Fashion as Performance Art
Since the 1990s, the spectacle of the traditional fashion show has changed drastically.
Is fashion performance art? asks Suzy Menkes in one of her reviews for Vogue Magazine. The International Vogue Editor, who has reported from the front row of runway shows for decades, states in the same review that this concept of fashion performance “started well before the new millennium when drama on the runway was normalised by defining fashion shows as theatre.”
Since the 1990s, the spectacle of the traditional fashion show has changed significantly: what used to be a parade of mannequins has been transformed into a performance of the clothed body. The construction of this performance and the design of its stage are employed in hugely expensive productions, and catwalk shows have become highly sophisticated, art-directed and extraordinary.
For example, Gianni Versace’s Autumn/Winter 1991 show, which brought all the it girls of its time together on the runway, initiated the supermodel phenomenon. Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford were walking on the runway arm in arm, singing the famous lyrics of ‘Freedom’ by George Michael.
The 90s brought ‘character design’ as another aspect of the shows; for the purpose of serving fantastical shows, designers such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan and Jean Paul Gaultier, to name but a few, increasingly explored character design in their work. Caroline Evans, who wrote Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, with a volume solely on fashion and performance, highlights Galliano’s focus on character by saying:
“For each show he created a fictional character around whom the narrative edifice was built. Each model in any show had only one outfit — there were no quick changes here — and was encouraged really to play the part.”
Since then, the methods used to create fashion shows have focused increasingly on concepts over commerciality, addressing issues of identity, character, narratives or political and social responsibility. Some theorists suggest that these performances are preferred for the ‘show’ they offer, with a focus on promoting the designer and the brand by creating powerful and memorable presentations. Within this approach, it is widely accepted to design garments just for the runway and not necessarily for customers to wear, in order to be able to grab the most attention and press coverage, either by:
Entertaining the audience
Creating a fantastical world or story that ideally reflects the designer’s or brand’s imagination, skill and craftsmanship
Creating a shocking performance or concept
Provoking social/political messages
Within this approach, the role of a fashion designer is extended to not just designing a collection but also deciding on how they will communicate the brand identity to their consumer through the clothed or performing body. As a result, when aiming to create an extraordinary fashion show or campaign, some fashion houses and designers choose to collaborate with performance artists to be able to gain from their expertise, creativity and popularity.
When we think of ‘fashion’ and ‘performance art’ as two different disciplines that both work with the body, the rise of ‘fashion performance’ becomes very obvious; after all, since the 1970s, the body has been the mutual preoccupation of designers, artists and performers.
For example, legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch and designer Yamamoto served as inspirations for each other’s work until her death in 2009. From Alexander McQueen’s Spring 1999 show with Shalom Harlow to Rick Owen’s human backpacks that the designer showcased during his SS16 show, and from Chloé’s SS11 campaign which featured the exceptional ballet dancer Janie Taylor to Dior’s latest SS19 show which is completely inspired by ballet and dancers, there are many collaborations that demonstrate good examples of what we may call ‘fashion performance’. Christian Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri said “I wanted to speak about dance from a different point of view”, backstage to a Vogue editor, stating “I think that dance and fashion are very close, for they both speak about the body.”
Let’s look back on some of the iconic fashion performance moments on the runway.
Paris-Bombay Métiers d'Art 2011/12 fashion show in Paris © CHANEL