The argument that seeks to decide how fashion is to be considered has raged forever. It is now decided once and for all (or at least for today.) It is both. It is unquestionably a craft, a commercial industry that provides ever-changing apparel for the world’s population. And now it is also regarded with sonorous respect as an artistic expression of creativity. Light years apart? Occasionally an idea, a so-called “trend,” crosses over from one to the other. A high fashion designer’s flight of fancy may trickle down and influence mass desire. Or a style that emanates on the street in a lower social strata (often birthed in pop music) makes a quantum leap into high fashion.
Nowhere is this cross-pollination of high and low fashion more evident than in the current movement evidenced in art museums that now display with great ballyhoo special exhibitions devoted to recent, or even current fashion. Many museums have fashion collections, but in the past, archives have contained antiques, examples of historical interest. That is no longer the case. Recent “vintage” styles are of more interest to the general public than scholarly studies of long bygone apparel and accessories. Even more significant is the surprising appearance of brand new right off the retail rack fashions displayed not to sell, but to be worshipped as works of art. Things have changed since the ‘70s when Diana Vreeland caught flack for mounting an Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Met while the designer was still living.
Two special exhibitions recently overlapped at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both were fashion-related, but they were far, far apart in approach. “Impressionism: Fashion and Modernity” was a scholarly concept, magnificently executed. It spotlighted the period when impressionist painters moved from landscapes to scenes of contemporary life as exemplified by fashionable Parisiennes. Not portraits, but paintings in which the subject’s usually lavish apparel became the focal point with special attention given to textiles executed in the impressionist style.
Hundreds of important paintings and a handful of antique garments were displayed with comprehensive and coherent written explanations as well as an articulate audio tour.