Is Fashion Art?
“I don’t want to do a cocktail party.
I’d rather people left my shows and vomited,”
– Lee Alexander McQueen, 1997
The term ‘creative industries’ began to be used about twenty years ago to describe a range of activities, some of which are amongst the oldest in history and some of which only came into existence with the arrival of digital technology. Many of these activities had strong cultural roots and the term ‘cultural industries’ was already in use to describe theatre, dance, music, film, and the visual arts.
Fashion and creative industries, such as textile and clothing, operate at the crossroads between arts, business and technology. They are in a strategic position to link creativity to innovation at a time when creativity is an essential feature of business innovation.
Alexander McQueen’s 2011 Savage Beauty show brought forward the often forgotten conception of fashion as legitimate art. McQueen was an artist. He integrated spirit and energy in his creations in such a way that the persons wearing his pieces became living expressions of art.
Alexander McQueen’s dashing creativity was expressed through the technical artistry of his designs and the dramatic intensity of his fashion shows. Drawing on avant-garde installation and performance art, these were also emphatically autobiographical. McQueen fearlessly challenged the conventions of fashion. He saw beyond clothing’s physical constraints to its conceptual and imaginative possibilities.
“I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited,” – Lee Alexander McQueen, 1997
His point of view was menacing, disturbing and uncompromising. In 1995, he grabbed public attention with the Highland Rape Show, in which models with matted hair, their eyes blanked out by opaque contact lenses, strode the catwalk with breasts exposed under ripped dresses. Where the audience and the media misinterpreted it and saw references to sexual violence, claiming that he was glorifying rape, McQueen actually had intended it as a visual commentary on the Highland clearances of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and England’s violation of Scotland.
“It was not really about showing clothes to the press, it was actually telling a story or painting a picture,” says Sarah Burton, McQueen’s right-hand woman, who took over as creative director of the label after his death in 2010. “He wanted to move people. Like he always said, whether you liked it or hated it, he really wanted you to feel something.“
For McQueen, the shows were as important as the clothes. “Sometimes the idea of the show came and then the clothes,” says Sam Gainsbury, a creative director and producer who worked with McQueen from 1994 until his death in 2010. “It was almost hand-in-hand. He almost couldn’t visualise the clothes until he knew how they were going to be shown.”
There was an undeniable link to the art world in McQueen’s shows. “For me, it was his use of the language of installation art and hoping the set would become something in its own right,” says Costin. “It was never decorative… the shows were always supposed to be quite meaty, well thought-out, visual statements that would enhance the collection and the experience of the audience viewing the collection.“
All art is imbued with the energy and passion an artist breathes into it. McQueen’s shows and collections went further than Haute-Couture Fashion, it never was about sending clothes down a runway, in fact, it never was just a runway. In his hands, it became a scene, a malleable canvas that he skillfully manipulated to convey something and extort a reaction out of the audience. He deeply lived each show and poured his essence into each of his collections. He made art out of them.
I’m not convinced all fashion is art and should be considered as such, but then there are those designers that breathe life into their work and by doing so, they bring fashion at an artistic crossroad where it meets and intertwines with fine arts, performance, installation, film, music and so on. The possibilities are endless but it takes someone with vision and passion to do so.
On another note, the fashion industry isn’t all dazzling dresses, clean cut tuxedos and neon runways so here are a few facts about where textiles come from and who makes them :