Can fashion be thought of as art?

Oct 28, 2014

I love the definition of art as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination. It leaves open a vast and potentially unlimited amount of sub-sets of what, under this definition, can be considered art.

When we think of what we consider art most of us will think of a visual form such as painting or sculpture but in more recent times that traditional form has been broadened, to include photography and installation, performance art and other immersive art forms where the viewer becomes part of the art as well as being part of the audience. Some of these forms have been accepted more easily than others. The part of the definition where art is an expression of human creativity and imagination I think we can mostly all live with and accept. Some would also argue that art must have an element or requirement for skill, although whether this needs to be the case has been hotly debated in our times. We now seem to have come out of the other side of that debate and now accept, more or less, and as demonstrated by modern artists such as Emin and Hurst, that to be an artist one doesn’t need to necessarily be an artisan.

Another more controversial quality, that is not as often plainly spoken about (maybe because to do so would seem elitist and pretentious), is whether just because something has utility, it is a lesser form of art or not art at all. The feeling that in order to qualify as art it must be appreciated on a gallery wall or at an exhibition and exist only for its intrinsic beauty, interest or emotional resonance. From this viewpoint, the art that we take ‘off the walls’ and use or wear is seen as a lesser form of art or not art at all. And this is where I feel the debate of whether fashion can be art seems to have halted at this moment. Interestingly, the same problem emerges for architecture, although the level of both skill and creativity can often vastly outstrip what is put into more readily accepted forms.

Is Fashion an art form?

Certainly, until more recent times in our civilization the debate would have been considered nonsensical – fashion as distinct from clothing was not even a concept until society reached a certain level of maturation – prehistoric man didn't have a concept of fashion (the animal print was not A/W1000 BC but actual skin from a dead animal hunted that day!), but they did make art in the form of drawing and sculpture. As time went on, in certain cultures, other mediums including textiles, were employed. However, although clothing and bodily adornment could be decorative and beautiful, and although they could be used as a mode of artistic expression, there was a distinct difference between that and a 'true' art form.

Fashion could only even be thought of as an art form when clothing was no longer needed just for survival and we could afford the luxury of it being a mode of self-expression. The fact that some consider fashion to be an art form speaks to the fact that many of us are now living well and truly beyond the hierarchy of basic needs. And if fashion is art, it could be said to be a very profound and personal type of art because, as I love to say, it is art that lives on us, that we wear on our backs every day. Just because it has some kind of intrinsic utility, it is ephemeral and temporary, doesn't make it any less valuable.

Even shows in fashion week share many parallels to exhibitions in art galleries. Fashion shows are often a visually immersive  and spectacular experience where every element works together to showcase the ‘art’ at its best. The use of lighting, for example, is as important to get right in a fashion show as for the curator in a gallery. The use of music, theatre and mood are all elements the designer uses to create a visual feast that is designed to create an emotional impact on the viewer. Yes, fashion is a business but so is art these days and to me it seems that there is so much more to these wonderful displays than just a hard sell.

Celebrity also has raised the status of fashion; it is photographed, critiqued and talked about endlessly and has elevated fashion designers into rock stars and celebrities in their own right. It would be elitist in the extreme to suggest that because a form has gained popularity means that it is not pure enough to be art. Indeed celebrity culture has helped elevate fashion into a type of immersive art form, a celebration not only of the designer’s skill and imagination but a form where the wearer (and now the audience looking at the wearer) also becomes part of the experience.

So that brings me to asking if fashion is art, does it matter? Is there any value in promoting fashion as art? The answer to that, for me, has to be a resounding yes. It is only by appreciating that fashion is an art form that we give credit to those hard working designers and artists that are also artisans, that spend their passion and their time crafting these pieces. Just like my six year old niece’s every drawing is not a piece of art, not every piece of clothing is art, but to say that fashion cannot be a form of art is doing many artists a disservice.

By accepting that fashion is a form of art we can help in stopping people trying to devalue it; the very devaluation that has led us to the mass consumption and commoditisation of 'fast fashion'. There is now a distinct movement against this and a return back to buying pieces of beauty that will last. For me, fashion has the same value as other art forms when it truly is allowed to be art; it inspires and brings more joy and beauty into the world.

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