The remarkable fine line between fashion and art

Alexander McQueen’s: Savage Beauty (2011) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The relationship between fashion and art is something that raises discussion between those attached to the general concept of art, and the modern promoters of free expression through fashion.

Throughout the centuries, fashion has been shown to be a fundamental part of history. Around the 16th century, when clothing ceased to be merely a functional object that covered a basic need of human beings, fashion acquired a cultural value and became one of the most important and unique forms of communication. The manufacturing of the garments and accessories and the materials from which they were made, depicted the different social classes and hierarchies. Relevant historic characters such as Marie Antoinette, queen of France at the end of the 18th century, started forming up their image, their expression through her clothing and still nowadays she is a referent of her era.

✨ Interesting fact ✨ She was such an icon that in January 2020, the exhibition ‘Marie-Antoinette, MΓ©tamorphoses de’une image‘ , took place at the Center des Monuments Nationaux in Paris. In it, the queen’s clothing, jewelry and shoes where shown, as a sample of her life and the legacy she left for fashion. They were going to re-launch the exhibition but due to COVID-19 they cancelled it, if not, I would have invited all of you to come with me to see how stylish Marie-Antoinette was!

Art needs a tangible item or something that can be perceived by any of our senses in order to be able to be examined and understood by an audience: paintings, architecture, dancing, photography are examples of it. For this reason, there has always been floating in the air if fashion and art are detached or they come together.

But… what is art?

It is ironical wanting to define the relationship between fashion and art when the formal definition of the second concept can’t be expressed with clarity. According to Cambridge Dictionary, art is the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings. We should focus on 2 points: ‘etc‘ and ‘express‘.

I wonder what did the Cambridge Academy mean with ‘etcetera’, but I understand why they didn’t end the sentence, since art can be so many different things for each individual person. If we find art in everything or not is another debate, but what is clear, however, is that it should express emotions or just express, something, in general.

In a chapter of a book of Philosophy, it is said that that art should have these characteristics:

  • Formalism: the work of art should have elements such as lines, shapes, light, shades, symmetry…
  • Representationalism: the work of art should imitate or reproduce an ideal of something.
  • Emotionalism: the work of art should evoke some feeling, to the creator and the audience.
  • Formalism: the work of art should have a purpose.

All these elements fit with fashion and what it depicts but there is a major difference we should discuss before relating it directly to art.

Difference between clothing and fashion

This is the very thin line of concepts that people often mix up: clothing is not the same as fashion. What they have in common is that both are utilitarian, they have a purpose, you can’t go outside without wearing a piece of cloth on you. Still, we find a big contrast between those 2 conceptions.

Clothing is normally the garments or apparel you purchase from a shop, receive from someone or find somewhere (yes to second-hand outfits! πŸ‘) and use in order to cover your body. But fashion goes one step forward, it is a way of expressing yourself through those clothes.

Maybe clothes that you buy from different shops of fast fashion don’t look and can’t be defined as art, because in their design, manufacturing and selling, there hasn’t been a strong expressive process of the creator(s). It is totally oriented and focused to be sold as fast as possible to the consumers, in order to obtain money back for what they invested on doing the garments. But, if an individual person buys from the same shop different shirts, jeans, accessories and with them he/she creates a full outfit that represents him/herself, that is fashion. In the same way as it comes as fashion and art when a designer creates his new collection of unique items and launches an exhibition, a cat-walk or just promotes it on the media, in order to obtain more recognition and share their passion, not just to get back the money they invested.

A designer transforms a model into its canvas, to create fashion with different materials, using shapes, colours, shades, lines, theories and a lot of knowledge. These concepts have a slight difference, but at the end they go and match together to be art.

β€œFashion is the art of clothing.”

Fashion as an art category

If you see a piece of marble you won’t think β€œOh, this is art!”, but if you give that piece of marble to someone that has the idea of what to do with it, he/she will transform it into one of the most relevant and known masterpieces of all times, like David by Michelangelo or Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch. Same happens if you see a white canvas or just read the briefing of a dance performance, you need to see it done, to feel something from the creators or at least try to.

Art is everything that expresses yourself, it can be words, such as in songs, movements and gestures such as in dance, or materials used to create sculptures. At the same time, art has always been a form of social and cultural expression. Not just of economic status, but of your roots, the region where you come from, your customs and traditions, even the weather or nature since people use colours in order to depict those elements of their lands into clothing.

Just like a painter can have a personal style all his life or change each year, we can do the same with fashion, but everyday! Just by adding or removing an element we are already giving the world a different vibe. The most famous designers have not defined their niche, they don’t want to belong only to one artistic movement. These fashion designers have been inspired so many times by artistic movements such as paintings or sculptures, and when combining those elements, the result is amazing. (On my Instagram I post many of these famous artistic collaborations! πŸ‘€)

It comes together in impressionism or surrealism, when painters they depicted fashion and all its details and designers at the time tried to replicate those paintings into dresses. It has also been merged together with performance (dance and music) and beautiful fashion artistic performances have been seen such as the Savage Beauty by Alexander McQueen in 2011.

Many other exhibitions that merged the 2 concepts have been displayed in different museums of the world, check out my first vlog to discover the most beautiful fashion museum in Belgium! ✨

As a final thought, if Marcel Duchamp could drag his surrealistic-dadaist urinal into a museum, call it art, and demand that it be displayed as such, then fashion is most certainly an art.

β€œStyle is a way to say who you are without having to speak.”

Rachel Zoe

Are there any other reasons not to consider fashion as a form of art? I am open to hear your opinions in the comments. ✨

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*Disclaimer: none of these images above are mine. They are rightfully owned by the creators and distributors.*