Magazine article The Spectator

Just Looking

Magazine article The Spectator

Just Looking

Article excerpt

It is only shallow people,' as Oscar Wilde noted, `who do not judge by appearances.' Ergo, for serious, arty folk at least clothes matter. That is certainly the contention of Addressing the Century, an exhibition that presents clothes as art and art as clothes - not exactly the same thing, as will appear below. Apart from the title, one of those ghastly, pretentious puns to which contemporary academics are prone, it is an interesting and brilliantly presented show.

Of course, artists have been designing clothes for a long, long time. Leonardo da Vinci, and other Renaissance painters, whipped up many a costume concept for court masques (Inigo Jones performed the same task for the Stuarts). This tradition never died. It was still continuing at the beginning of the century, as is demonstrated by the splendid costumes invented by Matisse for a production of the Le Chant du Rossignol in 1925.

The original drawings for these clothes are undoubtedly works of art, so it would be straining at a gnat to deny that status to the finished article -- though it is a gnat that some would undoubtedly strain at. This is really the subject that the exhibition considers: wearable art. The Hayward is full of it, arranged in a series of extraordinarily dynamic and unpredictable ways by the architect Zaha Hadid (looking at her design for this exhibition makes one mourn her unbuilt opera house for Cardiff; some curse seems to prevent that golden stream of Lottery money from producing any lasting good, the Bankside Tate excepted).

But, granted that this is art you can wear, little of it - there: are exceptions - is art to relax in, to slip on to do a bit of gardening, or to don for a visit to the pub. That applies to the products of couturiers as much as to those of artists: to Issey Miyake's Minaret, a dress in the form of a concertina-like Chinese lantern for someone 8ft tall, as much as Salvador Dali's Aphrodisiac Dinner Jacket, spangled with little glasses containing a green drink, absinthe or creme de menthe. The closer clothes get to art, it seems, the less wearable for practical purposes they get.

The exhibition is largely interested in that unwearable territory, where designers of clothes are most influenced by notions of art, and where artists make art in the form of clothes, that is, clothes as art, or art as clothes. An example of the latter is Christo's Wedding Dress, a loose top and shorts attached by ropes to a huge wrapped burden that the bride would have to drag up the aisle. Striking, but not practical.

There is, of course, another category of clothes that might be considered art: classic tailoring, quiet good taste, Savile Row and Giorgio Armani. This the exhibition is not interested in, any more than it is in, say, Dior's New Look, or even Gianni Versace (an artist designer if ever there was one). Thus the subtitle of the show '100 Years of Art & Fashion' is a little misleading. '100 Years of Clothes Virtually No One Ever Wore' would have been closer to the truth. But taken for what it is - a study of the way certain artists produced clothes which influenced some designers, and how certain couturiers aspired to become artists - it makes some interesting points.

One thing that emerges, not perhaps surprisingly, is that when it comes to designing clothes artists are not necessarily any better than designers or crafts people. …

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