Monica D. Murgia

Art, creativity, and fashion
April 4th, 2010

Is Fashion Art?

This seems to be a question on everyone’s mind.  Arguably, fashion has been the orphaned child of the art world.  While appreciated or noted, fashion still is deemed a frivolity – not an art.  This was most likely caused by fashion’s origins.  Prior to 1860, design was in the hands of the consumer, who would have garments made by a dressmaker.  This changed with Charles Frederick Worth.

Liberator of the Fashion Designer:

What distinguished Worth from his couture colleagues was his attempt to link fashion to art.  He sketched designs and made collections, which was unusual for this period.  Dresses were ordered from a dressmaker, according to the desire of the client.  Nothing was ready-to-wear, and the idea of dictating fashion to customers was unheard of.  Worth was a pioneer of dictating fashions by the use of sketches and introducing collections that were inspired by his trips to museums and galleries.

Sketching?  What’s that you said?  Trips to museums and galleries for inspiration?  Hmm, this sounds kind of artistic!

Worth did not, however, create slavish reproductions of period styles; instead, as is usual with revival style, he selected elements from different sources, and often different period, and fused them together into new and contemporary garments. (Jiminez, Leventon, 18).

So Worth was selecting works of art as inspiration, deconstructing them, and re-contextualizing there elements in a different medium – in fashion.  I think we’re onto something here.

Under Worth, Parisian fashion was transformed into the epicenter of Haute Couture.  Haute Couture designs are distinguished as made-to-measure, one-of-a-kind garments made from luxurious fabrics, and sewn and adorned with extreme attention to detail.

Worth Evening Gown, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Worth’s fame was centered on his fashioning of the Court of the Second Empire.  The commencement of Worth’s career as an international couturier started with the patronage of Princess Pauline de Metternich, an Austrian princess married to an Ambassador to the French court.

Princess Metternich by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Metternich was close friends with the Empress Eugenie and an admired figure.   (Quick recap of the era: it was the Second Empire.  Meaning that Napoleon III was in power.  Shortly after the marriage of Napoleon III to Eugenie de Montijo, a court was formed and the demand for fashion was ushered in.) Worth aspired to make her a gown as a method to be exposed to court.  Worth’s wife brought a collection of sketches to Metternich, from which she ordered two dresses.  Once Metternich wore the dresses to court, Worth became a craze.

Empress Eugenie and Her Ladies in Waiting (all in Worth!) by Winterhalter

So with some influential backing, positive cash flow, and creative freedom, Worth was determined to establish himself as an artist.  As we already know, Worth was dictating the fashions with 4 themed shows a year.  He was also the first to use live mannequins to show the clothing.  (Hmm, I’m sensing fashion shows are the equivalent to art exhibitions.)

Next, Worth started directly inserting his signature on each piece, aka labeling.

Hey, don’t artists sign their works?

Later, Paul Poiret worked at the House of Worth (although after Worth’s death – his sons took over) and absorbed the artistic ideology.  Poiret stated:

I am an artist, not a dressmaker.

Poiret with mannequin

At work on his own label, Poiret went a step further.  He titled his garments instead of numbering them, like most couturiers did at the time.   Poiret moved away from the corseted body, and explored unusual, unrelated elements in his designs.  Here we see the lampshade dress.

Sketch, 1913

Lampshade Tunic Dress, 1913

Back to the matter at hand.  It seems that fashion designers work in the following ways:

  • Start with an inspiration source.  (Usually a work of art)
  • Deconstruct elements of the inspiration source
  • Reconstruct these elements in a different media to create a new form
  • Sign (label)
  • Exhibit (Fashion show)

Wait, why would someone say fashion isn’t art?  Maybe I need to check what the definition of art is.  Here’s what the all-powerful Wikipedia says:

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.

Fashion sure makes me emotional.  Remember my post on

Maybe we should look at some of the reasons other people think that fashion isn’t art

1) An important reason for fashion not having attained the same recognition as other forms of art is that there are traditions for serious criticism within the visual arts, music, literature, and film, while this is almost totally absent from fashion. (Svendsen, 93)

It is true that most fashion magazines don’t criticize designers in editorials.  The criticism is far more subversive than that.  If a designer isn’t in the fashion magazine, the editor has already deemed the designer to be unworthy of mention.  The ultimate form of criticism in the fashion world is to be completely ignored.  Page prices in Vogue are upwards of $5,000.  Would you waste $5,000 talking about something you didn‘t like?  And BTW, you may just want to watch The September Issue.  You’ll see just how critical fashion magazines can be, thankyouverymuch.

Anna Wintour in The September Issue

2) Genuine fashion must be functional and, therefore can only be classified as applied art or craft.  If a garment is not wearable, it is not fashion.  But it just might be art. (Suzy Menkes, International Herald Tribune)

Say what?  There has been a movemenet in contemporary art focused on usability.  Example?  Look at this sculpture/container.  Is it art?  Yes.  Is it fuctional?  Yes.  I think Ms. Menkes idea is flawed because functionality is a design quality that art has now moved towards.

BOTTLE CAP FISH available for purchase.  Click here.

This post could go on and on, but I’d like to end with a contemporary fashion designer that blends art, fashion, and functionality like no other: Hussein Chalayan.

Hussein Chalayan

Cyprus born Chalayan studied fashion design in England.  He made his big debut with a collection called The Tangent Flows.  He made clothes, buried them in his yard, and dug them up again.  Here’s a picture:

The Tangent Flows Collection, close-up

Wow, someone wearing it!

YOU MUST WATCH THIS VIDEO.  The rest of the article is available after you view :)

I loved the coffee table skirt.  Talk about GENIUS!  I’ve got nothing to wear and no furniture.  Chalayan to the rescue!  Furnish your home and wardrobe in one easy step (ok, maybe two steps to put it on).

While Chalayan is a master of fashion construction, did you notice how much emphasis he puts on exhibition, installation, and social commentary?  Did the work elicit an emotional reaction from you?  Did you feel something?  Anything?  Well then, my friend, it is fashion as art.

Coffee Table Skirt

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