The Art of Fashion as Sociopolitical Weaponry
Emili Gibson, Monroe Community College
Abstract: For the majority of history, society has considered fashion as a lesser form of art, seen as being more focused on the material and commercial aspects of clothing, rather than its aesthetic or cultural value. It also, in contrast to other visual art forms such as sculpture, painting, and architecture, is considered more ephemeral as styles tend to change more rapidly, especially in modern times. Most critically, however, is that the art world and the general public often deems fashion as superficial, shallow, ego-driven, and less deep and profound than other art forms. This perception is unsurprising considering that, despite being monetized and weaponized against marginalized peoples by those in power, fashion and textile creation has long been an overwhelmingly female art form in both design and creation.
By analyzing various artworks, ranging from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to Rogier van der Weyden’s St. John’s Altarpiece, to John Singer Sargent’s controversial painting of Madame X, history shows that not only is fashion an emotive art form like any other, but it is also a political tool used to survive, succeed in, and even challenge unjustly hierarchical societies.
“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” (Wilde 143)
For the majority of history, society has considered fashion as a lesser form of art, seen as being more focused on the material and commercial aspects of clothing, rather than its aesthetic or cultural value. It also, in contrast to other visual art forms such as sculpture, painting, and architecture, is considered more ephemeral as styles tend to change more rapidly, especially in modern times. Most critically, however, is that the art world and the general public often deem fashion as superficial, shallow, ego-driven, and less deep and profound than other art forms. This perception is unsurprising when considering that, despite being monetized and weaponized against marginalized peoples by those in power, fashion and textile creation has long been an overwhelmingly female art form, not only in design and creation, but in its use to survive, succeed in, and even challenge unjustly hierarchical societies.
Why was the creation of clothing, the root of fashion, relegated to women? In her article A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex, anthropologist Judith K. Brown suggests that, as most societies throughout history have relegated women to a role of constant child care and various domestic labors, the gendering of textile creation was almost certainly because sewing, weaving, etc. can be performed without leaving home, can be interrupted, and are well suited to “simultaneous child care” (Brown 1073-78). As such, the progression of practical clothing into fashion as an art form not only follows the aesthetic, political, and cultural evolution of other art forms but that of women’s rights, place, and power in society throughout time. Like other forms of art, the roots of fashion (as an art form, and beyond simple protection from the elements) go hand in hand with religious belief and humankind’s desire to be in proximity to the Divine, and, accordingly, status. While the most obvious example of this desire is the modesty laws common in both Christendom and Islam, the power of religion to dictate fashion is also seen in the cultural losses that occur when the dominant cultural and religious power replaces existing spiritual practices.
Ancient Egypt stands out as a glaring example of the overlapping of religion, culture, and status in its use of fashion. While the textiles themselves are prone to degradation, much can be determined from the visual artwork that remains, especially as ancient Egyptian women’s fashion shows less frequent change across the centuries than many other cultures (Boucher 92). While the image presented in Fig. 1, as was standard in the art of the era, depicts an idealized representation rather than a realistic portrayal of actual Egyptian life, it does offer insights into the fashion trends of the time.
On the right side of this image, the gods Osiris and Isis (The British Museum) are presented in contrast to the mortal figures on the left. This depiction offers a very detailed example of the differences in clothing based on status, which is even more insightful when taking into account the relationship between pharaohs and gods in ancient Egypt. The mortal woman is shown wearing a flowing, white tunic, or calarisis (Boucher 92). This calarisis was likely meant to portray linen, which was well suited to the hot climate, but more importantly, was naturally white, which was considered a sacred color (Boucher 92). The ornate jewels she wears, contrary to later representations of status and to romanticized versions of Egyptian women in film, speaks to a lower social status (Matić 174-83). This low status image is apparent when looking at the comparatively un-bejeweled figure of Isis. Even more of a contrast is shown by the style of dress. While the calarisis is a New Kingdom style that steadily grew in popularity under Roman influence, Isis’ colorful, woven, and markedly less modest sheath dress is in the style of the Old Kingdom, and incredibly common in depictions of both pharaohs and gods in the New Kingdom (Tortora and Eubank 26-29). This clear conflict between what was actually worn in the time period and what is shown in relation to the gods shows how fashion, their own fashion, was an intrinsic part of the Egyptian’s cultural identity, and how it defied, even passively in artistic depictions, the cultural dominance of Rome, particularly in regard to female modesty.
In Rome, particularly after the fall of the Roman Republic (Sebesta 529-541), we see a contradiction that has persisted through the ages. Depictions of women became increasingly idealized, but in a realistic manner of depiction, setting the stage for the concept of an ideal female form that extends from even before the Han Dynasty to Botticelli all the way into modernity, splashed across the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. However, Roman women simultaneously existed under a heavily patriarchal system with limited rights and strict edicts on both behavior and modesty. In essence, this is an early example of the oft discussed “male gaze”, the sexualized and objectifying portrayal of women as determined by heterosexual male desire in the visual arts. As another component of this complex dynamic surrounding fashion, while many women had foregone the traditional role of weaver and seamstress, it was still considered a sign of ideal wifehood to do so, as exemplified by the tale of Lucretia, which:
[…] relates how Lucretia’s husband and his friends amused themselves during a tedious siege of a nearby city by boasting about the virtues of their wives. To settle the contention, they made an unexpected journey home and discovered that all the wives, save Lucretia, were attending dinner parties. Only Lucretia was found at home, weaving cloth for her husband. (Sebesta 529-541)
Lucretia, in this instance, represents the foremost virtues of a good Roman wife, such as modesty, fidelity, and compliance. As a seamstress, specifically a seamstress laboring for the benefit of her husband and not herself, she further fulfilled her responsibility to enhance the status of her husband.
In the above fresco (Fig. 2), the subject is Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. She is shown wearing accurate Roman dress, with some key exceptions. While Roman fashion is usually defined by the toga, women wore a longer version called a stola, meant to cover a woman’s legs and feet, along with a shawl, or palla, often used to cover her shoulders and hair (Tortora and Eubank 64). These were both intended for modesty, but, as in Flora, were frequently removed and re-draped in art. The off-the-shoulder draping of fabric, slightly shortened and thus feet-baring stola, and lack of palla entirely gives the work a sensuality, or even an overt fertility that conflicts with the reality of the period. The alteration of intended fashion design that bares Flora’s shoulder is repeated later in history, with the soon-to-be discussed painting, Madame X, only, in accordance with the ever-changing rights for women, that painting subverts a patriarchal system, rather than upholds it. However, that is only after the monumental changes in fashion brought about by the invention of the spinning wheel, as well as the economic boost and influence of and interest in Eastern fashion, via the Crusades (Boucher 173), during the rise and zenith of Christendom.
The Crusades were a pivotal moment for fashion, specifically through the contact with and appropriation of the fashion styles and fabrics of the East. The appropriation of fashion and the associated materials by colonizers boosted, and continues to boost, the economy of the dominant power while simultaneously subjugating the producers of said fashions and materials. In addition to the exposure to, and then adoption of, vibrant colors and patterns previously not seen in the west, the huge monetary boost incited a love for luxury, particularly among the emerging middle-class society that developed from this boost. This new middle class offered a challenge to the previously unquestioned nobility, which, in turn, also motivated an increase in luxury in fashion, to reaffirm the status of that nobility. It also brought about various rules and regulations forbidding various fabrics, colors, and jewels to those outside nobility, though these rules were not particularly effective (Boucher 178-180). These changes are the key to understanding the transformation and exuberance of fashion beginning in the 12th century and extending well into the beginning of the Renaissance.
The painting shown in Fig. 3, though clearly of a religious nature, portrays the luxurious status-driven fashions of the time in which it was painted, rather than the time period of the figures represented. On the left, the figure of the Virgin Mary is clad in blue, as expected in Christian art. However, the shine of the fabric is indicative of silk. Likewise, the patterned red, reminiscent of Islamic and earlier Byzantine patterns, is a much more ornate and rich fabric that would have been accurate to Mary. These types of gold embroidered patterns were very popular and have even been known to include Arabic lettering (Houston 64). These fashions are a clear tie to the court of Burgundy, which was particularly opulent in fashion (Boucher 202). Also indicative of the court of Burgundy is the woman on the right of the altarpiece, Salome (Der Johannesaltar), who wears typical fashions of the time. Like Mary, she is dressed in layers. The underskirt, or chemise, is similarly ornate and patterned. However, while modernized and westernized, Mary’s dress still shows the flowing modesty expected in depictions of the Virgin Mary, and its shape maintains a loosely Middle Eastern undertone. By contrast, the tight sleeves and slightly cinched waist worn by Salome are not only thoroughly in vogue, but also a sign of an increasingly secular world of art that is more focused on earthly beauty than on heavenly beauty. This movement toward earthly beauty leading into the Renaissance is no more apparent than in the emphasized abdomen trend of this era, as seen in Jan Van Eyck’s painting (Fig. 4), The Arnolfini Portrait, which shows a drastic change in silhouette from earlier periods and acts as a precursor to how fashion evolved to create the illusion of the ideal female form.
Using fashion to create an illusion, particularly an illusion of an ideal figure as in the case of the aforementioned pregnancy dresses, evolved with the passage of time, eventually bringing with it the corsets, bustles, and exagerrated hour-glass shapes associated with the Victorian Age. While this evolution hardly seems a step forward for women by today’s standards, functionally, the clothing of this period was significantly less immobilizing than in the years preceding. Flammable and cumbersome crinolines, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, went by the wayside, and simplicity of fabric reduced the overall weight of garments (Everett). The women’s rights movement was on the rise, and with it came more overt challenges to the patriarchy via fashion. Purity culture and feminism, for a moment in time, went hand in hand. Suffragettes, while vying for their rights, began to adopt more typically male clothes like trousers, but also began to cast judgment on those with more sexualized fashion taste, asserting that “current feminine clothes incited immorality” (Riegel 390-401). There is no better example of this complicated era of fashion than in John Singer Sargent’s scandalous portrait, Madame X (Fig. 5-6).
The subject of Sargent’s portrait, American born Madame Pierre Gautreau, later known as Madame X, was an aspiring socialite and fashion icon of late-1800s Paris, known for her daring style (Farago). While the gown she wears is, to an extent, typical of the time, with a subdued bustle and emphasized waist, how it was worn, and then depicted, resulted in scandal. The confident posture and plunging neckline, especially on a married woman, resulted in widespread claims of immorality. The slight gap at the bust between the dress and skin implied a lack of strict Victorian undergarments (Pollard). Perhaps most shocking, the original portrait showed Madame X with a shoulder baring loose strap (Mahon). These salacious alterations of dress not only show great daring amid the divisive politics surrounding women’s rights, but they also show the truly collaborative nature of fashion as an art form, and how the canvas, or wearer, can be just as influential in the meaning of the art as the original designer.
Both Sargent and Madame X faced the consequences for this dress. While she remained in Paris but was effectively removed from high society, Sargent fled to London to resume painting much more modest subjects. However, years later, after repainting the notorious bare shoulder and after the death of Madame X, Sargent sold his work to the Met (Farago), stating “I suppose it is the best thing I have done” (The Met). Madame X, before dying in relative obscurity, did model again, most notably in Gustave Courtois’s painting, Madame Gautreau (Fig. 7), which unapologetically showcases that infamous shoulder. By choosing to be depicted in this manner after being shunned by society and with no hope of regaining her former reputation or status, Madame X clearly flaunted, with deliberate provocation, the public’s opinion and judgement by weaponizing the very fashion choice that had been used against her. Madame X chose to wear an off-shoulder strap, not inherent to the original design, and entirely changed the image of the gown, and thus exemplifies the inherent collaboration between designers and wearers.
That fashion is a collaborative art becomes no clearer than in the rapidly changing fashions of the 20th century. In the 1920s, fashion truly began to meld with other art movements, particularly music, as well as with political and social justice movements, the most obvious examples of which are the avant-garde fashions of Dadaism and Surrealism. These movements, in visual art and in fashion, were meant to disrupt the capitalist nature of art. As Gavin Grindon states in his article, Surrealism, Dada, and the Refusal of Work: Autonomy, Activism, and Social Participation in the Radical Avant-Garde, “[t]he sovereignty of art, expressed in autonomy-as-a-value’s ideal of free play, could be imagined as allied with attacks on other forms of sovereignty, such as that of capital or the state” (Grindon 79-96). While the advent of fast fashion in modern times shows that this attack was rather a failed attempt, at least on a large scale, this idea of artistic free play and autonomy is the essence of the varying fashions of today.
Fashion is simultaneously an individual and communal form of art, allowing the canvas equal play in its creation. It establishes identity, dismisses and affirms gender, and challenges societal and political norms. It gives power in unity, even under the weight of oppression, as seen with the beret of the Black Panthers, the polarizing low-rise bellbottoms and halter tops of the anti-Vietnam movement, and the intentional abrasiveness of punk style (Fig. 8). In the words of Virginia Woolf, “[v]ain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us” (Woolf 187), and isn’t that, after all, what art is meant to do? Art is meant to express ideas, personality, and views. Fashion, as an art form, is inherently political and by using fashion, as a uniquely collaborative art form, perhaps we can create a more collaborative union against unjustly hiercharcal societies.
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