In 1984, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that skill in the consumption of high art is tantamount to having “cultural capital”, a commodity in Western societies which underpins social status and power (Foster et al., 598:2004). While the disciplines of fashion and art frequently overlap to produce something conceptually new and genuinely exciting, such as Elsa Schiaparelli’s iconic Dali-Lobster dress of 1937, fashion advertisers use cultural capital to exploit consumers’ insecurity in relation to social status. They do this by constructing advertisements that juxtapose fashion with high art, part of an overt strategy to align the object being sold with notions of upper class education and sophistication.
This style of advertising appears to align a garment with a particular artist or movement after its inception and production, rather than any link being inherent in its design. When I see this, I feel the magazine’s uncertainty regarding the audience’s capability to mentally connect ‘the dress’ with ‘the painting’, not necessarily because they doubt the intellectual capacity of their audience but because the fashion item they are advertising is not visually reminiscent enough of a particular piece of art.
Ads like these make me wonder if the clothing they are promoting were designed with specific art in mind at all. Take for instance the following ad for a Louis Vuitton dress and accessories (taken from pages 106-7 of my July 2016 issue of American Vogue), in which the model reclines casually in a living room that just happens to be decorated with a large Keith Haring print:
If this reference isn’t clear enough, the caption spells it out: “Swingy bell sleeves, disco-ball shine, and New Wave-ish geometrical motifs deliver a dose of street-level New York in the early 1980s heyday of Keith Haring”.
Or this image from the same issue of Vogue (page 103), its caption touting the Givenchy design’s ties with Gustave Klimt’s iconic style (“Gild yourself like a Klimt portrait”):
These designs are part of a 15-page fashion editorial that’s sandwiched between ads for insurance and hairspray and a Parisian hotel review / Baroque fashion feature. Ties with fine art are made clear in the spread’s intro, which encourages consumers to link the power of historical innovations in art with their own original individuality:
“The height of chic today is to dress like a walking work of art. Become your own masterpiece in one-of-a-kind statements inspired by the creative school of your choice: Cubism, Futurism, Geometric Abstraction – anything, really, but Minimalism.”
I’m not arguing that there are no similarities between these designs and the artworks the magazine links them to, just that without these overt linking tactics the magazine’s audience would probably not have made this highbrow connection, without which the advertisers would forgo the motivational power that comes from tapping into our society’s status-driven desire for cultural capital.
Condé Nast. 2016. “Singular Obsessions.” Vogue 93-107.
Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. 2004. Art Since 1900 Modernism Antimodernism Postmodernism. London: Thames & Hudson.