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Fashion = Art?

Last week in the news you may have seen red carpet pictures the event that fashionistas dream of attending: The Met Gala.

The Met Gala is an annual gala that fundraises for the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The gala opens the fashion exhibition and is attended by many celebrities and donors taking dress inspiration from the exhibition’s theme.

This year’s exhibition is Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. It would be amazing to be able to see this exhibition as it tells the story of Rei Kawakubo and her approach to revolutionising fashion and challenging perceptions of beauty.

Kawakubo didn't have an academic background in fashion but studied the history of aesthetics. After working in advertising and then as a stylist, she began her own fashion label Comme des Garçons in Tokyo, Japan in 1969.

The Comme des Garçons look was originally monochromatic, tattered and baggy. The designs were so extremely anti-fashion that when she presented one of her collections for the first time in Paris, in 1981, fashion critics branded it as ‘Hiroshima Chic’.

Comme des Garçons has evolved over the years but its clothing has always been conceptually challenging. One collection that epitomises this is the Spring Summer 1997 collection Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body. Garments exaggerated in silhouette by over stuffing thus making the wearer appear deformed.

At the Met Gala some of the attendants did adorn Comme des Garçons like Pharrell Williams’ wife Helen Lasichanh who wore a sort of red puffer suit which has drawn comparisons to a Teletubby. Rhianna also embraced the theme by wearing a dress that resembled a bouquet of flowers attached to a suitcase.

When looking at these ensembles it makes one question: How can this be fashion? How many people would actually wear this?

On the other hand it could be said that perhaps these are not supposed to be a fashion to be worn when out for dinner or for a trip to Asda but a fashion piece that is appropriate for this event. After all Kawakubo is a private person who does not give much of an insight into the meaning of her clothes or she says that she aims to create what no one has made before. She is however open to other’s interpretations, so maybe her clothing is not representative of a meaning or purpose.

A museum exhibition dedicated to Comme des Garçons suggests that Kawakubo’s work is fashion in the form of art. However Kawakubo would disagree as she believes that ‘Fashion is not art. The aims of fashion and art are different and there is no need to compare them.’

Its an interesting statement that rings true in some ways, essentially fashion is a term to define just a popular style. But if we were going to try on a Comme des Garçons clothing in one of their stores, it would come to our attention that there are no mirrors to see how we look. This is done on purpose as it is Kawakubo’s belief that the way a person feels in her clothing is more important than how they look. I believe this idea contradicts her statement that fashion cannot be art as the designer is suggesting that her work is expressive of thought not form. This idea runs parallel to Expressionist Art which is a type of art that does not depict a physical reality, but is evocative of the artist’s feelings at the time as well as to create an emotional response from the viewer.

The idea of fashion being art is much discussed in the film The First Monday in May a documentary of The Metropolitan’s 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass. The idea that fashion is art is held by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, 'I think fashion should be how it touches people and moves people. I mean, what more can you ask from art?' Wintour is stating that fashion is highly evocative of producing emotions therefore it must be art.

On the other hand designer Jean Paul Gaultier says 'I never, never dream that my clothes should be in a museum. I think that fashion represents what is happening in society.' It’s an interesting idea that, although clothing does draw emotions, the feelings of the present is symbolised through fashion design.

In the film, curator Andrew Bolton uses the work of Karl Lagerfeld to demonstrate his own opinion on whether fashion is art, 'I would certainly classify Lagerfeld as an artist. Although he always refutes it. The application of his embroideries it’s an artistic expression.' Bolton appears to suggest that designers are applying techniques to their clothing in a way that a painter applies a brush stroke to a canvas, its distinctive markings are what makes the artwork.

Bolton was right that Lagerfeld would refute his opinion as Lagerfeld explained that, 'What we do is applied art. Chanel never said she was an artist, she was a dressmaker. Madame Vionnet was a dressmaker. They want to dress a kind of society and they were happy and flattered when those women bought those dresses.' If Chanel and Vionnet, two of the most radical designers of the early 20th century, saw themselves as just dressmakers could this be a reflection on how the meaning of fashion has changed.

The idea of fashion as art could be controversial as there is no definitive answer. Are clothes a representation of the self-identity and the current times? Are they a form of artistic expression of the designer. What are your thoughts?

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