This month, at the Paris fashion shows, designer Alexander McQueen’s collection for the house of Givenchy featured an austere black Victorian crinoline, whose heavy satin folds and ruched white petticoats parted at the front to reveal leather biker trousers worn underneath. Very ‘now’, this Victorian-biker look; so postmodern, this raiding of the dressing-up box of history. Fashion designers, it seems, are the best at translating the spirit of our edgy age into visible, material form. And this, if we go along with recent exhibitions in Florence and London, means that fashion should be included in any consideration of Art.footnote1

It was in a spirit akin to McQueen’s eclecticism that the exhibition Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion at the Hayward Gallery in London set out to explore the overlapping between art and fashion in this century. On display was a fantastic array of items: clothes, shoes and hats designed by artists and by designers, fashion photography that aspired to the condition of fine art, works by contemporary artists in which clothing featured prominently. However, the suggestion of the exhibition was not that the worlds of art and fashion have enjoyed a continuously close and productive relationship throughout the last one hundred years; rather, it focused on five loosely-defined key ‘moments’ when there has been a trading of ideas and a shared aesthetic.

The first of these ‘moments’, each of which roughly defined a section of the exhibition, was entitled ‘Decoration’, and explored ‘the birth of modern art and fashion in turn-of-the-century Paris’, where a rich melting-pot of artists, interior designers, illustrators and couturiers assembled around the Ballets Russes and the ‘Orientalist’ sensibility inspired by Diaghilev’s colourful productions. Centre-stage was given to the designer Paul Poiret, inventor of the modernist silhouette for women, freed from the bondage of the corset. This section also included pyjamas from the Omega Workshop, a padded golden satin coat designed by Matisse for ‘Le Chant du Rossignol’, and, shimmering in the distance like an archaeological find, Mariano Fortuny’s beautiful Delphos dress.

Upstairs at the Hayward, in ‘Function’, the seductive surfaces of this first section gave way to the second ‘moment’—the 1920s—when ‘the taste for decoration and luxury gave way to the demands of function and mass production’. This was an austere and rationalist modernism, a modernism of geometric lines and political utopianism. Thus we were shown the uniforms and theatrical designs of the Russian constructivists, and the more garish garb of Italian futurism, for whom clothing was one arena in which everyday life could be infused with the dynamism of revolution. The third ‘moment’ covered by the exhibition was ‘Fantasy’, exploring the relationship between surrealism and fashion into the 1930s. Here, wearable versions of surrealist fantasy included Elsa Schiaparelli’s boots made with monkey hair, and Salvador Dalí’s Aphrodisiac Dinner Jacket, studded with tiny glasses of crème de menthe. Also in this section were reconstructions of the mannequins made by Duchamp, Man Ray and other surrealist artists for the 1938 Paris exhibition.

Downstairs again, and the exhibition turned its gaze on the 1960s, the next point at which there was ‘an explosion of creativity’ and exchange of ideas between the worlds of art and fashion. In this ‘Performance’ section, designers and artists were experimenting with new materials: disposable paper frocks, more permanent evening dresses made from metal. Meanwhile, the new performance art was using dress as a central feature. Artists’ interest in clothing as a medium for ideas was continued in the final section of the exhibition, broadly devoted to the contemporary scene, and entitled ‘Convergence’. Here, it was hard to tell which works had been made by artists, and which by fashion designers, in the polymorphous mix- and-match of postmodernism; there was a garment knitted from human hair, and one made of thistledown. Here was an invitation card for a Comme des Garçons show designed by Cindy Sherman, and a gingham dress that was more like a piece of soft sculpture. And this last section was the cultural ‘moment’ of which the exhibition saw itself as very much a part.