Why Isn't Fashion Considered Art?


A series examining the intersection of art & fashion. Inspired by Netflix's 'The First Monday in May'

by Marissa Heyl

One of the things I love most about fashion is its ability to transcend cultures, language, even time. Fashion, like other artforms, speaks to the human impulse to express ourselves. To communicate with each other. To symbolize being part of a community, while simultaneously showcasing one's individuality. Fashion can stir up strong emotions, like art. Remember Lady Gaga's meat dress? 

This week, I found myself engrossed in the new Netflix documentary ‘The First Monday in May' about the 2015 Met Gala themed around Chinese art and fashion. The exquisite bejeweled fabrics, elongated trains and stunning brocades in avant-garde silhouettes put me in a state of absolute elation--it was fashion porn. I was all in.

The film also brought up much deeper questions we should all think about in our globalized world. Can Western designers create a Chinese design without culturally appropriating? Is it acceptable to have a select few European men deemed the arbiters of Chinese taste and style, or style in general? And of course the million dollar question--can fashion be considered art? 

Fashion at its core, throughout history, was all handcrafted by artisans--spinning cotton into threads, weaving on hand looms, dyeing fabric and embroidering designs. Clothes were hand stitched by a tailor to fit the individual. The colors and motifs one wore communicated to others an incredible amount of information about her social status and culture. If that isn't art, then I don't know what is.

Jean Paul Gaultier, one of my favorite designers, says that fashion isn't really art in the film. It is a reflection of modern culture and what people are wearing on the streets. While that might be true, it speaks to an age old hierarchy between 'fine art' and 'applied art.' Fine art has long been considered more 'pure' than applied art; so then does commerce make art less pure? 

The advent of mass production, particularly fast fashion, has created a line demarcating fashion from art. Fashion is now about rock bottom prices, heaps of polyester and machine made goodies that are made to wear just a few times before falling apart. There is something definitely NOT art about something so purely commercial.

What I hope to accomplish with Symbology is a happy medium between art and fashion. To celebrate artforms that date back centuries and bring a rich history to our expression of self. To give credit to the people and culture from which the piece is made. At the same time, to be able to empower thousands of women artisans requires consistent, sustained orders. And that means manufacturing and economies of scale.

So what is it that makes fashion art? I'm inclined to say that there needs to be a handmade element to it, with a dash of innovation. 

The issue of fashion as art is made ever more complex with the topic of cross cultural fashion in our globalized world. 'East meets West' fashion that doesn’t culturally appropriate. Western men dictating what's stylish for women around the world. But that's a whole other can of worms--er, pot of tea?--we will get to next time.