I DRESS, THEREFORE I AM (A FASHION ARTIST)

Welcome, Dear Reader, to Voxfrock’s swansong to 2016, an excerpt from my April presentation, Fashion is Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. At this fag-end of a year lousy with theories around fashion’s evolution, existence and extinction, it seems ping-perfectly appropriate to me to revisit the nub of this thing we love so well.

Here, I argue we are all artists, and, as long as we shop and fuss in front of our wardrobe every morning, we always will be. We are fashion artists composing visual expressions of our selves, open to beholders’ interpretation, everyday.

I dress, therefore I am.

On February 26, 2017, I will revisit this simple theory again for a talk at the final weekend of the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists. (Main photo, above.) I’d be thrilled to the gills if you can join me. Until then, may your summer be warm and glamourous, full of kind friends, loving family and fascinating conversations.

Happy Christmas. Happy Chanukah. And a Hopeful New Year with all our love, Janice Breen Burns and the Voxfrockers. xxxx

FASHION IS ART.

In 2009 Jean Paul Gaultier designed a particular dress for his haute couture collection. The pelt of a crocodile was snipped into fragments, then re-arranged and laboriously crochetted back together to fit a woman’s body.

Jean Paul Gaultier.  Photo: Vogue.com

Jean Paul Gaultier.
Photo: Vogue.com

The result, you could say, was just another fabulously fashionable dress. But, it was also obviously a dress that was about as simple as a Rothko colourfield painting is simple. Gaultier’s crocodile frock was evocative and, like any work of art, charged with meanings and open to interpretations that reached way beyond its own existence or its simple function as a piece of clothing.

There was meaning in those intricately webbed separations between each crocodile skin fragment. There was meaning in the way one creature was re-moulded into another. Crocodile to woman.  There was also the melting pot of complex politics and commentary around its raw materials and the nature and (obviously cruel) processes of fashion.

Now, we don’t all have evocative haute couture crocodile frocks in our wardrobes but even our everyday clothes are charged with meanings and we consciously or unconsciously use to these to construct an image of ourselves.

Dressing is the most creative thing most of us do. We do it every day, and we do it with eerily similar intellectual tools to those of any artist.

We use fashion – its constantly changing styles of frocks and skirts, trousers and shoes, the hair colors, jewels and tattoos – just as artists use, say, chisels to sculpt and brushes to paint.

Photo: Monty Coles, www.theloupe.org.au

Photo: Monty Coles, www.theloupe.org.au

We compose visual expressions of ourselves; complex, multi-layered ideas of who we are, who we want to be seen to be, that we then project into the world to elicit a response, to manipulate others’ perception of us.

Think about the millions of micro creative decisions you make, standing in front of shop racks, perfume counters, hair salon mirrors, your wardrobe.

Even the most careless, the most conservative, the most modest, the most minimalist among us, make myriad tiny inter-dependant choices to compose that picture of ourselves – that work of art – just so, every day.

We start with the practical considerations like the weather, of course, and where we’re going, what we’ll be doing.  But, then we plug into the deeper layers of ourselves and our culture and beliefs: we excavate those layers and layers of meanings built up over days and months and years and we pick pick pick as we think think think.

“Does this colour, this texture, this hemline, this cufflink, this haircut, this, this and this or this; does this fit the picture I want to create and exhibit today?” We think and think whether this micro combination or that, will portray what we want to portray, elicit the reactions we want to elicit. Does it conjure the idea of ME I want to conjure?

If that isn’t a form of art, I don’t know what is.

As practicing fashion artists, we’re also split pretty evenly on whether we dress to stand out from the herd….

Photo: Monty Coles

Photo: Monty Coles

Or whether we use fashion to stand with the herd, to identify ourselves with the mainstream…

Photo: Styleofficial Instagram.

Photo: Styleofficial
Instagram.

Standing WITH the herd is the fuss-free, low risk option. It’s comfy to dress similarly to lots of others, a kind of communion of mutual approval. It’s also easier, and sometimes cheaper too; this is where the fashion industry can get mind-bogglingly repetitious, with same-same lookalike frocks everywhere from Topshop and Zara, to Max Mara and Giorgio Armani.

But, is dressing in mainstream brands less creative or artful than say, dressing in more radical fashion brands like, say, Rick Owens, or Yohji Yamamoto or Kym Ellery or Romance was Born?

It looks as if it is, but essentially no, it’s not. It doesn’t matter if we select and buy our clothes from radical collections and fringe fashion concepts, or if we pick and buy from the commercial, middle-market mainstream. Either way, we’re still creating a complex visual expression of ourselves. It’s just; we’re working with raw materials from opposite ends of the fashion spectrum.

Rick Owens SS17 Photo: Vogue.com

Rick Owens SS17
Photo: Vogue.com

Radical designers are fashion’s groundbreakers. Their fashion ideas shock at first, but then a lot of them are copied by a zillion others and eventually watered down for our timid mainstream tastes.

One way or another both mainstream and radical fashion designers churn everything in the Zeitgeist, into their collections. (The Zeitgeist means everything that’s happening in the world at the time: the street fads, the cultural shifts, the politics, the wars.) By a kind of global osmosis, everything gets sucked into the Zeitgeist and into fashion. First into the groundbreaking radical fashions, then by a trickle down effect, into the mainstream fashion and most of our wardrobes. We are conservative, or we are radical; we are all artists.

Valentino. Photo: Vogue.com

Valentino.
Photo: Vogue.com

Here, for example, is a beautiful dress in yellow velvet by Valentino (I love the way light slides around its surface and, can’t you almost feel how that slippery silk velvet would slap and roll around your calves and ankles?) It’s a lovely example of a mainstream trend; volume. Have your twigged that silhouettes are getting bigger, “oversized” is a new buzzword? Why? How? Nothing happens in fashion without a reason. Why are clothes getting bulkier, becoming less dependant on the body for their form, involving a lot more fabric? What does the trend to bigger clothes mean?

Depending on who you read or hear, this is at least partly reactive to what’s happening in the Zeitgeist. Commentators muse that designers have responded to the increasing presence of muslim nicabs hijabs and burquas – “modesty wear” – in western societies. The theory goes; the oversized trend evolved from there.

What do you think? Has modesty crept more into your expressions of self? Draw your own conclusions. The point here, is that a frock is never simply a frock. Not to you. Not to me. It has layers of meaning that we put together like jigsaw pieces with elements of our own self image every time we get dressed.

There are meanings in every bit we pick, every combination we compose. We dress, therefore we are fashion artists.

Janice Breen Burns, jbb@voxfrock.com.au