Fashion Critic recently posted a long essay “Losing Fashion as Art” on the subject of fashion’s artistic merits or lack thereof. For someone who wrote her undergraduate thesis on the same subject, it’s always nice to see a serious discussion of fashion’s relationship to art. Yet this essay contained some puzzling contradictions and more seriously disturbing claims.
For one thing the Fashion Critic seems conflicted on the matter of fashion shows. He writes that “fashion shows, especially those in bottom-line oriented New York, have become a boring, monotonous blur, albeit a commercially successful one,” yet he upholds "organized support" for fashion such as that provided by the "Council of Fashion Designers Association." Leaving aside that I believe the Fashion Critic is referring to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, aren't New York's Fashion Weeks an organized way to support fashion designers by bringing their buyers and critics all to one place? I’m not sure the Fashion Critic has been to any fashion shows lately, since he seems to think that “prime time catwalks” are taken up by celebrity designers like P.Diddy and Gwen Stefani. For my part, I keep hearing that celebrities are coming out with their own clothing lines, but I never know what the clothes look like because they don’t show in New York’s Fashion Week. Fashion Critic concludes that the “original purpose of a fashion show, a presentation of a new collection” has been eliminated, so that the shows “have become just another form of advertising.” Although historians debate the origins of the fashion show, they did not reach their heyday until department stores held them with gusto in the 1920s and 1930s. These earlier fashion shows were often organized around exotic themes and included clothes from a variety of designers and labels. Their purpose was not at all to present a coherent collection but rather to attract customers to the store. They were indeed advertising on a grand scale. I find today’s fashion shows have a much greater potential to illustrate the aesthetics of a designer, often incorporating music, lighting and program notes to contextualize a collection.
The Fashion Critic also relies heavily on Clement Greenberg's theory of avant-garde art vs. kitsch, which in our post-structuralist world strikes me as suspect. Accepting Greenberg at face value is particularly disturbing in this case because it helps the Fashion Critic preserve a distinction between art and business. He does have moments in which he radically accepts art’s ties to the marketplace, such as when, in an effort to show how art has more beneficiaries than fashion, he points out that “art enjoys a huge corporate sponsorship.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard fashion described as less corporate than art, and while I would certainly agree that both industries have important ties to corporations, it hardly seems accurate to claim that fashion has none. This weeks Fashion Week, for example, is prominently sponsored by Mercedes Benz. For much of the essay, it is exactly this industrial aspect of fashion which the Critic feels destroys its artistry. He writes that although “there still exist a handful of talented designers who manage to create beautiful clothes and run a successful business […] if we carefully look at the most successful of them, we can see definite compromises.” He seems to lament that “the days of old school aristocratic patronage are dead” because it means that critically acclaimed designers such as Olivier Theyskens are not necessarily commercial successes and therefore get fired by their corporate bosses.
More disturbingly, the Fashion Critic portrays fashion designers almost as naïve children who cannot understand what corporate ownership will mean for their futures. He writes that both Helmut Lang and Jil Sander sold out to Prada, which “promised to leave complete creative freedom to both designers” in order to “shift the burden of running a business to Prada’s business arm.” Those partnerships didn’t work out, and now that both designers have parted ways with Prada “should they choose to design again, they will not be able to put their own name on the garment label.” The image of the fashion designer cluelessly signing his name away is part and parcel with modernist depictions of the artist as a child or primitive, someone who exists apart from the world of adult cares in a realm of imagination and creativity. Artists and fashion designers should be imaginative and creative, but they shouldn't be ghettoized away from the real world and more than art itself should be.
Although the Fashion Critic begins his essay with the promising premise that “fashion is a unique cultural phenomenon that stands at the crossroads of artistic expression, utility, and commerce,” he does not continue to examine fashion in all its pluralism. The Critic’s main criticism is that “celebrities are rapidly replacing the designer as the source of fashion authority, and businessman prescribe what should be produced” so that the fashion designer “no longer dictates, he is dictated to.” Yet it turns out that celebrities have always been an important part of western fashion, although they were not always called by that name. From the courtiers of the sixteenth century to the courtesans of the nineteenth, fashion’s consumers have historically played a more important role than fashion’s designers in creating fashion itself. Fashion designers have often tried to be dictators, but I’m not sure they’ve ever truly succeeded, and for that matter, neither have other artists. No artist creates in a vacuum, and the idea that the avant-garde artist is a completely autonomous creator is one of modernism’s greatest myths. I enjoy studying fashion precisely because it cannot make this claim of being independent from economics, politics, and daily life. Instead of bemoaning the ways in which fashion doesn’t make it to the top tier of the artistic hierarchy, isn’t it time we questioned the hierarchy itself? When we begin to examine how art, fashion, and other forms of design stand at a crossroads of aesthetics, utility, and commerce, we will gain much deeper insights.