ALEXANDER Mc QUEEN-FASHION DESIGN
IS FASHION DESIGN AN ART? AND IF YES, IS IT A POETIC ART?
I’ve always liked what the Navajos say when they part. They never say ‘Goodbye.’ They say ‘Go in beauty.’
Is fashion an art?
Norman Norell, one of America’s most renowned fashion designers, hesitates, then gives a qualified yes. “The
best of fashion is worthy of the name art.”
Norell picks Gres, Chanel, Vionnet, and Balenciaga as the artists of fashion of the twentieth century, declines to make any judgment on fashion as an art historically. “It’s hard to say if you didn’t live in a period. Pictures don’t mean a thing . . . even the clothes themselves don’t. What counts is how clothes look in life. Take New York today. A woman who is all dressed up looks awful. With the way our buildings are, the woman who is overdressed looks like a fool.”
How would you define the art of fashion?
“Well, if you’re talking about fine stitching or intricate detail, about some great thing that took weeks and weeks to make, that’s not what I mean by the modern art of fashion. Anyone can sit around and sew for days and days. It doesn’t prove a thing any more. Modern fashion is more direct and simple.”
Still, for Norell,elegance and quality are the two attributes of fashion that count the most. “Quality means a lot to me. I like to think about people wearing their clothes a long time. It was drilled into me when I was young. There’s no getting around it: good quality looks great. The other stuff never looks any more than just okay.”
Norell considers the period just before World War I as the most elegant era in modern fashion, but paradoxically it is Chanel, the designer who did the most to displace that tradition of elegance, that he cites as the most influential force in twentieth-century fashion.
“Everything that’s going on in fashion now really started in the twenties. The seeds are all there. The main thing that happened was that all of that changing stopped…one dress for morning, another for lunch, another for tea, etc., etc. Chanel pared it down to one dress or suit to wear all day plus that rag of an evening dress for parties. I still remember that evening dress. If you didn’t have that dress on, you were out. Every chic woman wore it, but, of course, each one did something different with it. That was the fun of it. My idea of chic is that everyone in the world would have the same dress and the chicest woman would be whoever could do the best thing with it. The main trouble with fashion today is that there are too many clothes designed, too many choices. Look at colored stockings. They just give women another pit to fall into.”
Alexander McQueen Interview on Charlie Rose
Is fashion an art?
Modern sculptor Louise Nevelson says no. Mrs. Nevelson, a pioneer of environmental sculpture, thinks that to qualify as an art, fashion must be an expression of the wearer and must relate to her environment. She dismisses the concept of fashion being a designer’s idea or a fleshless sketch.
“Today it’s the designer who gets all the attention. I was reading about an art opening and every woman even the ones who had collected all those beautiful things was identified by who designed her dress, not by how she looked or what she did. It’s insanity to negate these ladies, reduce them to a label. I’m much more interested in knowing something about them than
I am in knowing what label they wore.
“Fashion could be an art, but it isn’t. On earth at any time there are few people who understand themselves well enough to bring themselves to a high art. Today many rich people are living at such a pace, busy from childhood partying and traveling all the time, that they are not interested in developing themselves, so they lean on designers, hairdressers. I’m not sure they’re not right but that’s not art.”
How does the world look to you?
“Science fiction is becoming science fact. The new architecture and furniture are making New York into science fact. You can’t have that romantic look any more. Take beautiful antique furniture. A house filled with beautiful antiques is a period piece; it’s not a home.
Most of America is living in the nineteenth century. Look at San Francisco it bores me. They think they’re the elite, but we went through all that years ago.
“I feel I am gearing into my time. I’m more contented and feel better with the present day, from architecture to furniture to the way we set our table. The casual way we do things now is more gracious than all that silver and china and glass. I’d like a wall-less house, one not divided into rooms for special functions. A house used to be history and decoration; now it’s structure and form.
“We are working toward a total unity and that would include clothes. It won’t be so unique, but it will be
ordered. The way we live now clutters the mind. We abuse ourselves because we don’t know the toll we take. We don’t have meters on our minds and senses.”
What happens to the individual in this new world?
“Man has become the cheapest thing on the market. In the old days we had more individualism but not necessarily more art. There’s not much place for the original or personal. Take minimal art; I’m not for it or against it. But I am all for outer space. Man has explored this earth. He has new worlds to conquer, new visions. Man is already expanding his mind to outer space.”
Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty
London-born fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010) was renowned for his conceptually daring and beautifully crafted ensembles. His theatrical catwalk shows are now the stuff of fashion legend, and his work remains hugely influential. In this film, McQueen’s friends, family and contemporaries reflect on the life and extraordinary career of fashion’s ultimate ‘enfant terrible’
Is fashion an art?
Irene Sharaff, one of America’s busiest and most successful designers of theatrical and movie costumes, says definitely yes, fashion is an art. “Of course it depends on what you mean by art, but the creative part of fashion has always worked alongside the creative forces that have defined and colored a decade, an era. As much as art, fashion is a manifestation of the times- of its psychological, social, political, visual existence.”
In the context of history, what do you think future generations will see as the most important force in fashion today?
“The American way of life. Although Paris is still powerful for economic shock value (for instance, if everyone in Paris suddenly lowered hems ten inches a lot of women over here would panic), in fact Paris is no longer top banana on the banana tree. Our greatest export is the American way of life. Everyone wants to lead the kind of casual life we do, and naturally this is having a great impact on clothes.” Miss Sharaff herself wears Norells (“I’m most comfortable in them”), plus skirts and sweaters or Puccis for working.
How would you describe the direction of modern fashion?
“I think that great femininity is coming in. A woman’s place has changed economically, and she is more and more on an equal footing with men. Aggressiveness is no longer necessary to succeed, and I think that is already
reflected in clothes.
“I won’t gamble on silhouette, but I think these days just about anything goes. What is more important is the perfection of the instrument of the garment. Shoes, stockings, underwear all have been perfected so that they are comfortable to wear, easy to care for. Things work better.
“One of the things that have always fascinated me in my research is the tremendous influence that inventions have had. When power weaving came in, the whole concept of fashion changed. Now we are in the midst of an era with all kinds of wonderful new inventions.
Look what electronics has done for music. We listen calmly to music today that would have sounded very strange even three years ago.”
Although Miss Sharaff thinks that the influence of new technologies on fashion will be enormous in the next decades, she is no partisan of the throw-away revolution.
“I think man by nature likes to keep things. More people are collectors. I think people will collect old things and use them in new ways, much as Picasso used a tin can for his goat sculpture or an automobile for the head of his monkey.” She says that what the English kids are doing in their forays on Portobello Road is to “use their past to exist in the present.”
An art student and painter before she was a designer, Miss Sharaff is still a dedicated Sunday painter. She finds modern sculpture more imaginative than modern painting, feels that clothes and art are moving closer together all the time. With all the wonders of modern technology, “we no longer need the protection of animal skins. Freed from utilitarianism, fashion is now free to be more of a form unto itself.”
Is fashion an art?
Alwin Nikolais, whose Henry Street Dance Theater has been a leading avant-garde force in the dance world for
the past decade, says definitely no.
“Fashion is not an art because women rely so much on other people to design them. Most women wear what sort of fits. Clothes should state yourself. After all, creativity is a statement of self, so for clothes, fashion, to be an art, a woman would have to design herself. Last summer in Utah I saw a kid go by on a motorcycle. He was wearing a crazy long fur coat and a hat. It was the most compelling thing, particularly against that landscape.
But even in Southampton I saw a typical ‘well-dressed’ woman you know how they dress out there-walking down the street followed right behind by a teenager. The teenager really looked much better. Everybody could be beautiful, really, but most women present themselves so awkwardly. Women should set themselves forth attractively but innocently, like a cat. A cat is never a presentation, but an innocent happening. I’ve always liked what the Navajos say when they part. They never say ‘Goodbye.’ They say ‘Go in beauty.’ “
Although reviewed by dance critics, Mr. Nikolais has always insisted that what he is after is an experience of total theater. He writes his own music, does his own scenery and lighting, and makes his own costumes.
What are some of the new materials that you have used for costumes, and new techniques you have experimented with, and what were some of the problems?
“In Kaleidoscope (1956) I colored the dancers’ hands and faces so that the figures wouldn’t look decapitated. What interested me most was that as I watched one of my dancers painting one side of her face blue and the other side green, I really saw her for the first time. She was much more beautiful than I had thought.”
Mr. Nikolais has always found fabric useful in abstracting the human figure into sculpture or shape. “Some of our earliest experiments were with wool jersey, forms moving inside the jersey rather than using the jersey to drape the body. It was an idea I later noticed was being used in fashion. I began using ultraviolet fabrics three years ago, and recently we have experimented with boning very light fabrics in such a way that the figure gets fatter or thinner as it gets up or down. One of the biggest fabric problems is that materials are so periodic. It often happens that we can no longer buy the material we need. For instance, light-reflecting silver Helanca was all over the place a couple of years ago, then last spring we couldn’t find any.
“Some of our most difficult experiments have been with the use of light. In Prison (1957) 1 used lights projected on the dancers to break up the bodies. For example, one dancer’s costume was bright salmon and white stripes on which I then projected stripes of light. It gave him the look of being fragmented. I was entranced by the optical effect. Since then I’ve used movie projectors, slide machines with wide-angle lenses, light bulbs. Last winter in Somniloquy the dancers carried globes designed to reflect both on themselves and on the environment. Designing with moving light forms is very difficult. The light is never bright enough. The problem is to get enough intensity of light without heat.”
The Works: Alexander McQueen ‘Cutting Up Rough’
Is fashion an art?
“I would certainly not affirm that fashion is not art,” says Andre Courreges, whose first collection, in 1963, opened up a new fashion era. “But this is something for others to judge. The profession of fashion designer for me is simply a job like that of any artisan who attempts to introduce taste and proportion into the object he is creating, exactly in the way an architectries to build a harmonious structure.
“I have always liked to paint and, being a staunch admirer of Le Corbusier and Saarinen, I might have become
an architect had my family been able to finance my studies. They were not, and so couture has become the
best way I’ve found to formulate my ideas. The frivolous, superficial aspects of my profession do sometimes offend me, since for me couture is not an end in itself. I truly want to bring solutions to the problems of modern women. Designing a building and making a dress have much in common. The principal concern of both is to give the impression of grace and harmony while at the same time being practical. My designs are simple and functional like modern architecture. I have always tried to consecrate an important part of my work to the functional aspects, to have real contact with life.
“Until relatively recent times, after all, the ‘artist,’ as we now term him, was an extremely functional being. I even doubt that the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century painters were thus designated. A fashion designer is an artist to the same extent as a cabinetmaker, a ceramist, a carpenter- or an architect. Ancient Egyptian furniture was studied and comfortable. It was also very beautiful. The Romanesque capitals were sculpted by master craftsmen. We called the cathedral builders masons, and the cathedrals had very specific functions. They were constructed to serve many purposes, induce meditation, call in and unite the masses, and, as the spirit of the Church changed, so did the function of the cathedral. See how soaring Gothic makes you raise your eyes to the sky in adoration, as low Romanesque makes you bow your head in humility.
“Be it the construction of a house according to the needs of a family or the construction of a dress, the problem is the same-how best to fit into what I call ‘the modern grand design.’ Listen to the music of Shonberg, Berg, Xenakis, or look at kinetic art and you will see what I mean.
“I think that during each period what we call art is produced when (as today with airplanes) the worker applies the maximum of his taste to the maximum in technological and sociological advances of his time. If any one of these lags behind, something inaesthetic happens. When the artisans building the cathedrals applied the purity of their art to the most advanced techniques, what they created was beautiful.
“Like an architect, I work on my drawing board with my models and my fabrics. I don’t need to see the woman who will wear my clothes any more than an architect needs to build a house before he decides where he’s going to put the windows. We can do all that on the plan. I am a technician, and drawing is my manner of philosophizing, of reflecting.
[…] I never stop testing, adapting, thinking about each woman I dress. Each is an individual problem. […]
The predominance of white in my collections has often been viewed as purely aesthetic. But I have chosen white for its functional qualities as well. After all, it is considered the most functional color in hot climates. We dress babies and small children in white. For me white means health and cleanliness, which I in turn associate with beauty. […]
I have said that my clothes aim to liberate the spirit as well as the eyes. Don’t forget the body. The woman who interests me does not belong to any particular physical type. But she does live a certain sort of life. She is active, moves fast, works, is usually young and modern enough to wear modern, intelligent clothes. She is often American, quicker to pick up new ideas than Europeans. A woman is truly beautiful only when she is naked and she knows it. So why all the hypocrisy anyway?
A musician or a painter spends fourteen hours a day working out his solutions, whereas a listener or viewer devotes only an hour now and then to the consideration of the same problems.
“Unfortunately we must dress woman now. Our creations are temporal. Not manuscripts or canvas, they cannot be stored until the public consciousness is ready. Luckily there are those happy few who do live with their times, and one thing is certain. Women have become liberated little by little through thought, work, and clothes. I cannot imagine that they will ever turn back. Perhaps they will continue to suffer occasionally to be beautiful, but more than ever they seek to be both beautiful
“If the function of art is to bring joy through harmony, color, and form, perhaps we can, after all, by dressing a woman to feel younger and to participate fully in life, bring her joy comparable to that she experiences in contemplating a painting.”
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