January 23, 2007

Art and Fashion - Q&A with Myself!!

**Note: excerpts from a school-related conversation with the professor who is now my thesis advisor.**

Q: Now in our conversation you raised the point that certain pieces of clothing (couture) are never intended to be worn and can, therefore, be considered art. I wondered how this thesis would deal with the fact that clothes began as functional objects and only with the rise of modern ideas of couture, has functionality been jettisoned or reframed.

A: When I consider the role of functionality with regards to fashion, the first thing that I think of is that fashion itself has always been meant to be somewhat impractical – while it may protect the body, keep us from being naked, and act as a sociocultural signifier, the way that most fashion theorists define “fashion” is by its difference from “costume” or “Antifashion.” Historically speaking, while the latter remains constant over time (but varies geographically), fashion is known for its “ephemeral, transient, and futile character” (Lehmann 201). Built on the back of industrialization, mechanization, and capitalist consumption, fashion is meant to be impractical and encourage frivolity.

Couture has been around for over on e hundred years - little ateliers in Paris and Western Europe have been churning out beautiful gowns since the 19th century. However, what I believe has changed in the last century is the cultural role of couture.

First of all, while the handwork required and detailing applied to each garment may have remained constant, women seem to wear and purchase them for a different reason now. Today, I believe that couture is made primarily for two reasons: to raise the profile of a brand and sell more perfume and accessories, and for publicity reasons such as red-carpet appearances and photography features in magazines.

While a woman purchasing a Paul Poiret gown in 1920 would have appreciated its artistic and aesthetic merit, she would have also expected to wear the gown as part of her seasonal wardrobe or for special occasions. In contrast, many of the wild and colourful gowns that John Galliano showed for Dior’s Spring 2007 couture collection could probably only be sold after numerous alterations “for real life.” Couture has been elevated to the level of art precisely because it no longer has to (directly) answer to practicality and economics. At that rarefied level (at least theoretically), fashion no longer has to be “primarily motivated by profit” (Stern 14). Wearability, performance, and durability are almost irrelevant concerns next to Mr. Galliano’s visual and conceptual whims. His dresses only have to sell a concept, or a mood. As long as Dior perfumes sell briskly at duty-free shops and variations of the Saddle bag continue to be produced, Galliano’s artistic vision is secure.

Q: How would you theorize the current state of fashion and the carefully constructed lines between art and couture?

I think that the fashion business today is in a state of crisis, and overly depended on branding and the diffusion of already weak aesthetic references. Many labels rely more on appropriate advertising and the selling of lifestyle concepts more than innovation or risk-taking. Further, at the high-end designers are increasingly basing their business models on the bread and butter arenas of accessory lines and perfume launches rather than the less lucrative apparel end. (For example, Procter & Gamble shuttered the critically applauded Rochas fashion label in July, but will continue to sell its branded perfumes.

While 20th century fashion has always been cyclical, and less than original at the mass market level, I believe that the advent of computer technology and digital imaging in the last 10 years have worked to irrevocably alter the concept of trend cycles and the diffusion of style. Couture, and also high-end designer fashion, has had to establish itself by being increasingly dramatic, expensive, and impossibly adorned and constructed. Otherwise, how could they compete against the likes of Zara and Topshop?

As Charles Darwin’s son George wrote in 1872, the development of dress can be comparable to biological evolution, and it is only natural that in both “a form yields to a succeeding form, which is better adapted to the then surrounding conditions” (qtd. in Stern 130). When photos from couture shows appear freely on the Internet just a few hours after the event takes place, and high-street knock-offs can be produced within 6 week production cycles (from design to retail shelf), why else (besides brand-loyalty and status consciousness) would someone wait many months to buy the real thing for ten times more? The couture industry then has not only shrunk in size and influence, but its purpose in the fashion system has evolved.

Although couture clothing is becoming overly dramatic, we are still not seeing couture clothing in art or exhibition contexts as often as avant-garde apparel. Of course, today the argument that fashion can be artistic and that art works can revolve around or feature pieces from the fashion world has been pretty much normalized. As early as 1898 Josef Hoffmann wrote that “Dress seemed infinitely far from art, and we has accepted the idea that the gap that lies between them would never be bridged. We were wrong” (Stern 125). Of course now we are jaded to the idea of going to see art exhibits held at retail outlets, and viewing fashion products (and shopping) at established art galleries and museums. This century has witnessed both collaborations and appropriations between artists and fashion designers galore.

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