Why Fashion is an Art
Posted on November 8, 2012
Over the weekend I went to the Farmhouse Conference. Someone with a microphone made the off-hand comment that fashion is shallow, vapid, trend-chasing. This reminded me: that horseshit opinion exists and I’ve been meaning to talk about it.
Valerie Steele once aptly put it, “Fashion is really seen as the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity.” Fashion is often suspected as a marker and enforcer of economic status and is thus looked down upon as a product rather than an art form. However, this is an opinion often held by those hell bent on proving how anti-establishment they are and it’s incredibly ignorant. I understand being disgusted by consumer culture but why was a high art lost in the fray?
A poised aesthetic is often put on a pedestal above, perhaps, more useful traits. There is resentment towards beauty that feeds off of an underlying utilitarian need to pretend decoration is purely extraneous. But fashion isn’t merely decoration. Every body participates in it if for no other reason than to keep their genitals off the subway seat and the rain off their back. Fashion is something you do every day.
All too often I think art is measured by paintings. Too much art is crammed into the image schema and public relationship of paintings. If it isn’t in a museum and didn’t take 20 years of practice than it isn’t art. Let’s step away from that model and instead consider fashion as a performance art. Think of it as a dance: performed by you for the audience of your bored co-workers.
Fashion is an art form that allows one to embody their message. You can wear your identity and version of the world on your person. It is a reflection of one’s worldview and how they want to interact with it. I don’t think it’s superficial to judge a person by what they wear. After all, you chose what to wear and you didn’t chose it in a vacuum. Don’t think you’re special because you didn’t chose “pretty.”
It is a living breathing art form that reacts to its surroundings. It’s an art that reflects the weather and location. It reflects the culture its born out of and the the cultures the wearer has come in contact with. It is subject to context and function. It can allow more or less movement.
Fashion may be dictated by the weather and where it’s being worn but there’s more to it than that. Fashion is succinct in that it reacts to last years trends. Always wanting to evolve and grow, we base what we find pleasing on what has become boring to us, switching between austere and vibrant or meticulous and lax etc. It can reflect our internal growth as it evolves with us.
Fashion is a performing art that moves with us. We don’t just express ourselves with what we wear but how we wear it. From the indignant way you can pull a flowing skirt away from someone to the happy slap of suspenders released with a self-satisfied smirk, we interact with our environments and what we wear is the environment we chose. Your clothing is the environment closest to your person and it allows you to control a small part of the experience of those around you.
All of our interactions for the day are set by the tone of what we have put on that morning. Even if you pay no attention to trends or couture, you still participate in the performance of fashion. You establish your physical experience by how constrained your clothing is. You determine how you will be treated by other people’s interpretation of your choices. You create a large part of your day when you get dressed in the morning.
Recently, fashion designers have been displaying their work at museums and this has sparked a lot of debate about the artistic merits of fashion. I think fashion displayed in a museum is beautiful but certainly not a route to legitimizing it as an art form. In the same way that pictures of ballerinas are nice but not dance, fashion without movement makes a garment less spectacular. It represses the art by trying to make it fit into the standards set by paintings.
Fashion is a cultural heritage and it should be archived for posterity but in the same way those dance instructions of numbered foot patterns in a book never made a dancer, a dress in a museum will never be more legitimately a piece of art.