Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Artwear: Fashion & Anti-fashion


Thirty-Five Years of Artwear

Curated by Melissa Leventon and accompanied by a substantial text of the same name, Artwear: Fashion and Anti-fashion, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco May 14–October 30, 2005, introduced the sheer breadth of wearable art’s thirty-five-year history. “In its original form,” Leventon explains, “wearable art denoted handmade textiles, created from traditional processes, which were then made into one-of-a-kind clothing by the textile artist.” Today the phrase seems to capture this sense as well as much more.

Leventon uses the terms wearable art, artwear, and art to wear interchangeably throughout her text, suggesting that the genre not only enjoys multiple nomenclatures but also is just plain difficult to pin down aesthetically. What is clear from the considerable research reflected in this exhibition is that “wearable art” is not a style or a shape, not a texture or even a mood. But it is about fabric, first and foremost, and only latterly about garment shape and even function.

The bulk of the work on display in San Francisco felt dated rather than timeless, but the sentiments of artists involved with the wearable-art movement never claimed to be timeless, and the 1970s and even 1980s, one inescapably concludes, are eras in which the genre thrived. Surprising from a viewer’s perspective are the dramatically different aesthetic values of the work that collect under the name. Maker’s with styles subtle and the brash, earnest and eccentric, seem to have all been drawn to a relationship with fabric that is more artistic than commercial, sometimes functional, but certainly not fashionable. For instance, a video of Nick Cave’s oversized and elaborately decorated Sound Suits finds itself not far from the quiet contemplation of British artist Caroline Broadhead’s plain white Wraparound Shirt—and a dizzying collection of tastes and techniques are packed in between.

The thorny question of where wearable art is headed is answered in part by the fact that many artists and galleries from the inception of the movement are, for various reasons, no longer pursuing the discipline. But several works in the exhibition—young San Francisco designer Galya Rosenfeld’s pin dress, both thoroughly beautiful and conceptually potent; works representing the evolution of British artist Jane Harris’s work from an entirely textile-based practice in the 1980s to the digital realm today; and Korean artist Chunghie Lee’s reworking of traditional pojagi techniques—suggest that wearable art has volleyed artists and designers well beyond its original concerns.

For such a vibrant and emotion-driven genre, the atmosphere of the Legion of Honor felt dark and claustrophobic. I struggled to picture many of the works on display in the dynamic settings their makers and patrons must surely have envisioned and enjoyed. Wearable art is, as the exhibition explains, often as comfortable on the wall as on the body. But it does seem important that the vitality of the body and the personalities of those confident enough to wear such expressive forms of dress do not get lost in the archival process.

Considering the movement’s roots in both New York City and the Bay Area of the 1960s, San Francisco seems a particularly apt venue in which to have opened Artwear: Fashion and Anti-fashion. It is a real tragedy that a substantial exhibition tour will not follow.

FiberArts Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2006: 62-63)