Wearable Art

Wearable Art

Individual, often extremely personal, and generally conforming to no unifying aesthetic criteria, wearable art is by its very nature difficult to define. It could be called artwork for the body, but this does not acknowledge its complex relationship to the art world, the fashion world, and the world of craft. Wearable art is separate from mainstream fashion, yet remains related to it. Although wearable art takes varied forms- sculptural or flat-and employs diverse techniques such as knitting, leather tooling, weaving, dyeing, and sewing, it shares a spirit of fantasy, craftsmanship, and commitment to personal vision.

The Wearable Art movement emerged at the close of the 1960s, flowered in the 1970s, and continues in the early 2000s. It is no accident that wearable art crystallized at the end of the tumultuous 1960s. The social, political, and cultural upheavals of that decade provided fertile ground for personal expression and explorations into body adornment.

During the 1970s "wearables" were generally unconventional works that celebrated the intimacy of creation through a highly individual artistic language. This intensely personal and narrative nature of wearable art distinguishes it from the earlier manifestations of artistcreated garments that appeared beginning in the nineteenth century. Although it was not a direct linear development, wearable art owes its emergence to the climate of artistic expression cultivated by earlier avantgarde dress movements beginning a century before.

Wearable Art in the Nineteenth Century

Medieval woman in dress

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848 by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was one of the first collective efforts by artists to create alternative dress. In response to an increasingly industrialized society and mass-produced, cheap goods, the Pre-Raphaelites deliberately sought inspiration in Medieval and Renaissance art; they encouraged their wives, mistresses, and models to wear clothing modeled after earlier styles. These historically inspired garments appeared in their paintings and provided a sharp visual contrast to the prevailing Victorian fashions of tightly corseted bodices with full, bell-shaped skirts suspended over petticoats and hoops.

Sharing in this disdain for the voluminous and constricting fashions of Victorian England was William Morris, the man most closely associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, Morris sought to revitalize art and dress through a return to simplicity and hand craftsmanship inspired by historic models. Morris admired the paintings and decorative arts of the Middle Ages and advocated simple, picturesque attire, which he felt was more complimentary to a woman's natural form. His wife, Jane, was known to have adopted a form of plain dress without corsets or hoops.

Efforts to create alternative dress for women without the armature of hoops, bustles, and corsets had been at the forefront of the concurrent Dress Reform Movement. This movement emerged in the mid-nineteenth century and concerned itself primarily with health and comfort, rather than the appearance of dress. In contrast, a number of artists linked to the Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s objected to contemporary fashion on the grounds of taste rather than health. In the 1870s and 1880s, advocates of Aesthetic Dress championed a natural line in dress formed from soft, drapable fabrics without corsets or bustles. Rejecting the garish colors produced by the aniline (synthetic) dyes prevalent in contemporary fashion, advocates of Aesthetic Dress preferred muted earth tones in moss greens, browns, yellows, and peacock blues.

Aesthetic dress took a variety of forms. Some garments incorporated smocking and puffed sleeves in vaguely Renaissance styles, while others suggested "classical" drapery. Another strong influence on artists during the late nineteenth century was Eastern art, particularly Japanese woodblock prints and stencil-printed fabrics. Fascination with Eastern goods went along with this Japonism. Alternative dress in the form of kimonos and caftans became a popular form of anti-fashion for artists and intellectuals. James McNeill Whistler had a strong hand in designing the fashion of his sitters and, in fact, created the Japonesque dress worn by Mrs. Frances Leyland in her 1873 portrait entitled Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink.

Aiding the efforts of the Aesthetes was Arthur Lazenby Liberty, whose emporium on Regent Street became a mecca for artists and enthusiasts seeking imported decorative arts from the Near and Far East, as well as fabrics in the soft greens, yellows, and browns so favored by Aesthetic dressers. In 1884, Liberty appointed the architect Edwin Godwin to direct a dress department thereby making artistic dress available to the public. Liberty's created a line of their own dresses with high waistlines and loose, puffed sleeves reminiscent of the Regency period of the early nineteenth century-a forecast of the direction that mainstream fashion would take in the early 1900s.

In the 1880s artistic dress gained a certain level of acceptance in mainstream fashion. Widespread acceptance of the tea gown, a loose, uncorseted informal gown worn at home, was one of the crowning achievements of Aesthetic Dress advocates. Moreover, the increasing influence of the British Arts and Crafts Movement led to efforts to expand reform and artistic dress. In 1890, The Healthy and Artistic Dress Union was formed and included Walter Crane, Henry Holiday, G. F. Watts, and A. F. Liberty. Their journal Aglaia featured several dresses designed in the classical mode by Walter Crane. The British Arts and Crafts Movement had a strong impact in America and stimulated a call for dress reform there. Gustav Stickley, chief spokesman for the American Arts and Crafts Movement, advocated beauty, comfort, and simplicity in dress in the journal The Craftsman, which had broad appeal to middle-class Americans.

A number of progressive artists and architects associated with art nouveau and art moderne espoused the belief that costume was the final frontier, an extension of the artistic effort to create unified interiors and exteriors. The Belgian architect Henry van de Velde designed dresses for his wife, as did the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In Vienna, Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt collaborated with his wife, Emilie Floge, herself a dressmaker, to create costumes. Wiener Werkstätte cofounder Josef Hoffmann was known to design not only the interiors of his clients' homes, but also their clothing.

Early Twentieth Century

Greenwich Village Fashion Shop

In the early twentieth century, unconventional artistic dress had achieved a certain level of acceptance. Wearing of artistic dress had even become a badge of distinction, bestowing upon the wearer an aura of progressive ideals, intellectualism, and good taste. These attributes were particularly accorded to the wearers of Fortuny dresses. Mario Fortuny y Madraz, born into a distinguished family of Spanish painters living in Venice, created Renaissance and medieval-inspired printed velvet gowns, as well as a simple columnar pleated silk dress inspired by ancient Greek sculpture. The latter dress, called the Delphos, was patented in 1909 and was produced, with slight variations, through the 1940s. Fortuny dresses became synonymous with simplicity, elegance, and timeless beauty and were favored by members of artistic and intellectual circles.

As the century progressed, a number of avant-garde painters also turned to the medium of fashion for artistic expression, viewing garments as the perfect form of kinetic, visual tableaux. Simultaneist and Rayonnist artists Sonia Delaunay and Natalia Goncharova tried their hand at fashion design and worked for the Parisian couture houses of Heim and Myrbor, respectively. Even more extreme were the 1913 dress designs of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla and the mass-produced work clothes created by Russian Constructivists Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko. Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and even Ferdinand Leger took turns designing garments in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Greenwich Village, New York, became the epicenter for avant-garde thinking and dressing during the 1910s and 1920s. Poets, writers, artists, socialists, feminists, and philosophers flocked to this shabby neighborhood to share their progressive ideas on life and art, that found expression in the clothes they wore. Greenwich Village became synonymous with bohemian and alternative fashion that included uncorseted, straight tunic dresses, loose jackets, and bobbed hair for women. Greenwich Village artists appear to be particularly associated with the revival of the batik technique that became a popular form of artistic dress decoration during the late 1910s and 1920s. This "anti-fashion" provides a link with the European artistic dress movements of the previous century and set the stage for avant garde experiments in dress later in the twentieth century.

In the 1930s, a renewed interest in handweaving led to a revival in that and other textile crafts in America, particularly after World War II, and is linked to the wearable art movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. This weaving revival was particularly accelerated by the arrival of a number of Bauhaus-trained European Émigrés in America during the 1930s and 1940s, such as Anni Albers and Marianne Strengell, who joined the teaching staffs of the Black Mountain College in North Carolina and Cran-brook Academy in Michigan, respectively. A generation later, their students pushed the boundaries of textile arts even further through their radical, off-loom woven sculptures of the late 1950s. Exploring the power of weaving, plaiting, dyeing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet, these fiber artists imbued the ancient techniques with new, expressive possibilities. Their creations paved the way for the wearable art movement that emerged ten years later. Wearable art carried on the exploration into textile techniques of the larger, inclusive fiber art movement.

Late Twentieth Century


Wearable art was also the product of a unique climate of cultural and social change that occurred at the end of the 1960s. It came during a period that witnessed the flourishing of performance and body art concurrent with the rejection of traditional haute couture in favor of more democratic fashions inspired by hippies and street style.

Makers of wearable art in the late 1960s and 1970s did not attempt to influence universal trends in fashion. Rather, they chose to express a singularly personal vision of dress-a notion that separates them from earlier artistic dress movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

With New York City and San Francisco as hubs, artists engaged in wearable art pursued works that fused aesthetics with function. At the heart of the wearable art movement was the rejection of traditional hierarchies in art that elevated fine art over craft. In the 1970s, wearable art incorporated materials that had traditionally held craft associations, embracing the formerly "women's work" of textiles as fine art. Paramount to wearable art in this early phase was the utilization of traditional techniques in unconventional ways. In the 1970s, ancient techniques such as sewing, leather tooling, weaving, knitting, and dyeing were suddenly enriched by the dimension of storytelling, such as in the fantastical, painted and tooled-leather garments of Nina Vivian Huryn. Other artists such as Janet Lipkin, Sharon Hedges, and Norma Minkowitz reinvigorated traditional crochet and knitting, producing new, voluptuous, and organic wearables.

One of the most pervasive forms of wearable art that emerged in the 1970s was that of the kimono. With its wide, untailored panels it provided the ideal surface for showcasing two-dimensional treatments. Eschewing structure for surface effects, Katherine Westphal was one of the first to exploit the T-shape kimono form, creating complex visual collages by the photocopy heat-transfer print method. Tim Harding is another artist who has excelled in this format in the past three decades, producing rich garments from sandwiched fabrics, manipulated to reveal layers of color and texture.

Validation of this nascent art form arrived with the landmark exhibition "Art to Wear: New Handmade Clothing" held at the American Craft Museum in New York City in 1983. This came ten years after Julie Dale's had established her Artisan's Gallery in New York as the premier gallery for displaying and selling wearable art. Artisan's Gallery continues to showcase excellence in wearable art.

In the 1980s, wearable art became less organic and freewheeling. In keeping with concurrent developments in the visual arts, wearable works exhibited greater refinement in technique and a greater emphasis on surface imagery, rendered in a more controlled, graphic style. Crocheted and knitted garments by Jean Williams Caciededo illustrate this progression from the organic, sculptural works done in the 1970s to more graphic, flat appliqué works in the 1980s. Other artists such as Ana Lisa Hedstrom continue to explore and refine dyeing techniques inspired by Japanese traditional methods.

Wearable art in the 1990s and early twenty-first century continues to expand and gain greater acceptance in mainstream fashion. The exuberant and unwieldy forms of two decades past have been replaced with recent works that not only celebrate surface patterns, but also acknowledge the importance of comfort, drape, and fit. The work of Erman of Miami, Florida, embodies this new trend in wearables. Trained at several fashion houses on Seventh Avenue, Erman brings artistry and exquisite tailoring to his unique designs.

To some, the wearable art movement of the early 2000s is a splintered and unrecognizable entity, lacking the spirit of inquiry, exuberance, and integrity of the heady days of the 1970s and early 1980s. To others, wearable art has merely evolved into a larger, more diverse entity. Artists making wearables in the twenty-first century continue to explore techniques, but also show a new interest in computers and other technology. Moreover, wearable art has moved closer to mainstream contemporary fashion, revealing a stronger shared vision. As haute couture designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen move increasingly into the "art-for-the-catwalk" realm, so wearable artists have exhibited greater practicality and business acumen in their garments, thereby appealing to a wider audience interested in craftsmanship, quality, and uniqueness in garments.

See also Art and Fashion; Haute Couture.


Aimone, Katherine Duncan. The Fiberarts Book of Wearable Art. Asheville, N.C.: Lark Books, 2002.

American Craft Museum. Art to Wear. New York: American Craft Museum, 1983.

Cunningham, Patricia. "Healthful, Artistic and Correct Dress." In With Grace and Favor: Victorian and Edwardian Fashions in America. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 1993, pp. 14-25.

Dale, Julie Schafler. Art to Wear. New York: Abbeville Press, 1986.

Wollen, Peter. "Addressing the Century." In Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion. London: Haywood Gallery, 1998, pp. 6-77.

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