Fashion and Art

Subject: Art
Type: Compare and Contrast Essay
Pages: 10
Word count: 3167
Topics: Art History, Fashion, Popular Culture


The term ‘fashion’ seems to refer to a ubiquitous concept that needs no explanation at all for it is easily understandable by all and sundry; indeed, today’s consumerism/material culture is saturated with fashion. Fashion exists everywhere and one needs not look any further to experience it, because it can be spotted on every street. Similarly, the term ‘art’ seems deceptively simple for everyone to comprehend, though many people would actually hesitate trying to define the concept (Laver, J., 1967, p.117). In many cases, people tend to conflate the two terms as though they refer to the same thing; indeed, both art and fashion seem to have one thing in common, beauty. Generally, art is beautiful and so is fashion; for that matter, it is hardly uncommon for one to imagine that fashion and art do mean the same thing or refer to nearly the same thing. However, a critical exploration of these two terms indicate that their meaning is not so simple as is often assumed, especially because what they mean constantly shifts, and cannot quite be pinned down. 

Significantly, different ideas of ‘art’ have always competed throughout ancient history to modern times (Dean, 2003, p.29); for instance, Plato simply conceptualized art as the “imitation of nature”. However, it was not too long before photography took over that function in the 19th century; even so, the emergence of abstract art in the 20th century completely overturned the idea of art as representation on its head. In that respect, the meaning of ‘art’ can never be fixed, as it has always been shifting throughout history, depending on many factors including place and time. Similarly, change seems to be the only constant in the fashion world, especially because new fashion ideas keep erupting each and every day, thereby completely overshadowing or revising the older ones. This paper intends to thoroughly explore the divergent definitions of the terms ‘art’ and ‘fashion’ with the aim of providing a working conceptual framework of understanding that can aid in relating and distinguishing between the two concepts respectively. Generally, this paper proposes that the topic of fashion and art has traditionally been regarded through a rather simplistic and dated lens, thereby completely downplaying the fact of the complex and ever shifting nature of the meaning of ‘fashion’ and ‘art’. In other words, this paper aims to underscore the problematic nature of the topic of fashion and art, by indicating that both terms can equally represent or refer to varied things based not only on the social-cultural context of usage, but also on the observer. 

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Fashion versus art

Generally, fashion design is hardly ever thought of seriously as art; but it is interesting to note that most fashion designs derive from clear artistic motivations, which begs the question of whether they can simply be considered clothing, fashion, or art as well (Kim, 2015, p.59). Also, it is possible to think of clothes on display as being exhibited in some kind of gallery or museum art, just like any other art. The fact that something as complex as architecture should be considered art further raises concern as to why something like fashion should not qualify as an art form as well. Indeed, what is commonly referred to as fashion in most if not in all cases is usually a kind of visual expression, which requires not only skills but also a great deal of creativity, like most artistic works; however, critics often consider fashion merely as a commodity that is mass-produced for profit motives. Thus, despite the obvious relationship between fashion and art, critics have always regarded the two as separate entities and whenever they approach fashion as art, they often treat it simply as applied or decorative art. 

Critics have always dismissed the idea that fashion can be regarded as art for two principal reasons, one being that fashion lacks the special quality of rarity and also because it is ultimately commercial in nature. This implies that for something to be considered to be a genuine work of art, it should not only be one of a kind, but also be created without the pursuit of profit in mind. So while fashion is principally a commercial venture of mass production, art is free of such demands; moreover, other critics have also observed that fashion falls short of being taken seriously as an art form, because it is frivolous, fleeting and highly feminised. Moreover, it is also clear to note that, while fashion has a functional/ practical use, art has no immediate utility value and therefore is simply art for art’s sake. For that matter, art is said to spring from a higher spiritual motivation rather than simply being motivated by the principles of commodity and commerce. Thus, the artist is first and foremost driven by the pursuit of artistic expression and a profound drive to create a unique work of art. 

While the afore-mentioned criticisms of and arguments on the idea of fashion as art seem deceptively compelling and palpable, they are not to be taken at face value, at least not without further exploration. The idea that fashion, unlike art, does not bear the rarity quality and is purely a commercial phenomenon may be unfounded, especially considering that what is often regarded as art is often produced for money and unique piece of fashion can also be created without being necessarily mass-produced. For instance, what is often regarded as ‘high art’ was actually produced by painters who were commissioned specifically to make portraits or paintings of historical value, which means that art can also be motivated by commercial value. Similarly, contemporary fashion designers have gone out of their way to create outstandingly unique garments that stand out more or less like sculptural works as opposed to mere clothes that are meant to be worn by people. In creating such unique garments, fashion designers place significant emphasis on the process and content rather than just the look itself; meanwhile, many artists are still dependent on commissions and are often compelled to think about their customers/viewers while working. 

Exploring the idea of fashion

Whenever many individuals discuss the topic of fashion, they often tend to focus on dress and the entire discussion almost certainly tends to be simply about clothing. However, fashion does not simply exist in people’s dresses only; it can also be found everywhere, even in the sky and on the streets. This suggests that the term fashion conceptually refers to many things and has existence in many diverse spheres of life as well. Indeed, fashion has also to do with ideas, as well as with the manner in which people organize themselves socially, and also with what is happening around them respectively.  Whereas clothing simply refers to the generic raw materials that constitute a person’s outfit, fashion ideally conveys many different social meanings, thereby effectively transcending the objective attributes of material clothing. Generally, clothing is assigned specific social functions over and beyond those of function and aesthetics through the principle of fashion. While clothes are products that are generated through a design process, fashion is not really the end result of that process; the specific pieces of clothing that eventually become embraced and turned into function are selected by society, various groups within society, or even one community. 

The term ‘fashion’ was initially derived from the Latin word ‘facere’, which can typically be translates to mean ‘do’ or ‘make’; for that matter, the word ‘fashion’ simply meant to ‘shape’, ‘make’ or ‘appearance’, until later in the mid-16th Century when it came to refer to a mode of dressing that society adopts at any given time. Indeed, an older version of the Oxford English dictionary, which was first came into print around 1901, simply describes fashion as “…the [act] of making”, as well as “…a prevailing custom’, and “…a current usage…”(Kawamura 2005, p.3). In that respect, the interpretation of the concept of ‘fashion’ seems to suggest that ideas about dressing practices eventually become out-dated and are then replaced by newer ones. 

Significantly, the meaning and significance of fashion has always been on a slide throughout history, changing to fit the particular societal cultures and clothing traditions of individuals in varied societal contexts and social formations. Historically, the clothing habits of people have always been transformed based to the shifting meaning and significance of fashion; for instance, 15th century fashion is nothing compared to the fashion of the 20th century. Throughout the 15th century, fashion was principally regarded as a marker of social class and affluence, but that was to change drastically in the course of the 20th Century, when fashion increasingly became accessible to nearly everyone who wanted to dress and look fashionable. For that matter, the concept of ‘fashion’ has taken on a blurred and generic meaning that encompasses nearly all kinds of clothing and accessories, beginning from the 1960s onwards. This implies that no attempt is made to clearly distinguish between the concept of ‘fashion’ and the product ‘clothes’ in the ordinary every day usage of the two terms; however, it is possible to clearly separate these two ideas, especially because clothes do not automatically translate into fashion. 

In critical scholarly discourses, theorists have traditionally approached fashion as an institutionalized system that exists independent of clothing; in that sense, fashion can be regarded as a system that encompasses both individuals like designers, among other professionals, and fashion-related institutions. Within this system, individuals and institutions collectively engage in fashion-related activities and share the same ideals about fashion; most importantly, these individuals and institutions collaborate in producing and maintaining both the ideology and culture of fashion. Eventually, both the fashion ideology and culture produced by these individuals and institutions is effectively sustained by the continuous reproduction of fashion throughout the world. The fact that what designers create are just clothes but not fashion, indicates that the clothes are later credited with the fashion quality or embraced as fashion through communicative observation. This then raises one pertinent question, regarding what qualifies clothes as fashion; in accordance with Loschek (2009, p.177), the viewer/observer determines when something becomes fashion. Thus, that which is typically recognized as fashion is a negotiated look that results from the interaction between institutions, as well as groups and individuals. 

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Exploring the idea of art

The concept of ‘art’ is equally just as complex and problematic like it ‘fashion’ counterpart; generally, art can be regarded as a process of communication, that mediates between the conscious and the subconscious minds respectively. Moreover, this communication can also be between the artist and the observer, the artist and the world, as well as between the observer and the world itself. The concept of ‘art’ achieved much of its distinct interpretation in the 16th Century western society, when painters and sculptors were highly revered and assumed a superior status compared to potters, metal workers, weavers and other makers of decorative arts (Fleming & Honour, 2009, p.2). The word ‘art’ has its origins in the Latin word ‘ars’, which fundamentally translates to ‘put together’, ‘join’ or ‘fit’; in the early English language usage, the word simply referred to ‘skill’. From the early 17th century onwards, the word ‘art’ came to be understood as the application of skill in accordance with unique aesthetic principles (Chantrell, 2002, p.30); from the 20th century, ‘art’ became designated for everything that fell out of place in the industrialized society, including subjective views of the world, as well as mythical ideas and self-determined activity. 

Art has been increasingly liberalized in contemporary times, unlike in the past, when it was strictly a profession in its own right while most paintings as well as sculptures were largely commissioned. For a long time, most painters in the west were principally tasked with the responsibility of portraying European rulers and to consolidate their reign through a depiction of fashion, besides documenting the lives of the common folk. For that matter, paintings as well as sculpting and most other forms of visual representation were hardly used for self-serving reasons; artwork was principally created for a specific purpose such as spiritual as well as socio-political functions. Contrariwise, contemporary art has increasingly been diversified and no matter if is exclusively created to express a subjective feeling or as a commissioned artwork, it often comments on or reflects on the environment within which it is produced. 

Contemporary art is not only challenging, but also extremely provocative and interrogative; these kinds of artworks generally employ diverse approaches and stress their content. Consequently, the concept of ‘art’ has increasingly become elusive and difficult to define, especially considering that nearly anything can pass as art nowadays; thus, while the term ‘art’ is one of the most debated concepts, it still remains problematic. The apparent elusiveness of the concept of ‘art’ is further compounded by the fact that the definition of ‘art’ keeps shifting depending on the context; it is widely acknowledged that a work of art is entirely constructed by the viewers or observers that look at it, thereby making it survive through their praises or criticisms respectively (Loschek 2009, p.205). 

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The idea of fashion as art

The question of whether fashion should be regarded as a form of art in its own right has been highly debated, especially given that fashion and art have traditionally been crisscrossing each other’s domains. Both fashion and artworks constitute the visual culture, which not only entails form, but also colour and textures; indeed, fashion has proven to be just as technically and conceptually rich as art.  Regardless of the divergent views regarding whether fashion qualifies as an art form or not, it is obvious that fashion and art are related. Fashion and art have often been closely related from the early 20th century, when the former started tapping into the later as its source of motivation while the artists started collaborating on creative projects with designers. Specifically, Geczy & Karaminas (2012, p.1) highlight that the dynamic link between the body and artistic expression fascinated artists and drew them into forming even closer working relationships. 

Throughout history, a wide range of acclaimed fashion practitioners have often described themselves as artists and a great many artists have also employed fashion as a form of artistic expression. For instance, an artist known as Sonia Delaunay is famous for designing dresses that looked exactly like cubist paintings while Elsa Schiaparelli is noted for her collaboration with surrealist artist Salvador Dali, which resulted to the creation of many iconic garments and accessories such as the famed Shoe Hat (1937). Belgian and Japanese fashion designers were at the forefront in popularizing the conceptual approach to fashion through the 1980s, even though its foundation had already been established in previous years. Up to date, fashion and art continue to enjoy a very strong bond, but that does not necessarily imply that fashion equals to or aspires to be treated as art; nevertheless, it is clear to see that the definitions of both fashion and art have been blurred in some cases. For instance, it is hardly uncommon to find fashion designers that work exactly like artists, adding artistic ideas and story lines to their work and preferring fashion shows akin to performance art over the conventional catwalk exhibitions. 

As indicated previously, fashion has traditionally been dismissed as a superficial as well as fleeting and physical phenomenon, unlike art, which has always been elevated as the most important form that it not only eternally beautiful, but also spiritual in nature. Fashion has been declared to be lacking in the aspects of veracity and perfect beauty, aspects that are generally ascribed to high arts. Despite the fact that the views and attitudes surrounding the foregoing debate are essentially limited and dated, they still influence the manner in which contemporary fashion and art are essentially defined and understood. Given that fashion is hardly regarded as art, because it lacks utility value and is a mass produced commercial product, it is often assumed that art has no practical use whatsoever; taking this assumption to its logical conclusion, it would appear that fashion becomes art by effectively losing its functional quality (Loscheck 2009, p. 171). 

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However, the foregoing ideas about art are highly suspect, especially considering the fact that to regard art as having no utility value is essentially to preclude the aesthetic and expressive values, which eventually constitute the essence of art. Consequently, the so-called freedom of art has been called into question by the mere fact that it also serves many functions including representing as well as beautifying and communicating information. For that matter, the contemporary interpretation of art seems to suggest that any kind of artistic expression is created in order to fulfil a specific function, whether it is simply to portray something or to express it in a more artistic manner (Loschek 2009, p.167). 

Ultimately, the underlying goal of this paper was to explore the varied views and attitudes of the terms ‘art’ and ‘fashion’ with the aim of providing a working conceptual framework of understanding that can aid in relating and distinguishing between the two concepts respectively. As indicated in the previous discussion, the topic of fashion and art has traditionally been regarded through a rather simplistic and dated lens, thereby completely downplaying the fact of the complex and ever shifting nature of the meaning of ‘fashion’ and ‘art’. Specifically, the idea that fashion, unlike art, does not bear the rarity quality and is purely a commercial phenomenon may be unfounded, especially considering that what is often regarded as art is often produced for money and unique piece of fashion can also be created without being necessarily mass-produced. For that matter, the previous discussion significantly underscores the problematic nature of the topic of fashion and art, by indicating that both terms can equally express and refer to varied things based not only on the context of usage alone, but also on the observer as well. While fashion is not equal to or does not seek to be treated as a form of art, it does have a close relationship with art nonetheless, and is the many collaborations between artists and fashion designers are anything to go by, then the relation between fashion and art is far more complex than ever imagined. 

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  1. Chantrell, G. (ed.), 2002. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Dean, J.T., 2003. “The Nature of Concepts and the Definition of Art”. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 61(1), pp. 29-35. 
  3. Fleming, J., & Honour, H., 2009. A World History of Art. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
  4. Geczy, A. & Karaminas, V. (eds.), 2012. Fashion and Art. London: Berg.
  5. Kawamura, Y., 2005. Fashion-ology – An Introduction to Fashion Studies. Oxford: Berg.
  6. Kim, S.B., 2015. “Is Fashion Art?” Fashion Theory, 2(1), pp.51-72.
  7. Laver, J., 1967. Fashion, Art, and Beauty. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, XXVI (3), pp. 117-128.
  8. Loschek, I., 2009. When Clothes Become Fashion – Design and Innovation Systems. London: Berg.
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