Is Fashion Art?

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The other night, I had the opportunity to sit in on New York Adventure Club’s Webinar called ‘The History of Fashion Exhibitions, From Bland to Blockbusters’.  I am a lover of fashion and a fashion industry professional, but I did not go to fashion school.   This two-hour insight into the history of fashion exhibitions was eye-opening for me.  I work in the retail industry, so this concept is never discussed or even mentioned.  I’d be curious to share thoughts with my colleagues who have fashion degrees.

The biggest take-away I had from this webinar, aside from the fact that I need to explore past fashion exhibitions, was this huge controversial question: Is Fashion Art?  My short answer is yes.  The past fashion exhibitions that were shown comprise of couture, elegant designs in an innovative and creative way.  The fashion exhibitions from different eras, from deceased designers, or exhibitions trying to share a message are obviously art forms.  Fashion as art becomes a complicated concept when there is a living designer involved or the exhibition is in a brand’s own building.  The narrative changes from art to marketing when the designer or brand is able to curate the exhibition to portray their message exactly how they want.

Fashion as art is tricky to define when there is retail involved.  The most current trend with stores is to create an experience with their retail space.  Some of these stores look so incredibly curated that they could be in a museum, but if someone buys a handbag off of the display, that handbag does not become a piece of art.  Getting into the nitty-gritty, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”  Obviously, high fashion is art, but the question remains about ready to wear fashion.

Some fashion exhibitions show a snapshot of an era.  Garments from the 1800s create an historical fashion exhibition that shows the transformation of time.  After how many years does a time period qualify as historic? An exhibition from the early 2000s can have the same purpose and to a lot of people, it won’t be considered worthy of the “art” title because they lived through it.  

For those of you skimming to see what my point is, I’ll explain it directly.  Fashion is art when it is couture.  Fashion is art when represented as an era piece.  Fashion is art when there is a message being expressed.  Fashion is not art every day with everyone.  There is a difference between wearing clothes so you aren’t naked and wearing clothes because you have a distinct style and you carefully pick out your looks.  The former is not art, the latter is art.

Fashion has been around since the beginning of time, so why is the question of fashion being art a newer concept? A lot of people believe it is because fashion has always been associated with women.  During the webinar, one of the participants called fashion “women’s art”.  Throughout history, for this reason, it was not as respected as other art forms. 

It is crazy to me that art is supposed to be a method of expressing emotions or beauty, yet fashion has to fight its way to be included.  It is commonly discussed that fashion is one of the biggest ways someone expresses themselves.  I would be curious to see an art exhibition of bad fashion as an attempt to understand the psychology and message behind it.