The relationship between art and fashion developed through the late 19th and early 20th century with an explosion of artists using clothing as a metaphor for the human form or spirit. In 19th century India, legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma played a great role in popularizing the sari and it’s many drapes since all the Goddesses he painted were demurely clad in them. As with many artists of that time, he used fashion as a medium to depict the nature of the subject in the portrait — whether regal or serene, the way they were clothed spoke of a story in itself.
In the 1930’s, designer Elsa Schiaparelli became friends with Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali, surrealists, from whom she commissioned designs for fabrics and accessories — she experimented with innovative materials like cellophane, glass and plastic to create witty, sophisticated statements with her padlocked suit belts, exposed zippers and musical purses. Schiaparelli’s signature colour, shocking pink, was even taken from the artist Christian Bérard.
Among her many contributions to the development of twentieth-century fashion, Schiaparelli’s fearless challenge to the status quo, incorporation of wit and humour into fashion designing, and melding of art with dressmaking rank among the highest. Of her many collaborations, the lobster dress is, without a doubt, the most famous. On this summer gown for the Schiaparelli Summer 1937 Haute Couture collection, Salvador Dali designed a lobster motif strewn with sprigs of parsley printed on white organdy. According to legend, Dali wanted to apply real mayonnaise on the dress, but Schiaparelli refused.
During the ’60s and ’70s, designers responded to the new emphasis on youth culture in parallel with the experimental and challenging developments in the art world. Paco Rabanne experimented with new materials like paper, plastics and metal for his first collection titled, ‘Twelve Unwearable Dresses’. “The show was my manifest; I had something to say — The armor was almost necessary. Also, at this time there was an Indian philosophy called Kaliyuka, which meant the Iron Age. Everything was being done in metal — cars, skyscrapers, medicine . . . even artists were abandoning traditional materials and working with metal. So putting metal on women was in response to that era. I wanted to provoke because I was scandalized by what I was seeing in fashion. It was so traditional, archaic and rigid. My show was a reaction to all of this. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent presented a dress inspired by Mondrian – a painting done in 1914. They were saying that the dress was so modern! It was from 1914!” said Rabanne, in an interview with the New York Times (2002).
Contrary to what Rabanne thought, Yves Saint Laurent’s homage to the bold abstractions of the Modernist Piet Mondrian was an extremely successful and enduring one — so much so, that it’s the first image that enters the mind when we speak of art-inspired fashion. As the sack dress silhouette evolved in the ’60s into a modified form — the shift, Saint Laurent realised that the dress’s planarity was an ideal field for colour blocks. Knowing the flat planes of the 1960s canvases achieved by contemporary artists in the lineage of Mondrian, Saint Laurent made the historical case for the artistic sensibility of his time. Yet he also demonstrated a feat of dressmaking, setting in each block of jersey, piecing in order to create the semblance of the Mondrian order and to accommodate the body imperceptibly by hiding all the shaping in the grid of seams.
Conversations of art are incomplete without a noteworthy mention of Andy Warhol, an artist who revolutionized the pop art movement. He started his career by illustrating shoes and beauty products for fashion magazines, and went on to produce his own magazine titled ‘Interview’ whose pages were filled with designers, celebrities, models and all things fabulous and famous. But before he became a fashion legend, he tapped onto the consumer culture much before Jeremy Scott made it popular for Moschino with the Campbell soup cans in 1962. The work was met with much mockery when first exhibited, but it went on to have a lasting impact not only on the history of art, but on the way we dress. Warhol became one of the first Pop artists to turn his work into fashion items when he began printing this design onto dresses — they weren’t mass produced, but were made as one-offs for New York society women who wore them to gallery openings. Wearing one of Warhol’s very first Campbell’s can dresses, which were printed on paper, was a sign you were part of a very elite club. The exclusivity, however didn’t last when Campbell’s themselves decided to take advantage of its new cult fashion status and produced the ‘Souper Dress’ — it was made from paper and could be bought by anyone who sent $1 and two Campbell’s soup can labels to the company. These days, a ‘Souper dress’ fetches approximately £5,000 ($7,500). Warhol’s prints were made catwalk-worthy when Gianni Versace’s 1991 Pop art collection featuring a jewel-encrusted version of his Marilyn Monroe prints that truly made him synonymous with high fashion.
Indian Art Scene
While India has produced renown artists like M.F. Hussain, Jamini Roy, S. H. Raza among many more — a land rich with culture, folk art, architectural marvels and textiles have proven to be a sufficient source to draw inspiration from, in order to revive it’s cultural heritage. International designers and their India-inspired collections have been a testament to this.
Manish Arora has been known to amalgamate Indian motifs with pop art to produce neo-kitschy iterations for the runway, while textile designers like Rimzim Dadu revive Indian fabrics and weaves through the use of new materials like silicone to give it a fresh yet futuristic appeal.
While actual Artist x Designer collaborations have only been a handful, labels like Masaba Gupta, Quirkbox and Shivan & Narresh have carved a niche with their longstanding associations with the art world.
The Mutual Appreciation Society
In 1946, The Costume Institute’s first exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum opened to the public — ever since, the annual fundraising Gala at the MET has become a reflection of our changing culture and through the eyes of it’s curators the extraordinary holdings in fashion have revoked themes like historical periods to genres, to individual design innovators. Thus, the MET Gala has been celebrating fashion at art’s sacred institution — the museum — hereby suggesting that the two are at par.
The cross-pollination of fashion and art culminated in 1996 at the international Florence Biennale, where artists and designers collaborated to explore their relationship. The exhibit saw collaborations between Miuccia Prada and Damien Hirst, Helmut Lang with Jenny Holzer and Gianni Versace with Roy Lichtenstein. “Not only is this a particularly fertile time for contemporary artists to comment on fashion, criticise it and use it to make statements about gender; it is also a moment when fashion designers are increasingly borrowing movements from art,” said the late Ingrid Sischy, artistic director of the exhibit in an interview with The New York Times (1996).
With Kochi Biennale that celebrates contemporary art and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival that has some remnants of fashion, perhaps India could do with an inclusion of its very own version of the Costume Institute Gala to celebrate the many works of our prolific designers and artists over the years.
Could One Consider Fashion To Be Art?
While fashion continues to explore its many aspirations and it’s particular desire to be considered the art of the highest order, perhaps it’s best to think of art and fashion as having a symbiotic relationship — two different entities that will always feed off of one another.