Is Fashion Art?

The debate surrounding fashion as art has been argued for centuries. Fashion is a three trillion dollar global industry driven by the consumer. Some would say the fashion industry is driven by the passion and creativity of designers, not by profit.  So is fashion art? Some say yes and some say no. I will present some arguments and examples from the last three hundred years. You be the judge. Most of the examples are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” that is running through Feb. 5, 2017. The show is comprised of new acquisitions from the past ten years that showcase fifty masterworks from the last three hundred years.

Left: Lanvin-Castillo, evening dress, 1956, light purple nylon tulle, recalling the tiered trimmings and bustled silhouettes of the 1880s fashions. Right: Paris Bares the Shoulder, September 1956, Harper’s Bazaar, Photograph by Richard Avedon; Model Suzy Parker leans over a pinball machine.
Left: Lanvin-Castillo, evening dress, 1956, light purple nylon tulle, recalling the tiered trimmings and bustled silhouettes of the 1880s fashions.
Right: Paris Bares the Shoulder, September 1956, Harper’s Bazaar, Photograph by Richard Avedon; Model Suzy Parker leans over a pinball machine.


  • Pros – Fashion is art

Fashion designers go through the same process to express an idea as artists.

Fashion expresses our values and identities; it is the art you wear on your body.

Fashion is technically innovative and aesthetically provocative; sometimes it can define our history.


  • Cons – Fashion is not art

Fashion has a practical purpose; art does not.

Fashion is motivated by money; art is for art’s sake.

“Fashion is not an art because women rely so much on other people to design them. Most women wear what sort of fits. Clothes should state yourself. After all, creativity is a statement of self, so for clothes, fashion, to be an art, a woman would have to design herself” said modern sculptor Louise Nevelson in, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin.


Through the ages

Eighteenth century fashion is defined by exquisite fabrics and surface embellishments. The century began with more structured gowns that had tight bodices, a formal and uniform look required by the French court under Louis XIV. Later gowns became more flowing, such as the robe à la française, circa 1768, and robe a l’anglaise, circa 1747. These are made of light silk faille, brocaded with gold and silver thread. With all of gold and silver thread work you can only imagine how beautifully these gowns glimmered under candle lights. Worn by aristocrats, the rich textiles in these gowns were designed to impress. They signified wealth and power – an absolute symbol of status.

Left: robe à la française. Right: robe a l’anglaise
Left: robe à la française. Right: robe a l’anglaise


A very rare French 18th-century painted wood female mannequin wearing a robe à la française in silk metallic wrapped thread, circa 1765, sold for $53,411 with a pre-sale estimate of $42,729 – $71,215 on March 8, 2016, Sotheby’s, London.

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The nineteenth century is notable for changes in the silhouette by using a range of understructures such as corsets, crinolines and bustles. The era is known for the development of haute couture (high fashion) using the highest quality fabrics and technical standards with intricate details made by hand.
The House of Worth was a French house that specialized in ready-to-wear clothes and was founded in 1858 by designer Charles Frederick Worth. Operating out of Lyon and known for their silks, Worth designed the silk ball gown pictured below in 1898. It is made of light blue silk satin brocaded with yellow and ivory silk in the shape of butterflies. The fabric was made exactly to the measurements of each part of the skirt “à la disposition” so that the butterflies appear to be flying upward around the wearer. This dress is embroidered with silver sequins, rhinestones and silver beads and trimmed with ivory lace, black silk velvet and light blue silk mousseline. A masterpiece of design, construction and finishing.

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Fashion designers of the twentieth century moved fashion forward with a less restrictive style by eliminating corsets and bustles, thus liberating women and revealing their natural figure. The House of Worth adopted their styles to meet the tastes of younger clientele by embracing a more modern aesthetic and silhouette. The Worth evening dress pictured below, circa 1931, is made of ivory and pale brown silk tulle, embroidered with silver glass beads that extend into deep layers of fringe and are worked into intricate braids at the shoulders.

044 20th century

Another important late-twentieth century fashion company was Versace, founded by Gianni Versace in 1978. Versace was often described as the “Rock n’ Roll designer” because they designed for many famous musician including Elton John and Michael Jackson. Versace designed the stage costumes and album cover costumes for Elton John in 1992. Versace has also designed clothing for the Princess of Wales and Princess Caroline of Monaco. The Versace company is known for using the same models in their ads as they do on the runway.

Princess Diana’s Versace dress sold at auction for $200,000, more than double the pre-sale estimate of $60,000-80,000 on June 27, 2015, Julien’s Auction, Beverly Hills, CA. Princess Diana wore the famous Atelier Versace dress for a 1991 photoshoot with photographer Patrick Demarchelier. This photo was later used on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1997 after the princess’s death.

Versace dress for Princess Diana


Contemporary fashion continues to expand the way we think about dress using clothing as a way to express ideas about our culture and identity. Some designers have expanded our definition of haute coutour by incorporating found or recycled materials. Others, such as Yohji Yamamoto, have experimented with material and silhouettes.

Yamamoto is known for his avant-garde tailoring featuring Japanese design aesthetics. His Ensemble, created in 1991, resembles Cubist sculpture with many overlapping planes of natural wood laminate. Although gathered at the waist like an eighteenth-century bodice, it is hinged to allow fluidity of movement.

049 Contemporary Yamamoto

Yohji Yamamoto cage bodice, 2006-2007, sold for $11,761, five times its high estimate of $1,660-2,214 on July 8, 2015, Sotheby’s Paris.

Yamamoto cage bodice

Shoe designer Christian Louboutin is known for his high-heeled styles with red leather soles. His “Fetish” pumps, a classical ballet slipper with the “ultimate heel”, is more of a concept piece than a wearable one. The stiletto is extended to an exaggerated height, imitating the aesthetics of ballet dancer’s pointe shoe in action.

064 Contemporary Louboutin

A Christian Louboutin, pair of Bespoke boots, sold for $50,000 over the presale estimate of $20,000- $30,000 on November 23, 2013, Sotheby’s New York.
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You have read a brief evolution of fashion over time illustrating quality of material, various silhouettes, conceptual designs and innovative constructions.

So, what do you think? Is fashion art?

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