Fashion as Performance Art

OVERVIEW • IS FASHION A FORM OF PERFORMING 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.

Gianni Versace's Autumn Winter 1991 with Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington  ©VERSACE

Gianni Versace's Autumn Winter 1991 with Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Christy Turlington

©VERSACE

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:

  1. Entertaining the audience

  2. Creating a fantastical world or story that ideally reflects the designer’s or brand’s imagination, skill and craftsmanship

  3. Creating a shocking performance or concept

  4. 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. 

CHRISTIAN DIOR, FALL 1999 COUTURE  video belows  Left: CHRISTIAN DIOR, FALL 1999 COUTURE via Fashion Chanel  Right: CHRISTIAN LACROIX, FALL 1988 COUTURE

CHRISTIAN DIOR, FALL 1999 COUTURE

video belows

Left: CHRISTIAN DIOR, FALL 1999 COUTURE via Fashion Chanel

Right: CHRISTIAN LACROIX, FALL 1988 COUTURE

Paris-Bombay Métiers d'Art 2011/12 fashion show in Paris © CHANEL  
Right: CHRISTIAN LACROIX, FALL 1988 COUTURE

CHANEL COUTURE FALL/WINTER 2017 © CHANEL

CHANEL COUTURE FALL/WINTER 2017 © CHANEL

CHANEL SPRING/SUMMER 2019 © CHANEL

CHANEL SPRING/SUMMER 2019 © CHANEL

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with SIMONETTA GIANFELICI  ©Condé Nast Archive

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with SIMONETTA GIANFELICI

©Condé Nast Archive

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with SIBYL BUCK  ©Condé Nast Archive

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with SIBYL BUCK

©Condé Nast Archive

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with DIANA GÄRTNER  ©Condé Nast Archive

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with DIANA GÄRTNER

©Condé Nast Archive

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with DIANA GÄRTNER  ©Condé Nast Archive

THIERRY MUGLER, SPRING 1997 COUTURE with DIANA GÄRTNER

©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with EVA HERZIGOVA  ©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with EVA HERZIGOVA

©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with KATE MOSS  ©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with KATE MOSS

©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with AMY WESSON  ©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with AMY WESSON

©Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear  ©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear

©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

VIKTOR & ROLF, FALL 1999 COUTURE with MAGGIE RIZER  © Condé Nast Archive

VIKTOR & ROLF, FALL 1999 COUTURE with MAGGIE RIZER

© Condé Nast Archive

VIKTOR & ROLF, FALL 1999 COUTURE with MAGGIE RIZER  © Condé Nast Archive

VIKTOR & ROLF, FALL 1999 COUTURE with MAGGIE RIZER

© Condé Nast Archive

JUNYA WATANABE, FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear with VICKY ANDRÉN  © Condé Nast Archive

JUNYA WATANABE, FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear with VICKY ANDRÉN

© Condé Nast Archive

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with QUERELLE JANSEN  © MARCIO MADEIRA

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with QUERELLE JANSEN

© MARCIO MADEIRA

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with IRINA PANTAEVA  ©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with IRINA PANTAEVA

©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with INES RIVERO  ©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with INES RIVERO

©Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear  ©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear

©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear  ©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear

©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear  ©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear

©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

UNGARO COUTURE, SPRING 2002 Couture  © OLIVIER BUHAGIAR, Shoot Digital for STYLE.com

UNGARO COUTURE, SPRING 2002 Couture

© OLIVIER BUHAGIAR, Shoot Digital for STYLE.com

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with MILAGROS SCHMOLL  © MARCIO MADEIRA

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with MILAGROS SCHMOLL

© MARCIO MADEIRA

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with EUGENIA MANDZHIEVA

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with EUGENIA MANDZHIEVA

JUNYA WATANABE, FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear with CAITRIONA BALFE  © Condé Nast Archive

JUNYA WATANABE, FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear with CAITRIONA BALFE

© Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear  ©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear

©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with ASTRID MUNOZ  ©Condé Nast Archive

JOHN GALLIANO, FALL 1997 Ready-to-Wear with ASTRID MUNOZ

©Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear  ©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

MAISON MARGIELA, SPRING 1998 Ready-to-Wear

©Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive

YOHJI YAMAMOTO, SPRING 1999 Ready-to-Wear with SHALOM HARLOW and ANGELA LINDVALL  © Condé Nast Archive

YOHJI YAMAMOTO, SPRING 1999 Ready-to-Wear with SHALOM HARLOW and ANGELA LINDVALL

© Condé Nast Archive

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with MILAGROS SCHMOLL

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER - SPRING 2007 COUTURE with MILAGROS SCHMOLL

UNGARO COUTURE, SPRING 2002 Couture  © OLIVIER BUHAGIAR, Shoot Digital for STYLE.com

UNGARO COUTURE, SPRING 2002 Couture

© OLIVIER BUHAGIAR, Shoot Digital for STYLE.com

JUNYA WATANABE, FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear  © Condé Nast Archive

JUNYA WATANABE, FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear

© Condé Nast Archive

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, SPRING 1999 Ready-to-Wear with SHALOM HARLOW

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, SPRING 1999 Ready-to-Wear with SHALOM HARLOW

THIERRY MUGLER, FALL 1995 Ready-to-Wear

THIERRY MUGLER, FALL 1995 Ready-to-Wear

AZZEDINE ALAIA, FALL 1991 Ready-to-Wear with BEVERLY PEELE

AZZEDINE ALAIA, FALL 1991 Ready-to-Wear with BEVERLY PEELE

JOHN GALLIANO, SPRING 1993 Ready-to-Wear

JOHN GALLIANO, SPRING 1993 Ready-to-Wear

CHRISTIAN DIOR SPRING 2007 COUTURE  ©MARCIO MADEIRA

CHRISTIAN DIOR SPRING 2007 COUTURE

©MARCIO MADEIRA

THIERRY MUGLER, FALL 1995 Ready-to-Wear with CLAUDIA SCHIFFER

THIERRY MUGLER, FALL 1995 Ready-to-Wear with CLAUDIA SCHIFFER

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, SPRING 2001 Ready-to-Wear with JADE PARFITT

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, SPRING 2001 Ready-to-Wear with JADE PARFITT

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, FALL 2003 Ready-to-Wear with NATALIA VODIANOVA

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, FALL 2003 Ready-to-Wear with NATALIA VODIANOVA

JOHN GALLIANO, Spring 1992 Ready-to-Wear with KATE MOSS

JOHN GALLIANO, Spring 1992 Ready-to-Wear with KATE MOSS

YVES SAINT LAURENT, SPRING 1999 COUTURE with LAETITA CASTA

YVES SAINT LAURENT, SPRING 1999 COUTURE with LAETITA CASTA

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHALAYAN FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear with NATALIA SEMANOVA

CHALAYAN FALL 2000 Ready-to-Wear with NATALIA SEMANOVA

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture  via Vogue Runway

CHRISTIAN DIOR Spring 1998 Couture

via Vogue Runway