Fashion and Art

Fashion as Art

Fashion, the ubiquitous expression of human culture, serves many roles in human society, ranging from elemental protection to fulfilling our deep-rooted social needs. People’s dress  provide a fascinating way to view history and understand an era.  But is fashion art? Does fashion rank among other accepted art forms as an esteemed manner of self-expression? A taxonomical question as such demands a rigorous definition of what “art” is, let alone knowing exactly what is meant by “fashion”.

What makes art?

One of the principle components of art in any medium is an adherence to, or at least recognition of, aesthetic principles of beauty. Human have the unique capacity for this sort of abstraction, for ideals and intangibles. What humans perceive as beautiful and why is a more complicated question, but such nebulous standards do exist (see Manns’ Aesthetics: Explorations in Philosophy). They govern our perception of the world around us. However, the adherence to aesthetic principles is certainly not sufficient.  Nature is the only necessary counter example of this, as the world is full of scenes, sounds, smells and moments that appeal to our sense of beauty but occur as the result of natural processes. The beauty in art, contrastingly, arises from the “creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature” (Canaday, 11). In order for something to be art, it must be the creation of a mind.

Humans’ desire to understand their own past is driven, expressed, and aided through art. As a function of the human mind, a work of art provides some insight into the mind that produced it. When reflecting on the reasons why human behavior has aesthetic tendencies at all, art historian  John Canaday observes that the “tendency to create art serves to bring order to the chaotic material of the human experience” (Canaday, 11). As a result of the insatiable need for order and understanding, aesthetic principles are ubiquitous in nearly all of human creation. It is impossible to deny this fact, as it is made evident by simply looking around. “Art has served life as an embellishment from the day our prehistoric ancestors first smeared magical signs on their bodies with colored clays to this moment…. the patterns of rugs, bookbindings and upholstery, the shapes of moldings, ashtrays, and knickknacks; the color and design of clothing” (Canaday, 11). The world created by man illustrates his underlying need for aesthetic fulfillment.

Another important aspect of art is its ability to provide insight into the past. In many ways, it serves as a portal to another time and place. Art acts as a reflection of the culture and philosophy that shaped the mind of the creator. Art “can bring the observer, or listener, or reader, more vividly and immediately into the presence of immortal genius of all times and places” (Canaday, 10). In this way, art sharpens our understanding of reality by bringing in new perspective.

A definition of art that only includes aesthetics and history, however, is incomplete. Art requires some tangible substance. The form of art, the “it”, can be comprised of nearly any medium. Some of the most commonly recognized are painting, sculpture, music and literature, but art is certainly not limited to these forms of expression, especially in the modern era. “Artists who have set out self-consciously to express our century in its own terms have capitalized on materials and methods unique to its technology – all kinds of plastics, neon lights, computer-directed motion for computer designed sculpture… industrial waste products” (Canaday, 12). The form of art, of course, will vary depending on the medium used. The components of a painted picture are visual; things like color and texture are tools used by the artist. The components of a piece of music, on the other hand, are quite different. They include aural elements, like tempo and pitch.

Carole Garmon, professor of sculpture at the University of Mary Washington, adds to this tentative definition that art must ask something of the individual who views it. Because aesthetics are ubiquitous and inherent to all human creation, use of aesthetics alone to define art is insufficient. The question that a work provokes in the viewer should not be “how”, as in the manner of its construction, but rather “why” the work exists and makes the viewer feel a certain way (Garmon). The distinction between art and craft is the motivation. Craft places emphasis on the material first, primarily creating an object that has functional value but does not serve to embody some higher idea. Art, on the other hand, must originate as an idea that is then translated into art in some medium.

Fashion and Aesthetics

Fashion, certainly, meets most of the characteristics of art that have been identified so far: aesthetics, form, and history. Just as art history is essential to understanding the essence of a given time period, fashion too lends an entirely unique perspective to the ideals of its day. In a manner that is analogous to art, “fashion… is a social expression of an age, a way of life that reflects man’s cultural heritage and current ideals” (Weissman).

The aesthetics of fashion are manifest through its form. An analysis of the craft of fashion gives rise to the study of stitching, cut, trim, color theory and their role in creating image and mood. When we examine some of the characteristics of popular fashion trends and examine their peculiarities, enlightening patterns emerge. Is their any reason why professional business suits are never seen in bright and garish colors? Why is the black-white-gray color palette so ubiquitous and rarely deviated from? The specific reason why those colors have the significance to modern culture that they do is probably a complicated one, reaching back into a long history of art and psychology of esthetics. But it remains true that these colors do conjure a mood of the serious, the austere, the professional.

Oscar Wilde, a prominent fashion critic in his day, characterized beauty by saying it is “the purgation of all superfluities…. it gives us just what is needful and no more, whereas ugliness is always extravagant; ugliness is a spendthrift and wastes its material; ugliness, as much in costume as in anything else, is always the sign that somebody has been unpractical” (Wilde, 118). In this sense, beauty and functionality are two facets of the same ideal. Helen Brockman, in her influential text The Theory of Fashion Design, outlines the artistic principles that lay the foundation for practical clothing design. She describes how the golden mean is utilized in fashion to achieve pleasing and balanced space division, how predictable and deliberate patterns can convey a sense of visual rhythm, how fine scale can be used to perfectly frame the wearer (Brockman, 82- 93. See images 1-3). In her work Distinctive Dress, fashion theorist Julia Patrick remarks that fashion’s aesthetic is perfected “when clothes are suitable in all material respects, and when they are truly appropriate, they are in tune with their surroundings and contribute to the beauty of the scene” (Patrick, 3). These highlights are just an introduction, but the understanding is that there is a theory of fashion design that is rational and artistic, echoing Oscar Wilde’s characterization of beauty.

Commerciality and Industry

Even in light of the common ground fashion shares with art, it is still disregarded by many art communities. “Fashion designers have never managed to gain total recognition as artists”, despite the talent and vision that goes into their craft (Weissman). Its barrier to acceptance lies in the commerce and capitalism that has become so engrained in the world of fashion. Fashion “has become so powerful a force in our economic structure that what once may have served as a need for protective covering or a spiritual stimulus has evolved into a vast business enterprise that concerns nearly all people of the world” (Weissman). Modern fashion has become inseparable from the commerce that produces it.

It is of great irony that the same characteristic that makes fashion such a unique form of creative expression is the same thing that muddies its status in the world of pure art. “Fashion’s existence, across high and popular culture and so into mass culture, has manifested itself in the reduction of its power to attain high art status, yet it is this mass culture that in turn demands the bi-annual presentation of new collections” (Taylor). While fashion did exist before the capitalist philosophy gained cultural prominence, market forces are now the biggest motivator in the production of new styles and trends. This trend of transience directly contrasts the connotation of longevity that art so often carries with it (Taylor). It is the nature of modern fashion that clothing will generally have a physical durability longer than their social relevance, as advertisers work specifically to sell the idea of novelty and make previous styles irrelevant.

The fashion industry, just as all other putative art in the modern era, is transformed by the ability to produce something en masse. What once could be valued for its uniqueness is now available to anybody with the means to acquire it. In this sense, a haute-couture designer creating a specifically beautiful dress for one occasion and person would generally be judged to be more artful than a generically styled polo shirt designed to be sold at discount department stores. The infusion of a designer’s work into culture at this rate and scale leads to interesting questions when considering artistic integrity. It seems that through the shift of craftsmanship into mass production, a fashion piece’s ideological basis is uprooted (Stepanova, 172). This is less artful for the same reason that mass-marketed pop songs are considered to be less “artful” than Bach’s fugues, or Rhapsody in Blue. There is a distinction to be made between popular culture and art, but naturally, the lines between the two are ill defined, with ample room for crossover. The reason why fashion is so reluctantly classified as an art is the same reason why it cannot, with ease, be classified as a purely commercial enterprise. The fact is that fashion is the term which embodies the role of clothing in human culture, which incorporates both of these elements in a unique way.

The particularity of haute couture is important because it sidesteps the criticism of mass production. The subculture of haute couture is, in some ways, the pinnacle of fashion as art. In this industry all the esteemed characteristics of art are preserved – singularity and exorbitant incorporation of beauty – yet haute couture still produced what is unmistakably clothing. At such a high level, haute couture is free from financial restraints. “The finished garment, impeccable in every detail, is the only, the ultimate, aim” (Spanier, 14). They are constructed to impeccably fit the body of an individual patron, and in this they are utterly unique. The culture surrounding couture is filled with artistic aspirations, in its construction and presentation (See video 4).

Carole Garmon adds that the argument against art on the basis of commerciality is ignorant of a fundamental aspect of art history. Art, she says, has always been driven by the market for art, and will always continue to be. The idea that an artist cannot make money off their work without compromising some of its purity is ludicrous. Some of art’s finest and most acclaimed pieces (see: the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s Fugues, David Hurst) were commission by patrons or have involved a large investment of money. An artist need not be starving and homeless for his work to have merit. This argument is probably driven by fear, Garmon observes. For some reason, people feel the need to protect the purity of economics, science, and craft from the agenda of art; For some reason, the idea of an object having a dual nature is repugnant. One is led to wonder if such boundaries really exist at all.

Wearers as Artists

Even if one denies the status of “art” to commercially driven prêt-a-porter lines, there is still an art to be found in the fashion of the streets. The way an individual wearer adorns themselves, not with clothes they have crafted but rather crafted with clothes they have found, is assuredly an idea manifest in form, especially when done consciously. The fashion of everyday people, who can’t afford the supposed luxury of an individual tailor, expresses something about their spirit and the culture they come from. “While most of us are not artists, we all get dressed everyday. Fashion, by default becomes our creative outlet” (Boodro). The transition to instantly wearable lines leaves the wearer “free to choose for herself, to interpret the mode according to her own style, taste and figure, to participate in creation without being reined by absolutes” (Dorsey, 241). The locally popular fashion photo-blog DirtyRichmond documents particularly expressive outfits from the streets of Richmond, VA (see image 5).

Italian art historian Daniele Tamagni, in his book The Gentlemen of Bacongo, provides a defining example of wearers as “artists” (see image 10 and video 11). Through his photography he catalogs the Sape culture of the Bacongo region in the Dominican Republic of Congo. In an area stricken with internal conflict and poverty, an elite group of gentlemen wear exclusively high-end suits, incorporating lively color and flair. Sapeur fashion is derivative of the Congo’s French colonial roots, and is a garish, almost unsettling contrast to the unrest in the region (Egan). While in other wealthier nations such conspicuous consumption is almost perfunctory, the Sapeurs of Bacongo dedicate nearly all of their time and money to purchasing these “dandy” outfits. This phenomenon is certainly an indicator of status, and indeed this sort of “anti-fashion” serves one of fashion’s implicit roles of defining and unifying groups of opposition to mainstream culture. But the fashion of these gentlemen steps beyond mere anti-fashion in that their self-sacrificial and showy style embodies their optimistic beliefs in such a dark region (Hallman). Is such transcendence of base conditions through fashion not artful?

The book (un)Fashion is a stunning collection of photographs of fashion in the modern world (see images 6-9). Director Maira Kalman, in the book’s only text (excluding photo credits), said the book was born of her husband’s idea to “catalog his giddy obsession with mankind’s ingenious expression” to “salute the present and the future of the indomitable human spirit”. Many of the images in the book depict instances of exotic fashion that are undeniably artful and expressive; hailing from cultures so vastly different that it becomes apparent how much clothing reflects the people it comes from. The book, too, is itself a work of art as it brings together images from such disparate places to convey the ideas of the author.

Fashion in Museums

The placement of fashion exhibits in art museums lends an almost magical credibility to fashion as art. It seems artfulness is contagious, as it would be natural to infer that if fashion is grouped in the same building as monumental works of art, then it too is artwork. Such exhibits, however, are often subject to criticism as being mere commercial outlets for designers (Svendson, 92). The fashion industry today must serve the two opposing masters of money and culture. The strategy utilized by fashion merchandisers dissociates them from the market to increase their perceived cultural value, but this is only done to achieve increased financial capital through the market as a result. (Svendson, 92). Additionally, the fashion industry lacks the body of criticism that shapes the art world; fashion critics typically only exist to expose and advertise new collections (Svendson, 93). The influence of the market on fashion is impossible to separate from the motives of its designers, thereby always calling into question the “pureness” of its status as art.

Diana Vreeland’s many exhibits at the Costume Insitute were subject to many of these criticisms. She was the first to break the mold of fashion exhibits as history and instead manipulated the spectacle to draw visitors (Steele). Her Yves Saint-Laurent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983 was the first to display the work of a living designer, sending the critical world into a fury of controversy. Fashion in the museum, then, is typically seen as either an exhibit of history or an exhibit of art, but not of both. “Most fashion exhibits… either emphasize the formal beauty and architectural potential of clothes, or they emphasize social readings derived from social history, material culture, or local history” (McNeil). Here another boundary seems to be drawn out of fear and an unexplained need to maintain the purity of supposedly independent disciplines.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the summer of 2011, featured an exhibit of the works of Italian designer Roberto Capucci titled “Art into Fashion” (see image 12). The transitive nature of the title’s preposition itself seems to suggest that two terms are separate entities. On display are dozens of Capucci’s “sculpture dresses”, beautiful and stunning works of craftsmanship that take the form of the dresses but turn them into something much more moving. The use of “sculpture” as an adjective implies something beyond the scope of ordinary dress. The dresses use exaggerated pleating and vibrant colors to reflect nature, music, and influential artists in Capucci’s lifetime. These dresses are the result of his artistic vision manifest through a cooperative effort with a team of artisans who all contribute to the final piece.


Capucci’s exhibit would seem to supply a definitive answer; that yes, fashion is absolutely an art. Anybody daring to deny the artistic status of such beautiful dresses must be philistine at heart. Capucci’s dresses are unique creations, freed from the commercial motivations that plague other exhibitions. However, the closing moments of the exhibit’s audio tour are almost heartbreaking as the narrator disclaims “While they resemble dresses, [the displayed works] are just art, and not intended to be worn”. This qualifier, that they were meant for visual appreciation only, robs Capucci’s dresses of the functional and commercial aspect that is so essential to the modern definition of fashion, yet also liberates them in a way that allows them to be considered “pure”.

This distinction, made with an almost startling imperative, eagerly constructs a wall between fashion and art. Capucci’s dresses, as artwork that merely resembles fashion, is one example of what fashion curator and critic Melissa Leventon terms “wearable art”. The term is not meant to imply that all works of this form are intended to be worn (although some certainly are) but rather simply convey the idea that they could be. Artists such as Nick Cave blend clothing and fashion with kinetic, aural, and temporal elements (and often with an absurdist sentiment as well) that are worn by models but clearly do not purport to be “wearable” (see images 14-15). Others, including some of Carole Garmon’s work, take clothing even further out of its context in the human figure (see images 16-18).

The way that artists and fashion designers borrow from each other is characteristic of the two worlds. Artists have a long history of portraying fashion in traditional art forms. In fact, this is one of the only ways that past fashions are made known to modern historians (Boodro). A more deliberate crossover occurs when fashion designers take inspiration from current art trends. “Surely it was not coincidental that the 1960’s sleek, futuristic miniskirt sheaths and white vinyl go-go boots… all came to the foreground at the same time that kinetic art, pop art, op art, and hard-edge geometric abstract painting were the rage” (Boodro). The influence of wide-spread cultural trends is easily seen in both art and fashion.

For a more extreme example of social ideals having a profound impact on the shape of sub-fashions, the Italian futurist movement serves quite well. At the beginning of the twentieth century, prominent Italian artist Giacomo Balla expressed their deliberate rebuke of current fashion trends in his manifesto: “We want to liberate humanity from slow Romantic nostalgia and from the difficulty of life. We want to color and rejuvenate in a Futurist way the crowds in our streets. Finally, we want to give people beautiful festive clothes” (Balla, 155). Designer Ernestro Thayahy continues: “The time has come to recognize, among the many merits of this invigorating movement, that it has rejuvenated the way we dress, liberating the youth of the whole world from a pervasive and suffocating grayness, simplifying the clothes of men and women, making it lighter, healthier, and more comfortable” (Thayahy, 166). Here, Thayahy highlights their intentions to also direct fashion to a more practical form. While making clothes “lighter, healthier, and more comfortable” (functional aspects that would otherwise be distinct from art), this subculture embodies the crossover between functional fashion and the ideals of an artistic movement (see image 13).

A Conclusion

The conclusion that seems most natural, then, is that the question is ultimately superfluous and irrelevant. “The concept of art has expanded so radically over the past century that it is hard to think of any object or any event that cannot be incorporated into it; it is now impossible to draw any line between art and non-art” (Svendson, 107). Only by narrowing the scope of what is meant by “fashion”, by emphasizing the aesthetic and denying the commerciality that is its blood, can fashion be considered art per se. In a similar manner, only by expanding the definition of art to include all things that tickle the senses and play with aesthetics the way fashion must, can art include the totality of what is considered “fashion”, not just experimental exhibits from mastermind designers. What becomes increasingly evident the more the subject is dwelt upon is that there is no satisfying answer. “Fashion” and “art” are two terms so broad, so encompassing, ever expanding and changing, playing such a diverse multitude of roles in human culture, that simply saying “fashion is art” or “fashion is not art” denies justice to both terms.

Not only is “Is fashion an art?” an impossible question to answer, but there is no compelling reason to answer at all. An answer ultimately offers benefit neither to the world of fashion nor the world of art. It may, for the benefit of pedantic discussion (with characteristically technical and impractical terms), be momentarily useful to consider fashion as an art, if somehow that brings new light to a work of fashion or cultural phenomenon. But what is plainly obvious is that the art and fashion communities have and will continue to interact, overlap, accept and reject each other in their expression of the human spirit in such a way the eludes technical terms, regardless of what eager taxonomists deem “fashion” to be. To ask the question is to miss the point.

Videos and Images

(4) Christian Dior’s haute couture lines display especially beautiful instances of fashion, displayed in artful form. Haute couture transcends pure craft, as do works of beautiful architecture, in its characteristic attention the details of design and fit.

(11) A user created video on youtube shows the artful wear on the streets of the Congo.


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Multimedia Credits

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(3) Guinta, Lorraine. Dresses that illustrate the principle of balance.Brockman, Helen L. The Theory of Fashion Design. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965. Print scan.

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(18) Garmon, Carole. Untitled. 1997. Top angle view. Satin, tulle, crinoline, wood. Film slide digital scan.

(19) Milligan, Michelle. Author photograph. 2011. Photograph.

Has a dog Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
you lose your own Buddha-nature.

- A Buddhist Koan

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