Wearable Art & Conceptual Clothing

Fashion Theory: Wearable Art and Conceptual Clothing

Contemporary textile art has found two seemingly discrete applications for the garment. One is the Wearable Art movement that produces handcrafted clothing for sale through galleries, boutiques and specialist fairs. The other is Conceptual Clothing, sculpture that takes the garment as its form and often uses textiles as its medium. While Wearable Art and Conceptual Clothing initially developed distinct personalities suited to their roots on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, the influence each has had on the other has rendered these respective boundaries increasingly obsolete.

Wearable Art first surface in the United States during the counterculture years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like the spirit of the time, handmade clothing was a form of creative expression that rejected the seeming conformity of the previous generations. Reacting against the use of synthetic fibres and mass production, Wearable Art sought to express individuality through handmade clothing. Today, the movement has grown away from some of the idealistic roots of 30 years ago and now defines a high-end style of clothing that is to varying degrees handmade. The prices necessary to support the labour intensive design work and the prestige of one-of-a-kind production have ironically returned Wearable Art to some of the values the origins of the movement sought to undermine. Nonetheless, Wearable Art continues to attract clients who have both the means to afford and the desire to make an individual statement through dress.

In comparison, Conceptual Clothing investigates political and social concerns associated with identity through sculptural representations of the garment. Prejudice is often linked with appearance, and dress in particular is often assumed to be representative of identity. Of Conceptual Clothing, Mildred Constantine and Laurel Reuter write in Whole Cloth that “Parallel to the development of art within the fashion world, and to the flourishing of a Wearable Art movement, was a third and even more pervasive force: artists who make art through the vehicle of clothes.” Early examples of Conceptual Clothing were often made by artists with a Fine Arts background who chose dress and its relationship to identity as a sculptural theme.

Nina Fleshin, curator of the 1993 “Empty Dress: Clothing as Surrogate in Recent Art” explains that “Artists today represent clothing as abstracted from the body, in order to investigate issues of identity.” For the empty garment, the ghost of the wearer is inescapable. Racial and sexual prejudice and, particularly in the 1980s, the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic in Europe and America, have made the empty garment a particularly poignant image. The influential exhibition “Conceptual Clothing” was curated in 1987 by two artists, Fran Cottell and Marian Schoettle. In their catalogue they described how “… a representation of clothing in isolation from the figure invites the viewer to… merely try on the work. It's in this intimacy, this invitation to participate with the works and make them complete, that clothing is such a powerful vehicle for artists… This outer layer can often reveal and communicate more than the body itself.” Alongside a sense of loss or absence, the empty garment can also allude to concealed or ignored identities. In other cases Conceptual Clothing affects a distance between object and viewer through the use of materials that disrupt preconceived notions of dress.

Wearable Art and Conceptual Clothing shared in their rejection of a mutual bedfellow – fashion. Textile curator and conservator Melissa Leventon notes, “In many ways, wearable art has more in common with contemporary fibre than it does with designer fashion.” Leventon notes the reluctance of museums to collect Wearable Art, contrasted with the general acceptance of costume and high fashion collections, and links this prejudice to the long-standing unease towards the field of craft within the arts community. Fashion, whether couture or high street, clothes most of our bodies on a daily basis. But while this familiarity makes the shape of the garment resonate with the personal and the intimate, the investigations of Wearable Art and Conceptual Clothing use this familiarity for very different ends than that of fashion.

Wearable Art is in fact premised on ideals that conflict with many of the values of the fashion industry. Reluctant to aspire to the rapid turnover generated by seasonal collections, pieces are based on quality rather than quantity, timeless rather than fashionable. Leventon notes of Wearable Art that there is a “far greater interest in producing the textile than in producing the garment, and the materials often convey the meaning of the piece.” Emphasising fabric rather than the tailoring, Wearable Art pieces often incorporate large areas of uncut fabric that do not lend themselves to specific sizes or a tailored look. Pieces such as Jeung-Hwa Park’s knitted scarves are clearly based on a desire to produce functional fabrics that rely on a sophisticated command of chosen materials and techniques with minimal interference with the fabric structure itself. Glasgow based designer, Jilli Blackwood, is one of few designers to produce handmade one-of-a-kind garments with emphasis not only on fabric surface but garment shape as well. Blackwood’s fitted designs may signal a new trend in Wearable Art, one in which fabric is no longer the single emphasis, but tailoring and shape play an important and complementary role.

Despite a sound ideology, today the Wearable Art movement experiences only a fraction of the enthusiasm it has generated in past decades. A down-swing in the economy has been blamed for the closing of several boutiques instrumental in the early years of the movement. The ease of low overhead internet-based business has also been blamed, although textiles may be one of the least served fields when it comes to the benefits of the internet. Texture and handle have yet to find true replication through the internet but there are perhaps other more widespread reasons for the faltering interest in the field. Many have noted that we do not live in a time that values the skills of hand production. We do live in an age that quietly celebrates conformity and spends little time nurturing individuality. I would suggest that Wearable Art continues to find its greatest following in the United States because it stands in such contrast to the mainstream options for clothing. The Martha Stewart/Gap T-Shirt aesthetic seen in the ubiquitous malls spread across the country has a healthy and largely unchallenged following.

Conceptual Clothing has benefited from a modicum less prejudice than Wearable Art’s uneasy connection with the crafts. While Wearable Art struggles for publicity outside the handful of bi-monthly and quarterly magazines that cover contemporary textile art, Conceptual Clothing has had some success sneaking into the greater selection of sculpture and contemporary art publications available. That said, the hallowed walls of the white cube operate with their own distinct notions of the acceptable and unacceptable, often making it difficult for artists who work with textile materials to receive equal attention unless the work is one of several more traditional sculptural materials that they regularly work with. On the whole, Wearable Art has risen to many of the theoretical challenges that Conceptual Clothing engages with. In turn, Conceptual Clothing engages with many of the themes that brought about the Wearable Art movement: conformity, beauty, and an individual expression of identity through dress. At times these investigations appear on a material level; for others, clothing, whether worn or exhibited in a gallery, offers an ideal site to question a complacent world view.

Shelly Goldsmith’s “No Escape: Reclaimed Dresses from the Children’s Home of Cincinnati” (see Embroidery July 2002) uses the surface of the garment to print seemingly disconnected images of natural disaster. For Goldsmith, the surface of the dress acts as a picture plane; identity is established through the size of the dress. Celebrated Wearable Art designer, Tim Harding, muses on the nature of surface, explaining “In painting the picture plane is the window through which the audience must look to experience the artist’s vision. That plane is also perhaps the ultimate barrier between art and life. Can the artist ever break that barrier and involve the viewer in the creative act; can the viewer ever be “in” in the work? Consider, that to make a painting in the form of a garment allows a viewer to literally step into the work, wrap it around themselves, feel its weight on their shoulders and its texture in their hands.” Harding’s entirely wearable and aesthetically pleasing garments are born out of a theoretical inquiry into conceptual and art historical concerns. Speaking of his own functional designs, Harding sees Wearable Art as an opportunity for surface to envelop the viewer and establish a visual rapport between the two.

Galya Rosenfeld’s garments investigate the very snaps and seams that make a garment hang together. Textile structures come under myopic scrutiny, assembling easy-to-alter dresses out of strips of snaps and poppers. Like Jueng-Hwa Park’s knits Rosenfeld explains that several of her designs are assembled without any stitching. Instead, two continuous lines of cotton twill snap-tape are “gridded” around the body to create fabric and dress form simultaneously. As Rosenfeld explains, “Each snap allows for rotation at a bias angle, allowing the dress form to fit the shape of the wearer”. By taking apart the mechanics of dress making, Rosenfeld creates Wearable Art that is driven by conceptual inquiry.

Projects such as Brian Janusiak’s knitted sweaters are equally ambiguous. Described as “portraits of an extended moment for a series of individuals”, Janusiak conceived of the idea to collect data from personal computers that record frequency and type of computer use and to transfer the graphic representations of these codes onto sweaters. Concept was transferred directly to a group of knitters who produced the garments just as they would any other pattern they received. Janusiak conceived of the project as a performance of sorts. Rather than the empty garment, the exhibition opening of his show included project participants who wore the sweaters made from their computer codes mingling with the viewers – literally identity worn across the chest. In Janusiak’s words, “The project is in part a questioning of what can and cannot be assumed by pure information alone determining who any of us are in the world. It is also an examination of the beauty inherent in one’s actions over time as they create patterns that define us.”

Concept and function are also combined in work such as London/Delhi based partnership Blank, who explore the possibilities of using recycled cloth in high-end clothing and accessories. Recycling moves from a purely thrifty motivation of function into the boutique world of one-of-a-kind accessories. Charlie Thomas takes the concept of recycling full circle with a series of garments and accessories made entirely from paper. Here it is the skill of the maker, craft values as well as concept driven design based on a material investigation that is of interest. Also working with paper, Deborah Bowness uses images of garments as wallpaper patterns. Rather than the orderly repeat of traditional wallpaper, Bowness has created an ironic simulacrum of disorder. The wallpaper can be read as a political statement about the “surface” interests of dress and fashion as well as the novelty apparent when the normal is viewed from an altered perspective, certainly functional, but impossible to wear. Finally, designers such as Nick Cave stretch their conceptual wings even further with projects such as his wild variety of “Sounds Suits” designed as performance art pieces. They too are dis-served by name-calling and boundary building and are often concept driven but fashioned for the body rather than sculpture in the round. As with the tired “art versus craft” debate, there is increasing agreement that boundary building is in the best interests of neither discipline, so too the demarcations between Wearable Art and Conceptual Clothing are increasingly indistinct.

Embroidery magazine, November 2003: 12-17.