Art as Fashion, Fashion as Art

In these grave times, art and fashion may seem, more than ever, like luxuries. But they are inextricably intertwined with everyday life, including political life. Think of the pink pussy hats that thousands of women knitted themselves to wear to the Women’s Marches on January 21. Or think of Hillary Clinton’s progression of pantsuits: for each of the three debates, she wore a different color of the American flag: first powerful red, then pacific blue, and finally virtuous white, the traditional color of the women’s suffrage movement. For her concession speech, she wore purple, combining Democratic blue and Republican red in a call for unity; and for Trump’s inauguration, she appeared in another purely white ensemble. These sartorial choices tap into an ancient iconography, established through the visual arts, in which clothing symbolizes the moral character of those who wear it. In renaissance painting, for example, the Virgin Mary almost always wears a blue robe; Mary Magdalene, a red dress; St. John the Baptist, a brown hairshirt. Both visual art and fashion tell stories through images; both are made up of signs that convey meaning through visual language. And, especially in our media-saturated society, visual signs matter.

Portrait of Alexandra Schwartz. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Abraham Bosse after Jean de Saint Igny, Plate 4 from The Garden of the French Nobility, 1629. Etching and burin, 14 1/4 × 9 1/2 cm. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

For several years, I have been interested in this relationship between visual art and fashion. My interest stems from having recently worked on several artists, including Nick Cave, Beverly Semmes, Yinka Shonibare, Saya Woolfalk, and Andrea Zittel, who make installations featuring clothes, some of which double as costumes for performances. While I was fascinated by how these artists use fashion to explore issues surrounding the body, gender, and race, I was also intrigued by how their work upends traditional notions of “fine” versus “applied” art. As an art historian, I have long been believed that this distinction, handed down at least since Kant’s musings on aesthetics in the eighteenth century, has outlived its usefulness.

Yet as I began to develop an exhibition around the interconnections between visual art and fashion, I discovered that there currently exists relatively little scholarship on the subject. Few art historians delve into fashion history, while most fashion and costume historians do not venture into the realm of visual art; and fashion theory, which comes closest to uniting these disciplines, is still a nascent field. In the hope of helping to fill this gap, I am delighted to have assembled for this Critics Page contributions by many of the foremost thinkers—artists as well as historians of art, fashion, and design—on this burgeoning area of research. It begins with statements by three pioneering thinkers on art and fashion, Valerie Steele, Paola Antonelli, and Rhonda Garelick, who offer meditations on the complex relationship between these disciplines. It continues with case studies by four art historians, Timothy McCall, Marika Takanishi Knowles, Juliet Bellow, and Camara Dia Holloway, who write on how art and fashion collided at key historical moments. Finally, it concludes with contributions by three prominent contemporary artists, Lisa Anne Auerbach, Mark Newport, and Saya Woolfalk, whose innovative practices lie at the crossroads of art
and fashion.


Alexandra Schwartz

ALEXANDRA SCHWARTZ is a New York-based curator and art historian. Her recent exhibitions include As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute), American Histories (Pi Artworks London), and Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s, which toured nationally and was accompanied by a catalogue from the University of California Press.