On the face of it, it can be hard to see why art and fashion have such a deep and far-reaching influence on each other. The timelessness of art and the fickleness of fashion don’t necessarily make them obvious partners when it comes to creative inspiration. But even though the relationship between the two hasn’t always been easy, it’s been quite a ride. Here, we’ve put together a potted history of some of the highs and lows of how arts and crafts have influenced fashion through the ages. So read on to find out why mummy is always right on ancient Roman styling; and why British royalty reeled when it saw an American socialite in an Italian dress inspired by a Spanish surrealist painter.
Art and fashion: when opposites attract
While both art and fashion are intensely creative, they seem to approach life from two fundamentally different standpoints. For the artist, it’s all about rising above the fads and short-lived trends and striving to create pieces that are timeless. In the opposite corner, fashion can be notoriously fickle and relies largely upon persuading people to buy something different each season, as what they bought this time last year will simply no longer cut it.
These two opposing views from art and fashion make for great creative tension, which is when we have a sense of dissatisfaction when we look at current reality and realise that it doesn’t meet our ideal of “this is how I want things to be”. And while this doesn’t make life easy, some experts argue that creative tension can be a powerful and positive driver for the creative process.
The early history of art and fashion
In very early times, art was one of the few ways of accurately recording the fashions of a particular era and handing these images on to later generations. As far back as the first century B.C., artists in Roman Egypt would paint a portrait of a person who had died to commemorate their life. The picture was usually painted on a wooden board that was used to cover the face of the body after it had been mummified. Some of these “mummy portraits” are stunningly beautiful works of art, but they also have a historical significance that goes beyond this. They capture the fashions of the time, show the sort of hairstyles that were typically worn and how both were accessorised. It may not be Vogue, but these portraits are key pieces of evidence in understanding the fashions of the past.
Arts & Crafts: when art moved fashion
As well as simply recording fashion, arts and crafts have also been an important driver of changes and trends in what we wear and how we wear it.
Arts and Crafts even gave their name to an artistic movement that changed fashion forever in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Artists from the movement not only produced paintings and sculptures, they also created striking clothing and textiles, fabulous jewellery and iconic accessories and design motifs. William Morris was hugely influential in this, designing prints that remain firm favourites as textile designs today, popularising the trend for adding embroidery to garments and cementing natural motifs such as wild flowers as staples in the fashion world.
But art-inspired fashion was not the only thing that the Arts and Crafts movement revolutionised in the Victorian era, they were also instrumental in changing the way that women dressed at a more fundamental level. The Victorian age was an era of uncomfortable and restrictive clothing for women, who might wear tightly-laced corsets, heavy, hooped skirts or cumbersome bustles. The Arts and Crafts movement championed Dress Reform and helped push through the trend towards a more natural silhouette and free-flowing clothing with fewer of these restraints.
Art in fashion: collaboration & scandal
These days, collaborations between artists and design houses are becoming something of a regular occurrence. Louis Vuitton’s recent collaboration with artist Jeff Koons resulted in the ‘Gazing Ball Paintings’ range of bags and accessories, while Dior joined forces with New York-based pop artist KAWS to produce its 2019 men’s capsule collection.
But not all art-inspired collaborations have gone so smoothly. One of the most famous – or infamous – is the 1937 “lobster” dress designed by Elsa Schiaparelli. Elsa’s approach to fashion was high-spirited and often provocative. She was inspired by the aesthetic and absurdity of the Surrealist movement and teamed up with Spanish artist, Salvador Dali to create a show-stopping evening dress.
The white silk gown featured an oversized lobster below the waist and was chosen for a Vogue photo shoot by American socialite, Wallis Simpson. Wallis had suffered a very bad time in the press: she was in the throes of her second divorce and preparing to marry King Edward VIII, who had abdicated in order to be with her. This had caused outrage amongst the British royal family and she needed to polish up her image. The choice of the lobster as a motif was a daring one, because of the association of lobster as an aphrodisiac and also the suggestive positioning of the crustacean on the skirt of the gown. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, never a fan of Wallis’s at the best of times, wrote of her that she was: ‘the lowest of the low, a thoroughly immoral woman’.
Art has a long and well-established link to fashion, from chronicling the trends and styles of the past to providing fresh inspiration to ignite and drive new trends. While art in fashion sometimes seems to be motivated by naked commercialism, it can also provide the spark for genuine innovation – and even successful political activism. And sometimes it’s just a fantastic source of some really juicy gossip.