In the article, Is Fashion an Art?, a set of interviews collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, this very question has been posed to several different artists and fashion designers. Although the very presence of such a question and the fact that it is being presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests the accepted tendency to at least consider fashion an art form, the varying opinions of Norman Norell, Louise Nevelson, Irene Sharaff, Alwin Nikolais, and Andre Courreges, represent the many ways in which fashion has become an integral part of contemporary culture and the varying ways in which it is viewed and understood.
Fashion is not art
It is not too surprising that modern and contemporary artists might be the strongest voices against fashion as art. In the article, modern sculptor Louise Nevelson states that “Fashion could be an art, but it isn’t,” (Is Fashion an Art?,the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, p. 133) due to its inability to relate to the wearer. Nevelson poses the argument that in order to be an art, fashion must be a direct expression of the wearer, but that in reality fashion is merely an expression of a designer’s idea, “a fleshless sketch,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 133). Nevelson does not dispute the importance of fashion within and as a representation of modern society, she even goes so far as to state her theory for the future of the world and fashion, “we are working toward a total unity and that would include clothes,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 133). She does however believe that art requires a full understanding of oneself as the artist and that even if a person were to create her own clothing, “there are few people who understand themselves well enough to bring themselves to a high art,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 133). If, as Nevelson seems to believe, contemporary art is a representation of the artist, then indeed individual fashion, the clothing you or I might wear on a daily basis is not art.
* Here we see an image of Jennifer Lopez, but, according to Nevelson's argument, what she is wearing is not a direct representation of her, but of the designer Versace, thus it is not art. "Who are you wearing?...Versace."
Similar in opinion to Louise Nevelson, Alwin Nikolais, the head of the avant-garde Henry Street Dance Theater, states that “fashion is not an art because women rely so much on other people to design them,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 136). Although Nikolais designs his own costumes for all of his productions, he states that these designs are not fashion because they do not stand alone, but rather they are part of a “total theater,” or an all inclusive art experience in which music, scenery, lighting, and costumes all come together to create and emphasize the dance. “My costumes are part of a total stage design, action, or painting…my stage designs are a theatrical abstraction of the way I see man,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 136). In this way Nikolais believes that fashion is a means of enhancing image, movement, or emotions, but it is not a solitary representation of art.
Fashion is art
Although the argument that fashion is not art because it does not stand alone to represent anything significant about the wearer, is a very persuasive one, there is still another perspective on the fashion as art question, a perspective which, not surprisingly, seems to be mostly supported by fashion designers. Within the article, Is Fashion an art?, Norman Norell, renowned fashion designer, states that yes, “the best of fashion is worthy of the name art,” (p. 130). Although Norell immediately distinguishes Gres, Chanel, Vionnet, and Balenciaga as representative of the fashion artist of the twentieth century, he goes on to explain that the art of fashion is not in the craft, but in the creative concept. “If you’re talking about fine stitching or intricate detail, about some great thing that took weeks and weeks to make, that’s not what I mean by the modern art of fashion…modern fashion is more direct and simple,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 130). This does not mean that Norell does not recognize the importance of the quality of the craft, as he readily admits, fashion is ultimately practical since the outfits must be worn. Norell also states that “fashion has been a little behind art for some years now, but we’re catching up,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 130). In other words, like other contemporary artistic movements, fashion must continue to grow to represent the artistic culture surrounding it.
Irene Sharaff, designer of theatrical and movie costumes and supporter of fashion as an art, states with confidence that “the creative part of fashion has always worked alongside the creative forces that have defined and colored a decade, an era,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 135) thus fashion, just like art, is a representation of the times. Sharaff argues that clothing and fashion are art because of the way in which it most accurately represents the direction of contemporary culture. American life and thus American fashion has become the newest commodity. “Everyone wants to lead the kind of casual life we do, and naturally this is having a great impact on clothes,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 135). She also discusses the way in which fashion is a manifestation of modern developments such as technology. Sharaff states that because of modern technology people no longer view fashion as the mere necessity of clothes, “freed from utilitarianism, fashion is now free to be more of a form unto itself,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 135). For these reasons it is easy to understand why many people feel fashion, especially more contemporary fashion, has quickly developed into an art form, similar in purpose and execution to much of contemporary “fine art.”
Is Fashion an Art?
Although both arguments are very compelling and touch on concepts of art that seem to be in constant debate throughout the modern and contemporary periods, we are still left with the question, is fashion an art? In his discussion of fashion as art, Andre Courreges, fashion designer, states that “the profession of fashion designer for me is simply a job like that of any artisan who attempts to introduce taste and proportion into the object he is creating, exactly in the way an architect tries to build a harmonious structure,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 138). This statement speaks to both sides of the argument. If fashion designers are merely artisans, can we then equate them to contemporary painters or sculptors? However, if a fashion designer is both practical and artistic in the same way as an architect, should we then also assume that architects are not artists? Courreges also adds further controversy to this complicated topic, during his discussion of art and its purpose. “If the function of art is to bring joy though harmony, color, and form, perhaps we can, after all, by dressing a woman to feel younger and to participate fully in life, bring her joy comparable to that she experiences in contemplating a painting,” (Is Fashion an Art?, p. 140). In this way fashion as art becomes dependant on what we believe art is or is supposed to be. Perhaps then, fashion, like much of contemporary art, is a matter of personal or cultural opinion. If we choose to view fashion as an art form then it must be so and if we choose to view fashion as a lovely means to a practical end then that must also be true.