Saturday, October 9, 2010

When is Fashion Art?

In the book, "When Clothes Become Fashion, Design and Innovation Systems" by Ingrid Loschek, there is a chapter called "When is Fashion Art?" This is a topic close to my heart and one that is rarely given the attention of scholars.

Ingrid Loschek was a well-known and respected fashion historian and theorist who taught at the School of Design, University Pforzheim, Germany. This was her last book before she passed away earlier this year.

Although the book is dense with fashion theory and rigourous analysis, it is accessible to a general reader. But for artists whose work references clothing, the body, or fashion, this book is well worth the investment in time because it offers a thoughtful analysis of contemporary fashion designers and artists whose work exists on the boundary between fashion and art.

Loschek begins the chapter with a quote by Jeff Koons:  "The art is in the viewer" and goes on to review the definition of art as it has changed over the course of history. She continues with a differentiation of the systems of art and fashion as "a matter of context of observation".  In other words, the manner and place of presentation can affect whether clothing is considered fashion or art. For example, Viktor & Rolf's dresses with masses of bows and flounces from Flowerbomb 2005 "display more of a theatrical pretension: they are dresses that pay no account to the demands of everyday life and, apart from their impact as advertising and to attract attention, they lack purpose to the extent that art also claims for itself." (page 171) It is almost as if these spectacular dresses were made with forethought that they would one day be presented in a museum -- just as they were when I saw them at the Barbicon Gallery in London in 2008.

Flowerbomb 2005 by Viktor & Rolf, Photo by Ingrid Mida 2008
Fashion designers whose designs approach works of art include: Hussein Chalayan, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Victor & Rolf. Some of the artists whose work references fashion and are mentioned in this chapter include: Salvador Dali, Joesph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Jana Sterbak, Oskar Schlemmer, and Cindy Sherman.

"One shared aspect of art and fashion is that both create an artificial image of the human being; in addition, clothing represents an extension of the self." (pg. 169) (To me, art is also an extension of the self, but perhaps that depends on the artist.)

This is a book that I probably will read more than once because it is so dense with analysis. Buried deep in the chapter is the key to understanding why designers who use artistic concepts to create their works are so important. "When no artistic demand is made of fashion, our visual language becomes impoverished to the lowest common denominator -- which is the cheapest, most efficient, and most functional....the language of art is opposite to this (utility), because it permits a vocabulary not bound by purpose and consequently permits freedom; it enjoys the free space to invent forms with the potential to stimulate our fantasies and dreams." (page 171)

In other words, art lifts fashion to a higher level of visual language.

Book: When Clothes Become Fashion, Design and Innovation Systems
Author: Ingrid Loschek
Translated by: Dietrich Reimer Vertag
Published by: Berg, New York, 2009
Category: Non-fiction, Fashion Theory
Number of Pages: 245
Cost: $29.95 paperback

P.S. This is a partial extract of a review I'm writing  for the Costume Society Journal.