The Art of Fashion

OPINION   •  AND WHEN DID ART BECOME FASHION?


Artstein has explored the proximity between art and fashion with both disciplines nurturing the other, developing side by side.

SS19 Collections, From Left to Right: Dolce & Gabbana — Marni — Mary Katrantzou — Francesca Liberatore — Dolce & Gabbana — Francesca Liberatore — Marni

SS19 Collections, From Left to Right: Dolce & Gabbana — Marni — Mary Katrantzou — Francesca Liberatore — Dolce & Gabbana — Francesca Liberatore — Marni

The idea of fashion as an art is not a new topic of discussion. Haute couture is often regarded as art, however nowadays, even for ready-to-wear or any apparel, there are fashion designers for whom art plays a vital role in their own creative process. According to the book Art/Fashion in the 21st Century published by Thames & Hudson, these designers set themselves in an art context and often see themselves as artists recognisable throughout the whole brand identity. 

Leo Tolstoy believes that a woman’s attire is a matter of the highest art. In his book What is Art (1906), he states that an average person who is not a specialist and has not studied the questions of aesthetics, might deny this, and if they do, they would be mistaken. He refers to French writer Ernest Renan who discusses the work of the tailor being art, and harshly criticises people who do not see fashion as ‘grand art’ as being dull and limited, in his book Marc Aurèle, published in 1882.

In a more contemporary context, fashion historian Valerie Steele distinguishes between art and fashion as follows: 

“Both fashion and art are part of visual culture, and contemporary artists sometimes draw on fashion, often to make a point about consumerism or body image. However, the fashion world and art world are very different systems comprised of different institutional and individual players.” 

She continues, “But who decides whether fashion is art? …. Some fashion designers regard themselves as artists, but many others, including some of the most acclaimed, such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Karl Lagerfeld and Miuccia Prada, have denied that fashion is art. Fashion, they say, is an industry, albeit a creative industry, and a part of daily life. For fashion to be art, it would seem necessary, not only for fashion designers, but also for painters, sculptors, gallerists, collectors, art curators, etc., to acknowledge fashion as art.”

Whether fashion is considered as a form of art or not, the ongoing collective exchange between fashion and the arts proves that both disciplines nurture each other. Since Coco Chanel collaborated with Picasso for the Ballet Russet, and Yves Saint Laurent created the famous dress inspired by artist Piet Mondrian, fashion has always been fed by the arts, and now arts is increasingly being fed by fashion too. 

When did fashion become art? 

Fashion & Museums 

Displaying historical or couture fashion in museums helped clothes to gain an ‘art’ status, and through the displaying of fashion in museums, clothes were able to gain the aura of the art world too. For example, when legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland created a memorable suite of exhibitions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including ‘The World of Balenciaga’ (1973), ‘The Glory of Russian Costume’ (1976) and ‘Vanity Fair’ (1977), she was aiming to portray fashion as a form of art, galvanising audiences and setting a new standard for costume exhibitions globally. It was during Vreeland’s time that the MET Gala began to evolve into a more glamorous affair, and now the museum continues to hold the MET Gala to mark the grand opening of the Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibition. 

Iconic British fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes founded the Fashion and Textile Museum in London in 2003, to exhibit contemporary fashion and textiles. It was founded to provide a chance to rethink the relationship between arts and fashion.

More recently, the Serpentine Gallery presented fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition, following the Gallery’s fashion-focused exhibition of Atelier E.B and Park Nights art performance events supported by fashion brands TELFAR and COS. 

Christian Dior by John Galliano (b.1960), embroidered silk dress with Swarovski crystals, Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 2004. Dior Héritage collection, Paris. Photo © Laziz Hamani

Christian Dior by John Galliano (b.1960), embroidered silk dress with Swarovski crystals, Haute Couture, Autumn/Winter 2004. Dior Héritage collection, Paris. Photo © Laziz Hamani

The subjects of fashion, couture and textiles are preferred by museums and galleries because they bring overwhelming attention to the institute. ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ and ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’ were among the most visited exhibitions held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the last few years. The museum’s current exhibition, ‘Christian Dior: Designer of the Dreams’ might even surpass previous exhibitions in terms of visitor numbers. When the tickets were released on 1st February, for the period between 2nd February to 14th July 2019, within 19 days, all the tickets had been sold, and the museum decided to extend the exhibition for another seven weeks. It is now expected that the Christian Dior exhibition at the V&A will be the most popular exhibition in the museum’s history after Alexander McQueen’s, which attracted 494,043 visitors according to the Evening Standard. 

V&A: Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams Exhibition  © Victoria and Albert Museum , Adrien Dirand

V&A: Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams Exhibition

© Victoria and Albert Museum , Adrien Dirand

When did art become fashion? 

In the 21st century, luxury fashion brands are becoming increasingly involved with art. Implementing brand-art associations has become the desired way to engage with consumers, as it works as an authentic way to acquire potential new audiences to create different touchpoints and strengthens a brand’s contemporary cultural relevance. Collaborating with various artists creates new ways to express the brand’s vision by building stories, and can set a brand into a culturally-relevant context. 

According to Jean Noel Kapferer, a brand theorist, luxury likes to be associated with art, because both of the two share the aim of being considered as imperial and timeless, and both love of creativity, craftsmanship, rare materials and exclusivity. The luxury industry generally seeks to portray products as contemporary art items made by skillful designers, placing emphasis on the concepts of craftsmanship, expertise and effort, which can be seen as an object of art. In this way, products do communicate a sense of sophistication and intrinsic value to consumers.

For example, the 2019 summer collections recalled everything from impressionist flowers to the great masterpieces printed on dresses. When looking for the inspirations and references that these looks bring together, it can be seen that many designers took direct inspiration from the arts, like Vermeer’s famous Girl with the Pearl Earring on a Mary Katrantzou dress, or 16th century Chinese oil painting prints on Simone Rocha’s garments. 

SS19 Collections, From Left to Right: Arthur Arbesser— Dries Van Noten — Simone Rocha — Christian Wijnants — Chanel

SS19 Collections, From Left to Right: Arthur Arbesser— Dries Van Noten — Simone Rocha — Christian Wijnants — Chanel

According to theorists, luxury brands often have a purely commercial interest in art, manifested by special collaborations with artists, art foundations and, more commonly, exhibitions, to remain relevant and upgrade the brand image to create a competitive advantage and a different positioning. Deploying art as a marketing strategy to set a context and create hype works very well for fashion brands. 

Fashion benefits from art; art benefits from fashion. 

A Win-Win Situation

According to an academic study conducted by Julia Sophie Jelinek, many experts see art and fashion as going hand-in-hand as a natural synergy. Fashion houses hire artists and illustrators and give them generous fees. And since the fashion industry spends a lot of its budget on marketing, art becomes rich. Having been bound to each other for a long time, one of the experts stated that art is a word that makes everything easier to sell. 

Witnessing many examples in the industry proves the norm. The latest examples include the new Burberry advertisement campaign under Ricardo Tisci’s creative direction, Gucci’s ongoing collaborations with young artists and illustrators, Prada’s Marfa and Foundation, Victoria Beckham x Sotheby’s collaboration. These are just a small handful of examples. 


According to the same study, “Art creates a certain cultural leadership that means you can connect your (fashion) product to the world of art collectors, art admirers and to the world of cultural leadership.” It is true that art increases fashion sales in return, but through this strategy, art also becomes more fashionable. Since fashion can afford to allocate a large amount of its budget to advertising, art gets increased exposure, by way of which art obtains even better marketing than what fashion aims for itself, as the ads are indirectly marketing the arts and not manifested by the industry itself. Moreover, since the art world does not prioritise the commercial side of the business, fashion does it for the arts.  

As a result, there is now an increased tendency to participate in art festivals such as the Frieze, the Affordable Art Fair and Art Basel, with a new audience including people who do not have the background knowledge required to understand art, or indeed the intention to buy art. They visit these fairs because they are trying to be associated with this artistic world. And as people see more of art, they tend to appreciate it more. 

Is fashion an art? 

The perennial question is whether fashion is an art form at all. 

From the fashion perspective, since there have been relatively fewer critical definitions of fashion compared to art, it is harder to position fashion as a genuine art form. The word ‘fashion’ seems too broad to be able to accept that it is art. Many critics do not consider fashion as art, pointing out the fact that, in contrast to couture and skilled production, there is another side of fashion that is mass-produced, sales-orientated and created for daily use only and lacking creativity. These features are what art strongly opposes.

On the other hand, from the arts’ perspective, it is also hard to position fashion as a form of art, because the answer to the question ‘what is art?’ is still uncertain too. (You can read more into Artstein’s opinion feature on ‘What is art?’ at this link)

The strong connection between fashion and art is clear, but the question of whether fashion is an art form is up for discussion. 

Art and fashion seem to walk on two different but parallel roads, growing side by side. The roads sometimes cross over, and this is when fashion becomes art and art becomes fashion, but in other situations fashion turns back to being fashion only, and art turns back to being art only. 

Maybe, for those special cross-over moments, fashion needs to create a new sub-category, to be able to say that ‘special one’ is art.