It’s Fashion, But is it Art?

Eleanor Birdsall-Smith explores the role gender plays in prejudice against fashion

The Louvre. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Louvre opened its sculpture gallery to house Louis Vuitton’s AW17 collection, which is the first time a gallery has hosted a runway show. Nicolas Ghesquière’s collection was certainly impressive; the combination of broad shouldered outerwear and tightly-belted waists created angular, yet feminine silhouettes. There were also some next-level bias cut slip dresses with lace insets, beading and fur. What was perhaps most interesting, however, was the interaction between the clothes and the art. The experience was clearly immersive and aimed to combine the elements of both the neoclassical sculptures in the Louvre and the new figures in Louis Vuitton. However from some people’s coverage of the show, it almost felt like the clothes overshadowed the art. The Louvre’s hosting does spark the interesting debate: is fashion art? If so, why is it rarely taken seriously by anyone outside of the industry?

It is easy to say “a jumper is a jumper”, and there are people for whom fashion has a purely utilitarian role. However, to say the concept of utility excludes fashion from the world of art would be absurd; it would completely ignore the spectrum of expression already seen from artists. Are we to ignore Grayson Perry’s classically styled vases purely because a vase is also a vessel for water and flowers? Surely, the argument against the potential for functionality in art was settled after the rise of reverence for Duchamp’s Fountain. Just as much creative genius goes into the design for a runway show, or a Manolo Blahnik sandal, as it does a piece of ‘fine art’. And in terms of the layman’s lack of interest, there is no area of art that doesn’t bring forth yawns or derision from some sectors of society. The fact that fashion is something that everyone has to actively appreciate should make it less dismissible, rather than more so.

One reason for this layer of derision around fashion is the uncomfortable issue of internalised misogyny. It has long been painfully clear that the areas of culture and industry which are deprecated in school and society for being feminine and unimportant are dominated by men when transferred to the real world of business. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the traditional female ‘housewife’ stereotype. It is seen as a woman’s duty to cook for the family, and equally baking is seen as an old lady’s occupation, or perhaps taught to young girls in ‘Domestic Science’, but definitely not something for growing boys to concern themselves with. There’s a whole story line focusing on just that in everyone’s favourite infamous Disney movie, High school musical—who remembers crème brulee Zeke, who wasn’t sticking to the status quo? Yet, almost every famous chef, be that on or off our TV screens, is a man. The two main exceptions fill depressingly archetypal roles – Delia the ‘Mother’ teaches us how to poach an egg and Nigella the ‘whore’ seductively piles chocolate and cream into a bowl and then licks the spoon. This trend can be seen across the board—an interest in art and drawing at school is often thought of as girly but as we know from campaigns like ‘Gorilla Girls’, all of our museums are full of pictures of naked women, drawn by dead white men.

In terms of fashion, what could be more girly than caring about clothes and shoes and makeup and handbags? Women are constantly slated for being too into their looks, or too vain and shallow. It’s even ingrained within our language on gender, we are told not to be a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when acting too fussy or weak, and in the north, men who cares about their looks are ‘tarts’. One might hope then, that as a kind of recompense for this degradation, women would have pride of place within the fashion industry. Unfortunately however, women only make up a third of the top jobs in fashion. That’s not to say it isn’t a female-dominated industry, but the fashion houses are still predominately being run by men; think of Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander Wang, Tom Ford, Gucci and Chanel, which started out as styles from Coco for the modern woman, but is now run by Karl Lagerfeld. This sends the unfortunate message that when something is associated with women, it is not to be taken seriously, until it is taken over and made into a money-making reality by the strongmen of this world. Why is it that Nicolas Ghesquière can be invited to the largest and arguably most prestigious art gallery in the world, yet young girls reading fashion magazines and picking out beautiful shoes are still told to stop wasting their time, to focus on something actually worthwhile?

This is not to say that I’m not thrilled that Ghesquière was invited to the Louvre for his show or that it was his gender that got him the invite. This is about the wider issue of fashion not being recognized as an art form—because to quote the great Stanley Tucci from the famous ‘The Devils Wears Prada’, fashion is “greater than art, because you live your life in it”.

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