While both fashion and art work primarily within the aesthetic world, fashion’s material and commercial nature seems to have discouraged a wider audience from acknowledging it in the same plane as high art. The tide appears to be turning on this opinion in recent years however, and it seems that now is a good time to be asking the question: what relationship does fashion have with art? Last month, Masters, an accessory based collaboration with Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons, was celebrated with a launch party at the Louvre, arguably the spiritual home of traditional art. No one is going to question the legitimacy of the collections in there, but is this just another stunt by fashion designers to validate their work by positioning it as worthy of being shown in the greatest museums of the world, or is there something more to be said? Throughout its development, the modern fashion sphere has sought to place itself on the same pedestal as the art world, yet it is still primarily seen as a commercial venture. Is it fair to think of fashion as simply a crude imitation of art, or is it time we started talking about fashion in a new light?

To start with the surface of the Masters collection, it has first to be said that it is an incredibly gauche set of items. Every bag uses art from the renaissance to impressionism as a starting canvas, and adorns them – almost comedically – with branded decoration. The works of art featured seem as surprised as we are to be seen adorning $4000 leather bags, and these items seem like they could easily have fallen out of Kanye West’s mid-2000s wardrobe. Koons is no stranger to a modern, plastic, commercial ugliness. His work has always played with art’s strange relationship with pop culture images and the traditional forms of sculpture and painting – see “Antiquity 3” (2009-11) for an example of his work quite literally straddling the two. Part of the joy of Koons’s work, however, is to take past works and process them into something for the modern day. His art gives viewers a history lesson while they experience something novel and fresh.

Koons, therefore, may be quite an easy choice for a fashion house to work with. There is already a discourse surrounding his work and commercialism, and so it doesn’t feel like such a stretch to utilise his visions for a commercial piece. This is also not his first work of this kind, having created the artwork for Lady Gaga’s Artpop album (2013). Koons’s style is far easier to adapt into the material goods arena than many other contemporary artists, and as such he seems ideally placed to include in an exhibition blurring the lines between fashion and high art. Perhaps this relationship is made possible because Koons engages directly with this relationship between “high” and ”low” art, something presented clearly in this bag collection through the merging of a commercial product with representations of unique masterpieces. In order for this to be true we would have to accept the idea that fashion is a lower form of artistic expression than art. With art we are here referring to a rather limited palate of visual media, meaning any visual work made by an artist with the primary purpose of artistic expression. The reason for defining art in such narrow brackets here is to explore the ways in which fashion – the medium of creating ephemeral clothing embedded in a time – fits and does not fit into this box. These limits are not innate, but constructed by the institutions which occupy the position of determining what is considered art (for more on this I recommend consulting Hans Haake’s Unfinished Business (1986), which serves as a good introduction to institutional critiques of the art world). It is too problematic to delve here fully into the way in which this metaphor for our preconceived notions of art has been constructed; but what I will say at this juncture is that it is important to bear in mind the role of the critic in the construction of these definitions, and how this affects the relationship with art and fashion discussed here.

Here it is helpful to consider why fashion houses might create collaborative work with more traditionally accepted artists, and how the fashion world’s reputation for collaboration might be able to help change how we perceive contemporary artists. A large part of our understanding of contemporary artists has revolved around ideas of individual talent: especially since the photoshoots of Jackson Pollock in the 1960s,[1] there appears to have been a prevalent attitude of the lone wolf creative working away in their studio alone with nothing but a cigarette and their paintbrushes, and displaying their inner self to the world when they emerge with their creation. An idea of collaboration has thus not been readily established in relation to much contemporary art, at least not from the perspective of the viewer. Meanwhile in the fashion world, designers have been working with artists since Dali draped a lobster over Schiaparelli’s gowns (February 1937), and fashion has always existed in a dialogue with the wider context of art. That being said, since Warhol we have accepted that the artist is not necessarily the maker: it can take a whole team to create an artwork, but this team is inspired by the name behind it all, and the viewer’s experience of the artwork is always refracted through that name.

So why do we ascribe to visual art more cultural capital than fashion? We might say this is due to fashion’s reproducibility. Fashion ultimately is clothing to be worn, and its design choices and colour palettes trickle down into all clothing we own one way or another; this is something which anyone who has watched The Devil Wears Prada (2006) will understand. In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), he suggests that copies draw the art’s “aura”[2] further away from its original value. This could be seen in the transformation from haute couture to the “lesser” copies of prêt-à-porter. Looking at the Masters collection as an example, each high fashion piece inspires a slew of clothing and accessories created in the same vein. As this slides down the economic scale, there will likely be a decreasing quality of craftsmanship as well as original thought. For example, one has only to go to their local market to see a number of knock-off Louis Vuitton fakes, and this collection will be no exception. Similarly, I anticipate seeing both clothing and accessories in high street stores, with copies of old masters with overlaid text. I mean, there are already numerous meme pages devoted to such content. Here we see how, in copy, the artistic spark or “aura” is diluted through consumerism, as more and more people strive to own fashionable pieces, even when the original garment will be heavily outside most people’s budget. Putting aside class discussions on aspirational ownership and society’s fetishisation of “wealthy” lifestyles, such copying of works puts heavy onus on these pieces not as art works to be admired, but possessions to be owned. This seems to suggest that fashion can never be more than the sum of its material parts, but this would gloss over a key movement in modern art: Pop Art.

Pop Art systematically destroyed the idea that art cannot be both populist and high end. To take one example of this movement’s crossover with the fashion world, take the “Souper Dress” (1966-67). Andy Warhol, patron saint of Pop Art, created this famous print of a Campbell’s tomato soup tin, which was then manufactured into paper dresses in 1966-7. These dresses were literally designed to be disposable fashion – ironically making them a highly coveted piece of fashion history now due to their scarcity. Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans (1962), and by extension this dress, demonstrates that the everyday, mass manufactured can be artistically valid despite, or perhaps because of, its reproducibility. This also brings us back to the reminder that art’s “validity” and cultural capital is created by the industry, through its movement in art world circles and markets. But despite Pop Art drawing attention to its own commercial value, it is still true that the art world emphasises its artistic credentials and downplays the commercial (For more information on this, read Sarah Thornton’s 2008 work, Seven Days in the Art World). In contrast, fashion has a much harder time doing achieving this level of focus on aesthetics rather than price tags. Fashion runways are an advert, and lush photo spreads in magazines – no matter how conceptual and artistic – still function as an advert to portray the brand as a desirable and purchasable item. There is also certainly a lack of critical discourse surrounding fashion as opposed to the weight of literature on the conventional art world, which plays a big part in the cultural capital we give to these pieces.

Among people within the art world, price tags are kept rather hush-hush. If you ask about the price of piece at a true contemporary gallery, you probably haven’t “got” the point of the art (and if you have to ask you probably can’t afford it anyway). However, it isn’t possible for the contemporary art world to remove itself from economics: as a sector of the national economy within the arts, “Artistic Creation” turned over nearly £2.9 billion in the UK in 2013.[3] Art is big business, and no matter how much the art’s presentation tries to divert our attention from this, one look at discussions in the media shows that the discourse is often less critical than may be desired. While deep, critical academic texts surrounding art is well established, so many articles about contemporary art focus primarily on auction sale prices and those coveted red stickers, meaning that there is more of a connection between “high” art and fashion in this regard than most people would usually admit.

Haute Couture – which can be seen as the height of fashion as an art form due to its distance from purchasable goods and proximity to pure artistic expression – has been steadily moving further away from the commercial practise of manufactured goods which became so popular in post-war fashion. Exclusivity and originality have become increasingly important in all aspects of the lines, giving us such iconic shows as Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape for Autumn/Winter 1995. There is a clear artistic vision in these pieces, but one of the most important parts is the feeling of exploring the themes of past sexual violence in the present moment. Watching the runway show for this collection you see the models stagger, exposed and raw with jagged lines and ripped seams. This collection is not created to be beautiful, but to provoke an emotional from the viewer from this unique experience. In this sense, fashion shows such as this have more similarities with performance art; they certainly use similar ideas of the visceral moment in action, opposing them against stationary, eternal visuals seen in traditional art practises.

Since its conception in the form we understand it today, fashion has tried to separate itself from its craft. Charles Frederick Worth and Paul Poiret began “signing” their works with nametags in the early twentieth century, and their work began the process of classing tailors as artists and designers with individual styles and techniques. Poiret began to give his designs names such as Irudree (1922), and created some of the first runway shows called things like Le Minaret (1912), shaping fashion into its more artistic form today. Fashion, in the way we understand it today, is a much newer medium than traditional visual art, but has been important in shaping our visual culture in the last century in the same way conventional art has. Their relationship to us may be in different forms, but they both influence and respond to society’s concerns and feelings of the time. Fashion is by its economic nature ephemeral, seen as an artistic form which cares only for this season, and then moving onto the next, and so on (until old seasons become “vintage”). However, what is any art but a victim of its own time? Nothing is created in a bubble, and all art is forced to exist as part of its own present: a result of everything which came before it. People still study, view, and indeed wear fashion from the past, while the art word also goes through clear forecastable trends, so much so careers are made just from this one element of the fashion world.

It is also important to mention that one of the primary reasons for material culture being long ignored as a valid art form has been a gendered issue, especially in regards to textile practices. Traditionally seen as the preserve of wives or working women, quilts, handmade garments, and other practices have been disregarded as unartistic and domestic. Add to this the pressure put on women to look the part in contemporary patriarchal society, and you get somewhere down the road of seeing why fashion may have been locked out of the art world for so long. Fashion has been shackled to being nothing more than fanciful lust of the material, and it is a label which is proving both itchy and hard to detach.

While we still stay confined by these outdated attitudes that utility negates artistic value, we continue to restrict the level that fashion can reach as an art form. I look forward to seeing how fashion responds to this relationship in the future, but much of the reaction to the Masters exhibition can be seen as symptomatic of the wider problems with the way fashion is perceived. Society and the media too often interpret this relationship as being an example of art teaching fashion a lesson, rather than an examination of the permeable membrane between the two worlds.[4] This just serves to perpetuate the idea that fashion is but a shadow of art, doomed to be inspired by the art world but never worthy of being held in the same esteem. For more on this topic I recommend reading Fashion: A Philosophy by Lars Svendsen (2004), but for now all I’ll say is this: once we start to engage in widespread criticism of fashion as an art form, we can begin to understand shows such as Masters as mutually beneficial collaborations of equals, not examples of a teacher-pupil relationship.

[1] A wide selection of which are available here: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/photos/jackson-pollock?excludenudity=true&mediatype=photography&phrase=jackson%20pollock&sort=mostpopular

[2] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936): II. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

[3] “Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the national economy”, Report for Arts Council England July 2015. Page 13 Figure 2. http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Arts_culture_contribution_to_economy_report_July_2015.pdf

[4] Jonathan Jones, “Jeff Koons’ Louis Vuitton bags: a joyous art history lesson”, The Guardian 12th April 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/apr/12/jeff-koons-louis-vuitton-bags-fashion-fragonard-rubens-titian