Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 27, 2000
Peter Wollen Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion Berkeley: University of California Press in association with The Hayward Gallery, 1999. 120 pp.; 99 color ills.; 22 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (1853321834)

Until recently, accounts of 20th-century art history have failed to see the relevance of fashion for their object of study. Typically, fashion was regarded as superficial, fleeting, and feminized; therefore, the interest in clothing design manifested by modernist artists from Henry Van de Velde to the Russian Constructivists has customarily been presented as an effort at rationalization or reform, and as a rejection of commercial dress design as practiced by such successful couturiers of the period as Jacques Doucet and Paul Poiret. However, as contemporary artists and scholars have become increasingly interested in the potential of sartorial display to articulate problems of identity construction and explore issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality, museums have begun to examine the historical background for current artistic practice. Several have focused exhibitions on the relationship between art and fashion, including Il tempo e la moda at the 1996 Florence Biennale (partially reconstituted as Art/Fashion by the Guggenheim Museum Soho the following year) and Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion, curated by Peter Wollen and organized by the Hayward Gallery, London, in collaboration with the Kunstmuseum, Wolfberg, in 1998-99. The exhibition included more than 300 items—stunningly beautiful and provocative drawings, photographs, paintings, sculpture, and video, as well as actual garments—many of which are reproduced alongside the six short essays in the accompanying catalogue under review here.

Given the art-institutional framework in which these large surveys were conceived and carried out, it is hardly surprising that their catalogues generally fail to deliver an intellectually convincing presentation of their subject. They vastly underestimate the historical significance of the couture industry and largely ignore the impact of its commercial interests. Settling for a narrow definition of the problem that characterizes the relationship between art and fashion in terms of garments designed by artists, or couture clothing that qualifies as art, their approach privileges formal similarities that may be visually powerful, but nevertheless generally lack substance when it comes to the exploration of deeper, structural relations. These, in turn, do not necessarily result in stylistic or formal resemblances between particular items of clothing and specific works of art.

The emergence of cultural studies and visual culture studies as viable (although still controversial) approaches to the critical analysis of art and other visual imagery, together with the theoretically sophisticated perspectives that have been brought to bear upon semiotics, on the one hand, and identity politics, on the other, have generated intense interest in costume and fashion history among scholars of very diverse backgrounds. One of those is Wollen, a filmmaker and cultural historian whose 1987 essay, “Fashion/Orientalism/The Body” (repr. in Wollen’s Raiding the Icebox, London and New York: Verso, 1993) offers a fascinating study of the eroticism and sensuality that the modernist painter Henri Matisse shared with his pre-World War I contemporaries, couturier Paul Poiret and Ballets Russes designer Léon Bakst. Wollen’s brief essay in the catalog for Addressing the Century is far less nuanced, not only because it traces the complex relationship between art and clothing design across an entire century in a few short pages, but also because it remains content with visual parallels, instances where couturiers were influenced formally by artists, or artists incorporated references to clothing in their work. Wollen structures his narrative around what he sees as the collapse of the distinction—traditional in the West—between the artisanal nature and ephemeral value of garments on one hand and the durability and transcendant quality of art on the other. The converging trajectories he traces culminate in the work of Issey Miyake, among other designers, whose clothes can be appreciated as sculpture, and such artists as Komar and Melamid, whose sculpture entitled Sears Jacket takes the form of men’s clothing.

A primarily formalist approach to art and fashion is further adumbrated in Judith Clark’s contribution, “Kinetic Beauty: The Theatre of the 1920s,” which mimics the traditional survey of modernist art by tracing the progressive suppression of conventional fashion and the body in a sequence that begins with the Ballets Russes, continues with Futurist dress, the theatrical costumes of Russian Constuctivists (e.g., Ljubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova) and culminates in the work of Bauhaus artist Oscar Schlemmer. The only theater treated here is avant-garde, modernist theater; the Ballets Suédois are mentioned, but nothing that comes close to popular productions where art was at issue, such as Et Voila!, a 1911 revue that satirized Cubism in the persona of a Cubist painter whose ridiculous-looking costume “consisted of a conventional man’s suit that had been painted with overlapping polygons, with cubes attached at the shoulders and the trouser cuffs.” (Jeffrey Weiss, The Popular Culture of Modern Art, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994, 3.)

In “Stripping Her Bare: the Mannequin in Surrealism,” Ulrich Lehmann considers the multiple, layered resonances—uncanny, erotic, commodified—of the female mannequin in the art of Giorgio di Chirico and the surrealists, including Elsa Schiaparelli alongside such photographers and artists as André Masson, Man Ray, and Max Ernst. Caroline Evans carries this theme into the 1990s in her essay, “Mutability and Modernity: The 1990s,” in which she suggests that fashion designers and artists “have converged on the terrain of the fragile, mutable, human body,” often represented as “abject, traumatized and fissured” (97). While vanguard fashion takes on the allusive resonance of art, contemporary art assumes the attributes of fashion in its use of fragile materials to thematize transience and its embrace of performative spectacle in which the body is continually restaged.

Robin Muir’s contribution posits that the best fashion photographers (Man Ray, George Platt Lynes, Erwin Blumenfeld, William Klein, and Deborah Turbeville, for example) were those who “possessed a painterly eye, a flair for graphic design, a feeling for dynamic composition and an enthusiasm for conspicuous beauty.” Their work, Muir argues, “transcend[s] the notion that the medium has existed purely to satisfy the demands of the magazine-devouring, fashion-buying consumer. It is art of a particular and peculiar kind” (101). Muir thus appears to share the traditional view that fashion is inferior to art; yet, great fashion photography overcomes its debased status and enters the exalted realm of fine art.

In the final catalogue essay, Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson stake out a different position, one that proceeds from a discussion of fashion as a “system for the production and consumption of dress” (107). They take seriously the nature and function of the clothing industry, from haute couture to the cheapest copies of designer dresses, which they see as constitutive of fashion: “one of the means by which bodies are made social and given meaning and identity” (108). Their emphasis on the interrelationship of everyday clothing and the live body leads them to recognize the problematic nature of a museum exhibition in which clothing is cut off from the body to become a lifeless fragment capable of revealing only partial, incomplete meanings. Yet, they conclude, “by their very lifelessness, the gowns remind us of the life that they were destined to adorn” (111).

If Addressing the Century falls short in its conceptualization of the problem of how art and fashion have been linked in the past hundred years, what might an alternative model look like? It would, I believe, have to address the tensions that industrialization and mass consumption provoked in early twentieth-century culture because these—far more than stylistic parallels or other visual similarities—structured the relationship between fashion and art in the twentieth century. A case in point is provided by the unlikely juxtaposition of fashionable clothing with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. On the simplest level, both haute couture dresses and such readymades as In Advance of the Broken Arm, and Fountain depend for their efficacy as singular objects on the addition of their creator’s signature—the couturier’s label or the handwritten name/inscription of the artist—to an object of multiple, if not mass production. Further, the fact that couturiers often gave their dresses distinctive titles finds a parallel in Duchamp’s rhetorical practice of naming as he played upon the ironic contradictions inherent in the creation of objects that occupied the divide between mass-produced commodities and unique works of art. Moreover, Duchamp’s interest during this period in issues of copyright and intellectual property suggests that his exploration of the readymade and the relationship between originality and mass production parallels the concerns of French fashion designers. Their interest in the American market intensified significantly during World War I, when, on the one hand, differences between French and American copyright law emerged as a major problem and, on the other hand, couturiers began to explore ways of collapsing the boundaries between distinctive fashions and mass-produced dresses. When in 1916, Poiret introduced a line of dresses designed to appeal in particular to American women and he created a special label that identified these garments as “authorized reproductions,” in effect he created a new category of hybrid objects; like Duchamp’s readymades, these dresses were at once authentic, signed originals and mass-produced copies. There are no visual parallels in this example, but, I would argue, the comparison reveals a range of shared concerns that go well beyond the kinds of superficial attempts to elevate fashion to the status of art that abound in Addressing the Century.

Nancy J. Troy
Department of Art History, University of Southern California