As the maxim, once written by Oscar Wilde, goes, “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”. Taken literally, this defines the relationship between fashion and art as one that is closely intertwined. But whether fashion is truly an art form or just mere craft is a topic that’s been consistently debated.
You see, unlike art, fashion is closely linked to things that are functional. In short, fashion - for the most part - is one that is utilitarian. After all, the main purpose of clothes is to cover our modesty and, at its most basic level, to keep warm and protect us from certain elements.
In spite of this, it cannot be denied that fashion has, in one form or another, been inspired by fine arts.
The Early Years
The decade of surrealism, for instance, saw the interesting partnership between legendary couturier Elsa Schiaparelli and surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The collaboration saw the creation of couture dresses that were exquisitely strange yet interestingly beautiful. One of Schiaparelli’s best known work was the simple white silk piece, created in 1937. Called the Lobster dress, the piece featured a giant lobster painted by Dali and was a playful homage to his 1934 creation - New York Dream-Man Finds Lobster in Place of Phone.
Another well-known piece from Schiaparelli’s impressive catalogue is the surreal Shoe Hat, made by Schiaparelli and designed by Dalí. The hat, which was fashioned from a woman’s high-heeled shoe, was modelled by Dalí’s wife Gala, and featured in Schiaparelli’s Fall-Winter 1937-38 collection.
But even before that, the turn of the 20th century saw the closely intertwined relationship between fashion and art coming into play. Between 1908 and 1912, the latest creations of couture houses such as Charles Worth and Paul Poiret were illustrated onto fashion plates to be featured in magazines. This, as fashion historian and lecturer Nadya Wang wrote, was done even before the dawn of fashion photography as we know it to be now. One can see this in the early hand-stencilled pochoir print of Les Robes de Paul Poiret, which was done by the artist Paul Iribe.
Another example of the close relationship between fashion and art is in the bold geometry of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose “neoplasticism” style was itself informed by cubism. Mondrian’s continued influence on fashion lasted long after his death in 1944.
For his fall collection, which he called the Fall Mondrian collection, legendary French designer Yves Saint Laurent unveiled six A-line cocktail dresses that featured the Mondrian print in the designs. And while there were other fashion houses that have used the motif in their designs (Hermès was one of them), it was Saint Laurent that really captured the public’s imagination and broke new grounds for the future role of art in fashion.
So what happens now?
Looking at designer collections today, it is clear that the exploring the relationship between fashion and art has become a tradition continued by contemporary fashion designers. In 2013 for instance, British fashion house Alexander McQueen collaborated with artist Damian Hirst for an exclusive collection of scarves that featured butterflies, spiders and other insects crawling across McQueen’s collection of 30 chiffon scarfs. The placement of the insects formed a geometric patterns across the fabric, resulting in design motifs that were both ethereal and haunting. The collection itself took inspiration from Hirst’s Entomology series.
A year earlier, in 2012, the then-creative director of Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, worked closely with the artist Daniel Buren to incorporate the French conceptual artist's check canvas as a design motif/pattern on Louis Vuitton's spring/summer 2013 collection.
But Buren was not the only artist to have worked with the luxury fashion giant. Throughout his tenure at Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs consciously worked with numerous artist to create unique and interesting designs for his collections. In 2003, Jacobs invited Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to work on a now-famous range of handbags for Louis Vuitton which re-invented the company’s signature LV emblem. According to HighSnobiety, the use of a vivid colour palette and playful style that he's known and loved for, Murakami’s Vuitton designs "laid the foundations for an epidemic of highly-sought after ‘It’ bags, as his Cherry Blossom, Character and Mono-camouflage styles were all quickly swept up by the fashion crowd".
Since then, Jacobs has collaborated with numerous other artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Stephen Sprouse and Richard Prince. These collaborations have yielded some of the most commercially successful collections for the French fashion house.
Art of Spring
If the runways of spring/summer 2017 and its collections have shown us anything, it is that the relationship between art and fashion is not about to fade away anytime soon.
At Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli told Vogue's Sarah Mower that the collection was informed by medieval art in general. More specifically, the creative director was heavily inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The painting can be seen as a motif on sheer dresses and skirts. Over in New York, Jason Wu started his spring 2017 collection with a colourful dress that was inspired by Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains, a large-scale installation of seven 30- to 35-foot-tall stacks of brightly painted boulders in the desert outside Las Vegas. Mary Katrantzou, on the other hand, was inspired by classical greek art and showed a collection that combined psychedelia and Hellenic motifs.
Over at Delpozo, the perennially art-referencing designer Josep Font took "inspiration from the Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla and contemporary artist Soo Sunny Park,” wrote Kristin Anderson for Vogue Runway. “The former lent Font the exquisite deep periwinkle of his opening looks ('Sorolla blue').”
Indeed, the relationship between art and fashion will not fade away. In fact, it will only get stronger with time. Such works of art are definitely pieces worth investing.