Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stretching the Definition of Art

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stretching the Definition of Art

Article excerpt

THERE'S no shortage of suggestions for creative ways to wear a scarf: Salespeople eagerly demonstrate its versatility; pamphlets diagram techniques for tying, twisting, and draping it; some night schools even offer a course in "creating a look with scarves." But who would think to suggest uses for a scarf when it's not being worn?

Textile designer Peggy Russell, for one. The former painting student tags her "Iro (meaning color in Japanese) Designs" - scarves, bags, and accessories - with a card that not only details washing instructions, but also encourages buyers to showcase their new purchase as an objet d'art.

Ms. Russell's playfully patterned and vibrantly colored silks and chiffons were among the wearable art pieces that recently dazzled a crowd of nearly 200 at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, a contemporary art center here.

The fashion show, which was dubbed "Art in Style" and produced by Alvena Williams of Style That Works, a fashion consulting company in Cambridge, Mass., featured over 70 garments and accessories. These were crafted by eight New England-based artists who use weaving, knitting, painting, silk-screening, quilting, embroidery, and other media.

Typically classified as a craft, wearable art is gradually gaining acceptance within the fine-arts community. Testimony to this trend, Russell said in a telephone interview the day following the show, is the fact that the DeCordova Museum would host such an event. "What was very gratifying about last night is that museums are acknowledging design and fashion now with as much regard as fine art," she says.

In recent years, designers of wearable art have turned heads among avant-garde fashion retailers as well as fine-art connoisseurs. Russell, whose scarves are displayed at Barneys New York as well as in several Boston-based boutiques, says that "Craft is experiencing a renaissance ... the white-wall gallery approach to art is becoming extinct."

Robin Bergman, whose comfortable, sophisticated knits were modeled in the DeCordova show, concurs. "It's been hard to get recognition as a textile designer, but times are changing ... I used to hear the comment, 'I could do that, or my grandmother does that,' a lot more."

However, Julie Schafler Dale, owner of Julie: Artisans' Gallery, which opened its Madison Avenue doors in 1973, is hesitant to declare victory in what she describes as "an uphill battle" for the acceptance of handcrafted clothing as an art form.

Ms. Schafler Dale, author of "Art to Wear" (Abbeville Press, New York, 1986, $95), has followed the art-to-wear movement since its meek beginning in the 1960s ("...not to be confused with the hippie handicrafts of that era," she writes), to its heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s when artists experimented with unorthodox materials, until today when economics has forced artists to appeal more to mainstream consumers. …

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