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
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.
Addressing the Century represented a desire on the part of its curator, Peter Wollen, to restore a portion of the story of twentieth-century
That the history of modernism is up for grabs is very much the thesis of the first chapter of Wollen’s 1993 book Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture. footnote3The chapter, entitled ‘Out of the Past: Fashion/Orientalism/The Body’, attempts to re-write the origin of modernism at the historical moment of the movement’s demise. Restoring the central significance of the Ballets Russes, this new story places Henri Matisse, Léon Bakst and Poiret in the position usually reserved for Picasso and cubism. According to Wollen, these decorative and colourful artists working in the various media of painting, illustration and fashion design, ‘represent a pivotal moment in the emergence of modernism, later to be disavowed. Only now, perhaps, as modernism declines, can we see their significance again.’footnote4 Again, the recent revival of the decorative and the extravagant in contemporary art has brought to light what was ‘modernism’s symptomatic shadow from the very beginning’. The skeletons of this ‘“other” art of our century’ have now been let out of the closet, for, in Wollen’s book, ‘endings rewrite beginnings’.footnote5