Art and Fashion: Two sides of the same coin?

Margaret Holmes Cady explores the interconnection between fashion and art, and how the two are viewed. Fashion is often dismissed as trivial but in this article she explores the double standards in our value judgements and what we have to learn from fashion designers and the industry as a whole.

On a blisteringly hot July day in New York City, I found refuge from the heat by spending most of that afternoon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Surrounded by families on holiday and friends exploring the Big Apple for the first time, I spent an afternoon wandering my way through the many exhibitions, in wonder of the sheer scope of the collection. As someone whose bedside table is covered in copies of Vogue and several biographies of designers and bloggers, I have more than a passing interest in fashion. So a trip to the Met was not finished without visiting the 2016 Met Gala Exhibit Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology. Lost in my admiration of Dior’s laser cut lace work and the 3D printed resin bodice of an Iris Van Herpen piece, I almost didn’t register a comment from the crowd around me. A man’s voice carried across the exhibit, “Okay so I guess this fashion stuff really is art”.

Two and half months later the comment still lingers in the back of my mind. Many people may have similar doubts when visiting fashion exhibits such as that following the annual Met Gala, or the permanent collection at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. However with a bit of research you can find that fashion and art have been orbiting each other for millennia. From ancient Egypt to the Elizabethan Age to modern day state galas, fashion acts as a tool to represent the prestige, power and values that rulers and world leaders wish to embody. This is reflected in the combination of art and fashion in portraiture and other forms of visual propaganda.

In the last century fashion and art have become even more entwined. Fashion is not associated with art solely in the depiction of dress. Instead the relationship between art and fashion is more fluid, with each affecting the creative process of the other. Yves St. Laurent’s Mondrian collection paid homage to the De Stijl artist in 1965; the designer found the exact lines, primary colors and rationality a perfect combination with a shift dress. More recently Italian couture house Dolce & Gabbana took inspiration from Monet’s work, in the colorful and voluminous gowns of their Spring 2008 collection. It does not seem so strange that the visual arts and fashion are intrinsically related, after all both use the application of color, form, texture and medium to create an effect and provoke a reaction in the viewer.

Some argue that because fashion inherently relates to the body it can’t have meaning beyond vanity and consumerism. In response I say that fashion designers and artists approach their crafts with infinite motivations and goals beyond just money. Some such as Stella McCartney reflect a personal cause, as the British designer does in her sustainability and animal rights centric designs. In the past few years, a movement of ethical, socially conscious and body positive fashion brands and designers have come onto the scene including names such as Kitty Ferreira, The B.Yellowtail Collective and Nubian Skin. Just as painters and sculptors draw from personal philosophy, politics and larger artistic movements, so can fashion designers. When speaking on their collections many designers reference cinema, literature, art, nature and emotions as sources of inspiration. Fashion as such does not exist in a vacuum, but in tandem with all other forms of expression. Above all I know is that I am as likely to feel awe and curiosity at one of Alexander McQueen’s sculptural designs as at the architecture of the Alhambra or the detail in Raphael’s The School of Athens.