Introduction Designers, consumers, and all the fashion moguls in between deliberate the divide between art and fashion, questioning if the two are synonymous or polar opposites. The liaison is labeled pretentious by some, but indistinguishable to others. Despite contradicting opinions, though, is fashion void without the wearer? Art exists in the world as a purposeful creation, whether it be for a community of people or one individual; appreciation is developed from the perspective of others. In a similar form to the favor or refusal of art, the wearer either accepts or rejects fashion. Sociologist Elizabeth Wilson explains, “All art draws on unconscious fantasy; the performance that is fashion is one road from the inner to the outer world. Hence its compulsiveness, hence our ambivalence, hence the immense psychological work that goes into the production of the social self, of which clothes are an indispensable part” (Kaiser, 20). The psychology behind fashion is a surprising characteristic to what classifies it as art, incognizant to most, yet an intrinsic part of cultural norms. Through the analysis of Italian fashion designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Roberto Capucci, the idea of fashion as art is distinguished on both ends of the spectrum. In turn, these designers have acted as inspiration for American designer Marc Jacobs.
Liaison Between Art & Fashion A strong and discernible connection exists between the ideas of art and fashion. To create art is to express a skill, therefore inventing a piece to be appreciated for its visual and emotionally driven qualities. Art exists as a medium, where the creator transforms its original appearance. Fashion is designed in a similar way, altering the body to appeal to the wearer or others involved in social experiences. Unlike many genres of art, however, the final judgment of a garment is made not on the designer, but the wearer. Although the designer may be considered the original artist, it is the wearer who brings the garment to life with movement. The composition of an outfit is the result of considering societal norms, fears, desires, and beliefs (Kaiser, 19). The process of appearance perception is significant when designing a garment. The wearer is often conscious of the reactions and effects produced through one’s appearance. Clothing is devised to satisfy human needs, whereas fashion is a vehicle for fantasy (Kaiser, 20). Garments are a crucial element of this dream, masking the inner conflict to either conform or revert against cultural standards.
Commercialization of Fashion as Art Part of the enchantment of 1920s Paris was the strong influence of art in fashion (White, 54). Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian-born fashion designer, was a pioneer in commercialization. As the popularity of Surrealist art was growing in both France and the United States, Schiaparelli established strategic partnerships. Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, and other artists provided her with designs for printed fabrics and unique embellishments. These artists transformed commonplace objects, adding interest and whimsy. Lively and dynamic flowers, wild animals, and swirling seas brightened Schiaparelli’s garments and accessories. The commercialization of these collaborations established a permanent role for Futurism and Art Deco in Schiaparelli’s pieces.
The most recognizable expressions of Surrealism were present in the embellishments of Elsa Schiaparelli’s garments. Pictured is an evening coat with a gold threaded design by Jean Cocteau in 1937. The illusionary composition depicts an urn with pink roses outlined by two faces. Simultaneously, Schiaparelli was receiving immense praise for providing women with assertive garments, a “protective armor for the woman beginning to succeed in a man’s world” (White, 136). Surrealism also left is mark on Schiaparelli’s accessories, often called Schiaparelli ‘witticisms’ (White, 140). Gloves were especially metamorphic, resembling fox heads, claws, and antelope. The ordinary became imaginative in the design of Schiaparelli’s buttons, as well. She never purchased a single one, but instead had them customarily made. Hallmarks of Art Deco were reflected in the buttons shaped as shoelaces, spinning tops, coffee beans, fishhooks, safety pins, paper clips, edible cinnamon, and many other unexpected items. Schiaparelli revolutionized commonplace objects, exerting their beauty in the most unusual form.
To Be ‘Out of Fashion’ The extremities of fashion are best exemplified through Italian designer Roberto Capucci. In early 1950s Florence, Capucci was considered an outsider in the fashion sphere. The prominent designers, inadvertently laying the path for his unique career, vetoed the presentation of his first collection. Capucci responded by exhibiting his display of dresses in a friend’s home, abandoning the idea of commercialism. The concept of ‘in fashion’ was a notion Capucci continued to discount. Instead of designing by purpose, his garments were sculptural masterpieces, which blended the contradiction between art and fashion (Bauzano, 26). His creations magnified shadows through folds and pleats, establishing a habitat of fabrics (Bauzano, 13). “The way I see and feel art, geometry and aesthetics combine happily…and that is my religion as an artist or, rather, as an aesthete” (Bauzano, 111). His viewpoint and precision to abnormal details is a complete refusal to fashion’s bottom-line philosophy (Laneri, 2). Roberto Capucci attributes his success to a skillful combination of art and fashion, carefully incorporating the psychology of dress and personal appearance into the final emotional reaction of a garment.
Roberto Capucci’s pieces reinforce the concept of art in fashion. The most prominent examples are now historically recognized as ‘sculptural dresses’ (Bauzano, 17). The three dimensionality of these forms substitute any need for the human body. His creations are better characterized as analyses of volumes, interpretations of silhouettes, interactions between positive and negative space, and contrasts between linear and curvilinear shapes. The 1950s relied heavily on architectural ripples and pleats in the design, whereas the 1960s witnessed a transition to atypical materials such as stones, straw, and plastics. The 1970s applied these materials to embroidery and piping in garments, while the 1980s and the 1990s saw a reversion back to exaggerated forms, both organic and structural. Capucci’s creations required the skill of a sculptor, the knowledge of an architect, and the inspiration of a painter in transforming the fabric, silhouette, and color palette into a distinct blend of art and fashion (White, 27).
American Translation of Art Aesthetic in Fashion The eccentricity of Italian fashion is inspiration for modern American designers. Although the concept of anti-fashion is often considered counterintuitive to the sale of garments, the silhouettes and themes of Italian design is represented in the collections of Marc Jacobs. The whimsy of Schiaparelli’s accessories can be seen in Jacobs’ collections, specifically the shoe hat. Designed in 1937, Schiaparelli modeled the piece after a woman’s high-heel, the heel pointed upward and the toe angled toward the woman’s forehead. Marc Jacobs created a similar version, changing the stark black to a vibrant, fire engine red and altering the shape to appear boot-like. A similar cumbersome aesthetic is present in each design of the shoe hat, even more so in Jacobs’ replication. His piece fails to conform to the curve of the head, and instead acts as an awkward extension of the body. Further distractions of mismatched bows and a pair of over-sized sunglasses eliminate this combination from any noteworthy recognition.
A more successful reproduction was a shift dress from Marc Jacobs’ Ready-to-Wear Spring 2009 collection. Modeled after a garment from Roberto Capucci’s 1966 Spring/Summer Material Experiments collection, Jacobs’ utilizes a similar, yet unusual medium: plastic. Throughout Jacobs’ collection, pops of plastic appeared; cowboy boots, shift dresses, coats, and trims were accentuated with this unusual source of material. Both garments combine the appealing aesthetic of a shift dress with the functionality of a raincoat, complimenting the juxtaposing textures of plastic and a woman’s skin.
Is Fashion Art? Prior to receiving the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award, Marc Jacobs was questioned if fashion is art. Jacobs’ poses an interesting contradiction, “Fashion is not an art. It’s part of the art of living” (Foley, 5). With the purpose of highlighting movement and form, fashion acts as a performing art and social device, transforming the medium that is the body. Through the analysis of Elsa Schiaparelli and Roberto Capucci, the answer to this lingering question is entirely dependent on the views of the wearer and the onlooker. Fashion is unlike the proverbial tree in the forest; it still exists without the body. The only difference is the impact fashion has on both the appearance of the human form and the transfiguration of the garment upon movement. Whether the intention is to satisfy the designer, the wearer, or the observer, fashion acts as a vehicle for imagination, a component of a woman’s lifestyle, and to many, an art of expression.
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