature of art. Only this art would be worn.

And so, it was only a few minutes into my internship at Waller and Wood that I began to consider the distinction (if there is any) between “fashion,” i.e. clothing, and “art.” Is all clothing — from the runways of Dior to the rails of Zara — a form of art, or are there limitations? Certainly, clothes can be a product of an artist, or of artistic expression, but does that render it art within itself?

art n. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

The question might seem simple enough. Per its dictionary definition, art is the product of human creative skill and imagination, appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional power. Articles of clothing, then, must be art: someone (or their creativity) made them. I mean, those articles of clothing that weren’t created by an algorithm and fed en masse to us hungry consumers; clothes that were created.

But what about the less rigid, less definitive conception of art? The notion that (and please disagree with me on this) art is meant for public appreciation (or reserved for the wealthy), for the creation and expression of emotion, and is rarely produced in large quantities. Is clothing —from the sweatpants I wear at home to the plain white tee-shirt I wear everywhere — still art? Is the way we dress ourselves “art”? Is fashion, defined as a popular trend in styles of dress and ornament, “art”?

I turned to museums for answers. A centuries old home for the arts, the museum as an institution must decide what it determines to be art, and what, of that art, is worthy of public consumption. While rare it is to find a museum dedicated solely to the celebration of fashion (making it even more exciting to have one, The Fashion Museum, here in Bath!), it seems to be increasingly common to find fashion exhibits in art museums.

In 2011, the New York Times determined that there are at least a dozen fashion-focused exhibits happening at any given moment worldwide (not including galleries or displays); a number that I’m sure has only increased since. These shows are often reserved for the haute-couture, the powerhouse brands or designers whose clothes and creations are expensive and, well…artistic. These brands, available for purchase only by a select few, can afford to be creative and are expected to be such. Their runway shows have devolved into the theatrics, their window displays have transformed into fairy-tales, and their advertisements speak like short, still films. But they are only a small portion of the community of fashion labels, and these exhibits are strictly business.

The groundbreaking exhibit on Alexander McQueen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2015, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, was the V&A’s most popular exhibit, ever. It sold almost 2,000 meters of fabric for scarves, 150,000 postcards, and 80,000 books. The idea of a popular fashion exhibit thus became a guaranteed way to get people into (and buying from) museums. It is all business, after all.

Alexander McQueen's "Savage Beauty"
Alexander McQueen’s “Savage Beauty”

And so we return to square one. If museums have fallen victim to the call of commercialization, what hasn’t? How can I know if clothing is art? As I sit and watch Carole tease images onto fabric, I cannot ignore the obvious: she is an artist at work. But still I grapple with the question: can this label of “art” be applied to all clothing?

At its heart, the production of clothing is very creative. Someone, somewhere, had an idea for something that could be worn. But I fear that the average article of clothing has distanced itself from the artistry from which it sprung; at a certain point, the production is reduced to a science. What will sell? What will trend? What can be marketed? As clothing is produced at a quicker rate, the creativity involved seems to slump. If “x” sold, so must “y,” I imagine the designer thinking, as they tweak a graphic tee-shirt. The notion of producing something so that its beauty is appreciated seems to be less important when producing clothing for the masses or “fast fashion” brands.

Now this is not to say that I believe that clothing is losing its beauty. Some, mostly designer and independent labels, seem to produce for beauty, or to make a statement, or to carry a message. These brands can be few, and rely on those who appreciate the communicative and expressive powers of clothing (and who can afford to buy them) to stay afloat. But seeing Carole Waller’s and her student’s work has left me inspired. The clothing that we put on our body should be art; the way we dress ourselves should too become an expression of creativity and emotion. Why do we not present ourselves to the world as bodies of art?

I dress myself subconsciously, and yet it remains an expression of who I am. An influence, internal or external, prompted me to buy the clothing; perhaps it was to dress a part — that of the student, the intern, the 20 year old — or perhaps it was in response to inspirations I have collected. When I dress myself, it is a projection of a part of myself, of my creative side (or lack thereof), of my imagination. When I shop, the decisions I make are also a product of my creative side and my imagination, as I look at a piece and gauge its potential in my wardrobe.

This has become most evident to me throughout this internship. Never before had I occasion to see the clothes I lust after being created. When Carole makes a piece, she is an artist at work; watching her dab her paint brush over the fabric, one almost imagines oneself absorbing her creative energies. Her clothes are definitely art within themselves, and they make me wonder: can it all be art, too?

In short, I am inspired: inspired to wear clothing that I appreciate as artwork; inspired to dress myself in the creativity of others, but in a way that allows me to express my own creativity, as influenced by theirs.