March 2, 2013 Repository 56: Fashion in the Sky, Art in the Street Posted In: books, contemporary art, culture, design, exhibition of note, museum, perspective


Inside the Chanel purse mobile art pavilion. Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.

En route to NYC this week I decided to read a book titled, The Gospel According to Chanel. I did this for several reasons – it’s a local author (Karen Karbo, Portland), I was indirectly preparing myself for the Impressionism, Fashion, Modernity show I just saw at the Met, and I am going to a party with a fashionable set tomorrow, actual designers of fashion so I thought it would behoove me to read a chatty book about the grand dame of fashion known as Coco.

The friction between art and fashion remains curious to me. One is highly functional and changes your perception of the user once engaged (fashion), the other is highly non-functional and changes a user’s perception once engaged (art).

The book was a good airplane read (e.g. fast), and a good synthesis of all of the tombs written about Coco. It was a nice respite too from some of the dense art writings I am plowing through right now. I like clothing and accoutrements, and am always envious of the whimsy that creeps faster into fashion than it does in art. While fashion feels comfortable courting artists to collaborate and play, the arts sometimes feel skeptical about the relationship.

Two month ago W Magazine facilitated an artist collaboration in their fashion spreads. The artists Chantal Joffe and Rineke Dijkstra dutifully made a portrait of the model/muse actress Jessica Chastain, while George Condo actually made the artwork part of the dress. Lastly, Mickalene Thomas plopped the muse in a 70s era installation (couldn’t the editors have chosen Carrie Mae Weems over Ms. Thomas??) To me the output was – eh – perhaps the artists were given too many restrictions from the magazine, but for an artist such as George Condo, who has some historically crass and awkward paintings, to create a quiet and appropriate piece for the project seems, well inappropriate. Art should mess things up in the most exciting way. Though I am grateful the magazine did such a piece – the readership of W is hundreds of times greater than that of Artforum, so shining the light on artists is great. Kudos W!

Andy Warhol had great fun with fashion, having roots in shoe illustrations and advertising and later in his career with fashion wanting a piece of him. Louis Bourgoise created clothing sculptures and presented them in a runway fashion early in her career. Yinko Shonibare makes beautiful and ironic costumes about colonialism. Bottom line – there is a porous boundary and indeed fashion can be art and art fashion.

Back to Coco, who had many artist friends, and collaborated in the most exciting and least obvious ways with them. Jean Cocteau was very close with her, and at one point asked her to fund a drug addicted ex-prizefighter’s comeback. She agreed, and the fighter regained his title. A poet and a fashion diva hosting a boxing match. Now that is unique. And Coco’s contemporary and unconventional designer Elsa Schiaparelli had a more conventional collaboration with Salvador’s Dali where he put his twist (a lobster) on one of her dresses.

Marc Jacobs in the past several years has really ramped up his support of artists by giving them an opportunity to decorate Louis Vuitton bags. He’s also been amassing his own collection over the past decade. The mass press sites the usual suspects – Koons, Hirst, Prince, Ruscha. I hope he has a special part of his collection just for new or obscure talent, and that he trusts his already remarkable eye and imagination to make his art choices, versus relying fully on Judy or James art dealer.

Zaha Hadid, architect of the moment, recently designed a monument to fashion in Tokyo as well. A giant Chanel purse, in which art is stored. Indeed.

Fashion is not just dresses. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. -Coco Chanel

My last art and fashion stop today was at the Met’s Impressionism, Fashion, Modernity show. Strangely this time (1886ish – 1915ish) was the time of Coco’s coming of age – basically when she was initiating the pop away from the standard dress of the time. The dresses in the Met show were the standard, no Coco on the scene yet, but the context from which she rebelled.

The rooms were filled with clothing (dresses and one room for mens’ clothes), paired with the paintings of said clothes. Trend in tarlatan – bam – dress sits in front of you in a plexiglass case, and your are surrounded with images of ladies in ethereal white dresses painted by Manet, Renoir, Monet, Tissot, etc. In the next room trend in black dresses – bam – the big black dress is on display and subsequent paintings. And so on. The words that come to mind with the collective exhibit are rich, protocol, restraint, and privilege.

If I was 12, I would have loved this fashion/art exhibit. But since I’m older, have read much feminist literature and have a healthy respect for bodies of all sizes, I found the exploration of corset required dresses that cover up all to be more gawking (how were their waists so tiny?? didn’t temperatures hit 80 in the summer?) and less admiring. And don’t get me started on Renoir – I had a crush on his artwork for several months when I was 18, then the saccharin quotient killed the love. I was relieved walking through the exhibit knowing that at this time Coco was planning a fashion revolution where jersey (e.g. comfort) and style would soon reign.

If we can embrace the notion of art as fashion, then let’s hope people can have a natural and nuanced vocabulary about art as they do with fashion – basically the demi-cup, teacup heals and inseam word equivalents to artwork. We have thousands of words for what works and doesn’t work in fashion, here’s hoping for an equally robust dialog on art.

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