Why is fashion an art? To tell you the truth, when I first had the idea of this article, I already saw myself writing it in one go, — wrongly — thinking that I knew everything on the subject since I already had a very clear opinion on the matter. But as a conscientious student, I still did some research and suddenly my job became much more complicated than I thought it would be.
So, is fashion an art? Well, I was convinced that it was a few days ago, but now I don’t really know. Verdict at the end of the article.
Officially, fashion is not an art. It is not named in any of the current classifications of the visual arts, and is considered to be what is generally called an “applied art.” Applied arts include all sectors of industry that employ designers to create everyday objects, including, of course, clothing. Applied arts are opposed to visual arts in that they aim to create objects that have a function and are mass reproducible. According to these strict definitions of plastic arts and applied arts, fashion naturally falls into the second category, and there is no need for debate.
Or, is there?
Because fashion — and it’s not the only sector in this case — can actually quite well meet the conditions of belonging to both the applied arts and the visual arts. Of course, your new Zara leather perfecto is an object with a function: it keeps you warm and protects you from the imminent and constant rain of the upcoming autumn. And of course it is mass reproducible and you obviously know that there’s a good chance you’ll meet someone in the subway wrapped up in the same perfecto as you. Several times. But if the Zara perfecto — perfect example of a product of applied arts — is a fashionable object, so is Rick Owens’ Spring Summer 2016 collection, with its famous “human backpacks”. However, there is very little chance that you’ll ever meet someone wearing it on the streets. For the very simple reason that it is unwearable and not meant to be worn. This SS16 show is more about artistic performance than presenting a collection of clothing in the literal sense. These outfits will not be worn and are not mass reproducible. However, they will be exhibited in museums and have the power that many works of art have: they trigger reflection in the viewers. Rick Owens thought of them as an artistic expression that disseminated a political message. These women walked the runway— installed for the occasion in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris — carrying other women without almost any effort, thanks to a system of straps cleverly designed by the designer. This show, a performance in its own right, emphasizes the need for a sorority in our current world and the beauty of a simple but essential act: a woman supporting another woman, in a society where it is not always easy to consider it as such. In an interview, Rick Owens said he wanted to pay tribute to all the wonderful women around him in his life, and to their often under-recognized work in helping women. This collection, like many others in the world of haute couture, is a plastic art in its own right in my opinion, and should be recognized as such.
But it’s not just that. Fashion, in addition to being an art, aesthetic creations in their own right, exhibited in museums, a vector of messages and emotion, is inspired by the arts to renew and supply itself. Yves Saint Laurent, to name but a few, has done it over and over again, and without even hiding it, collaborating with painters and reinterpreting their works in his creations. We can mention the very famous Mondrian dress which takes up a painting by the artist or the dress inspired by Georges Braques’ work, again difficult to wear but so beautiful and interesting in terms of creative process. And Saint Laurent is not the only one to be, more or less directly, inspired by other artists in order to create. It is actually the hallmark of the arts, to be communicating vessels, sources of reflection and imagination for other fellow artists, whatever their disciplines.
Yet Yves Saint Laurent himself stated that his profession is “not quite an art, but needs artists to exist.” Why would a designer himself refuse this qualification of art? Coco Chanel also shared this idea. In an interview she declared with her usual outspokenness: “Fashion is not an art. That art uses fashion is enough for the glory of fashion (…) A dress is neither a tragedy nor a painting; it is a charming and ephemeral creation, not an eternal creation. Fashion has to die, and die fast, so that the industry can survive.”
The paradox that Coco Chanel raises here is the following: fashion, and even haute couture, cannot be qualified as art, because it is a business. As such, it belongs to the luxury industry and is an integral part of the capitalist system. A work of art that sells for millions and makes a profit would then no longer be a work of art? Personally I doubt it very much, because the art market today proves that auctions for certain paintings can defy any competition in terms of monetary indecency. What is interesting to note, however, is that Gabrielle Chanel had decided to focus on the ephemerality of fashion. The idea that the latter must “die, and die fast”, underlines the ever-present idea that one trend will always replace another, and that fashion is going out of fashion even faster than Donald Trump tweets. We are now at the very heart of this “fast fashion” movement, which I think is at its peek today. Fast fashion, despite all the creative intentions behind its productions, is not art. It is an industry, and a most flourishing industry, to the detriment of many people and the planet we live on (but it is yet another topic…).
Gabrielle Chanel saw fashion as a craft more than an art. Just as Saint Laurent, she undoubtedly recognized the artisticity required to practice this profession and recognized the talent necessary for each of the crafts involved in the creation of a unique piece. A craft that is nowadays transmitted from seamstress to seamstress. These seamstresses, goldsmiths of fabrics and exceptional materials, women and men from the shadows who allow an ancestral and artisanal skill to survive and persist. The Chanel brand, like many others, has a major role to play in safeguarding and preserving this know-how. Thanks to the Haute Couture Fashion Week shows funded by the Chambre Syndicale à la Haute Couture, 12 selected houses fulfilling a list of criteria as long as my two arms are authorized twice a year to show their most beautiful pieces and continue to bring this art of Haute Couture to life.
As for Chanel, which, contrary to what many people think, is not one of the 12 Houses recognized as Haute Couture Houses, has been organizing the “Chanel Métiers d’Art” fashion show for 16 years, paying tribute to workshops of excellence, each year in a different city. A very important show to shed light on these artistic crafts, without which Haute Couture and fashion would not be the applied and plastic art it is today.
The workshops Lesage, Desrues, Lemarié, Maison Michel, Massaro, Goossens or Guillet… Houses with exceptional savoir-faire, from embroidery to goldsmith and lace, which still bring to life clothes that are true works of art. It is essential to mention them and not forget their work.
While fashion is an art for its excellence and quality craftsmanship, or for its creative process and aestheticism, or for the performance it represents and the reflection it generates, the message it conveys, one thing remains: fashion is an art. And if many points remain open and are completely debatable, it may also be because our current categories and definitions of all artistic things are slightly outdated, even archaic. And it is perhaps the future of fashion to contribute to the construction of a new definition of art, more diverse and inclusive. And overcome the backward idea that fashion is a futile and superficial field, after all why not?
Lucie Puche, young woman in charge of image in a Parisian advertising agency specialized in fashion. In love with clothing since the dawn of time.