Fashion has long had a symbiotic relationship with art, although fashion’s acknowledgement as an art form has been the subject of heated debate.[i] However, despite fashion’s commercial or functional imperatives, various academics including Richard Martin and Sanda Miller have disputed Kantian ideas of ‘pure art’[ii], arguing for fashion’s ability to apply various aesthetic and conceptual concerns through means similar to artistic practice.[iii] Two particular examples of fashion and art’s symbiotic relationship are Rei Kawakubo’s Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress collection for Comme des Garcons, and Nick Cave’s Soundsuits; both of which employ sculpture, performance and fashion to explore conceptual and kinetic possibilities.
Set in the backdrop of the Musee d’Art Afrique et D’Oceanie, Rei Kawakubo launched the 1997 Spring/Summer collection of Commes des Garcons. The collection was received by a seven-minute ovation, although Kawakubo never left the backstage[iv]; an act that perhaps summarises the courtier’s defiance of norms in the fashion system. Her collection, utilising padding to create distorted silhouettes, was a result of Kawakubo’s intense frustration with the conventions of fashion at the time.[v] In response to what Kawakubo perceived as increasingly banal expectations, Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress implemented the use of surrealism, and subverson of the idealised body.[vi] Dubbed the Lumps and Bumps collection by the press, Kawakubo’s show qualified for what Ginger Gregg Duggan describes as structural performance, where designs prioritise form in flux to address particular concerns[vii]; in Kawakubo’s case, a self-reflexive critique of fashionable ideals. In this sense, Kawakubo’s 1997 Spring/Summer collection reflects the physical concerns of performance artists such as Rebecca Horn and Jana Sterbak.[viii]
It was thus only natural for the collection’s kinetic potential to be translated into dance, via collaboration with Merce Cunningham. The end result, Scenarios (1997), saw dancers move within Kawakubo’s distorted forms, with the lumps and bumps altering the performers’ relationship with balance and movement.[ix] The stage lighting and presentation, also controlled by Kawakubo, also reflected the brightly lit, plain wall experience of the white box gallery, further blurring the distinction between haute couture, dance, and the museum.[x]
Similarly, Nick Cave’s highly successful Soundsuits were born out of multidisciplinary interests in sculpture, dance and the socio-political landscape following the 1991 beating of Rodney King by white police officers in Los Angeles.[xi] Cave’s feelings of despondence and being ‘…discarded, devalued, viewed as less than’[xii] compelled him to collect twigs from Chicago’s Grant Park. The twigs offered a duality, addressing both the castaway notions of fragility connected to racial identity, and when assembled into a humanoid form, strength as an impenetrable form of armour.[xiii] However it wasn’t until Cave put the suit on that he realised the full kinetic and sound potential the suit possesses, as well as it’s ability to provide the wearer an anonymous escape from prescribed identities.[xiv] In this sense, Cave’s Soundsuits reflect the spiritual and transformative components of West African dance and costume.[xv]
While frequently referred to as a sculptor, Nick Cave’s artistic process closely resembles that of haute couture practice. Each suit is meticulously hand sewn and constructed by a dedicated team and, like couturiers such as Maison Martin Margelia, consist of unconventional and repurposed materials.[xvi] Like Rei Kawakubo, Cave’s pieces also subvert the conventions of dress, emphasising form over functionality.[xvii] In fact, so fluid are Cave’s works that they have both operated seamlessly within the museum and fashion contexts, with Soundsuits being performed on the catwalk, alongside Fashion Week events, and worn alongside luxury apparel in editorials for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Cave himself is deeply involved with fashion; he has previously designed collections and is the Director of the School of Art Institute’s graduate fashion program.[xviii]
The Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress collection and Soundsuits both defy Kantian definitions of art and fashion, instead demonstrating how distinctions between creative practices have become blurred despite commercial or functional imperatives. Using surrealism, presentation, unconventional techniques and materials, and the subversion of fashion and art conventions, Kawabuko and Cave’s respective works transcend the defined systems of fashion and art; instead fostering fluid dialogues between dance, sculpture, and fashion that highlight the significant opportunities unleashed by multidisciplinary practice.
[i] Berry, J 2014, ‘Fashion, Aesthetics & Art – an overview’, retrieved from Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, Learning@Griffith website: <https://bblearn.griffith.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-1010409-dt-content-rid-2625160_1/courses/2432QCA_3145_SB/Course%20Content/Week%202%20Fashion%2C%20Aesthetics%20%26%20Art/wk%202%20fashion%20as%20art.pdf>.
[iii] ibid; Miller, S 2007, ‘Fashion as Art; is Fashion Art?’, Fashion Theory, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 25-40, viewed 20 August 2014, via Ingentaconnect database
[iv] Jarvis, J 2013, Rei Kawakubo, Commes des Garcons – Measured Madness, viewed 20 August 2014, <http://miista.com/rei-kawakubo-commes-des-garcons-measured-madness/>.
[v] Carpenter, B 2013, Dance Works III: Merce Cunningham/Rei Kawakubo, viewed 20 August 2014, <http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2012/dance-works-iii-merce-cunningham-rei-kawakubo>.
[vii] Duggan, G 2001, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth: A Look at Contemporary Fashion Shows and Their Relationship to Performance Art’, Fashion Theory, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 243-270, viewed 24 August 2014, via Ingentaconnect database, p. 260.
[ix] Carpenter loc.cit.
[xi] Nichols, A n.d., Being Nick Cave, viewed 25 August 2014, <http://www.theaesthete.com/story/view.dT/being-nick-cave>.
[xii] Vartanian, H 2014, A Look at Nick Cave’s Stunningly Colorful Show at Jack Shainman’s New School, viewed 25 August 2014, <http://hyperallergic.com/127285/a-look-at-nick-caves-stunningly-colorful-show-at-jack-shainmans-new-school/>.
[xiii] Kafarin, A 2011, ‘An ecstatic embrace: inside the Soundsuits of Nick Cave’, Art and Australia, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 280-289, viewed 20 August 2014, via Gale Academic OneFile, p. 289.
[xv] Kafarin, op.cit., p. 283.
[xvii] Kafarin, op.cit., p. 684.