Is fashion art?
As I settle into the swing of this new semester, one filled with courses in different departments that somehow all interrelate (go liberal arts!), this question seems to keep popping up. Given that the add/drop deadline is today, my class schedule is finally finalized, and it features topics like Neuroaesthetics, Science & the Practice of Art History, and Tangible Things. Each course touches upon the beauty of objects in their own way - from science, to history, to perspectives of conservation.
Back in mid-July, I had spent a weekend in NYC to reconnect with friends and, to be honest, see the Comme des Garçons Exhibit at the MET. Both of those goals were accomplished, alongside other adventures, and ever since I returned I've just been sitting on this pile of photos, wondering the best way to write about the experience. It wasn't until last week, in my first class of Neuroaesthetics, that I realized what would be most fruitful: trying to figure out if fashion, to me, is in fact art.
To prepare for that week's discussion, our class read/heard perspectives from the likes of Tolstoy, Dennis Dutton, and Valerie Steele. Steele's talk contended with fashion directly, and her claims felt like thoughts I was on the cusp of materializing myself, yet being expressed better than I ever could. She started her talk by wondering if seeing a Balenciaga bag in a museum exudes the same "aura" as art. Now, as a budding student of art history, I instantly understood her question as a reference to Walter Benjamin and his proposal that the "aura" of a work of art is devalued by mechanical reproduction - thus emphasizing the importance of a unique, one of a kind work. This reference underscored some of Steele's other points, namely that ready to wear or commercialized fashion isn't as readily seen (or shouldn't be seen) as art, perhaps because of its mass produced quality.
I agree with that. I don't sense as much majesty or artistry in an overpriced tee you can snag from Urban Outfitters than in a uniquely made gown or costume. However, this isn't a definitive restriction for my perception of fashion as art. I think this opinion forks off in two other ways. One fork spurred by a comment made by my friend, classmate, and fashion icon, Lily, where she noted that there is an art to how you put yourself together, even if you're sporting an UO t-shirt and not a CDG original. The other fork being that, to me, a unique piece is still a work of art regardless of its display in the MET or simply featured in your local blackbox theater.
I think what makes fashion art is the creative idea, the skillful execution, and the way it's worn. To me, fashion can be a static art (admired quietly in the corridors of the MET) as much as it can be performative. I chose the word "performative" in particular, mostly because of a recent Artsy editorial titled Alexander Calder’s Jewelry Turns People into Living Sculptures. The article is pretty self explanatory, but let me highlight my favorite line:
“Too big or unwieldy, his objects are not ‘jewelry’ in the conventional sense,” writes curator Mark Rosenthal in a catalogue essay. “Instead, Calder’s jewelry may be seen as a sort of Surrealistic strategy to entrap the wearer into participating in an art performance, even to become bewitched.”
A bewitching performance? For me, that sounds a lot like a runway show. You hear the music pulsating, feel the lights dance, and watch in rapture as the models flow by - fleeting quickly as if expediting the ephemerality of their art.
All of these ideas and opinions, shaped inside and outside of the classroom, felt, in hindsight, inextricably tied to my experience at CDG. First things first, I loved it. There's something magical about clothing's ability to tell a story, to weave a narrative, literally.
Everywhere I turned, there was a new crescendo of costumes. Even some displayed up above (not lending itself well for viewing, but definitely contributing to the immersive experience of being enveloped in all of this fabric). I also appreciated the lighting. The stark whiteness of the walls and bright beams of light allowed each work to jump out at me - and made capturing them in photos significantly easier.
The show itself was a display of Rei Kawakubo's work from the 80's to today. The set up is as follows, according to the exhibition description on the MET's site:
"Objects are organized into nine aesthetic expressions of interstitiality in Kawakubo's work: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. Kawakubo breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness."
After chatting further about the show with my Neuroaesthetics professor, Nancy Etcoff, she casually remarked that avant-garde fashion, like that of Kawakubo, presents us with "walking ideas" - something that I think is incredibly useful in thinking about fashion as art in particular. I mean, all art, to some extent, aims to convey the ideas of its creator. So why exclude fashion from the list?
I will say, however, that leaving the show and being immediately confronted with a CDG pop-up-shop that boasted overpriced tees emblazoned with a teensy logo really begged the question, "Is fashion art?"