Glass reviews Charlie Porter’s book What Artists Wear

ACCORDING to studies, we glance at art on average for 27 seconds, even less when admiring a strangers outfit on the street– and yet the visual power of both experiences can stay with us for a lifetime. If we were to place fashion and art in a Venn diagram, the overlapping intersection would hold creativity and freedom of expression.

This middle ground is what art curator, writer, fashion critic and visiting lecturer in fashion at the University of Westminster, Charlie Porter, explores in his new book What Artists Wear, part of the Penguin On Design series. It’s safe to say we can trust the man whose wardrobe currently hangs in the hallowed halls of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

They say to never judge a book by its cover, but in this case the cover couldn’t be more apt — here we find Georgia O’Keefe’s last ever suit which she bought aged 96 in 1983. The dark suit hangs upon the stark, white backdrop, like a painting on a wall. Immediately the garments are elevated to a higher status.

Louise Nevelson. Photograph: Nancy R. Schiff

Just as our clothing can challenge the status quo, Charlie challenges how we perceive artists. By examining their wardrobe, he is encouraging us “to approach them as human beings”, to not regard artists as “god-like” and instead “disrupt the canon, an art-historical tradition dominated by white men”, urging us to “free ourselves from ways of being that seek to keep us in our place.”

Throughout the book, Charlie looks to various artists who turn to fashion for freedom. For David Hockney this means dressing in gay and proud colours, “a lifelong liberation”, same too for Louise Bourgeois after meeting Austrian fashion designer Helmut Lang in 1997, “at the end of her life, clothing was a release.”

Jean Michel Basquiat modelling at a Comme des Garçons show. Photo: Comme des GarçonsJean Michel Basquiat walking at a Comme des Garçons show. Photograph: Comme des Garçons

Fashion’s sense of freedom works in both ways — American artist Rachel Feinstein rejoices in the industry’s fast pace, “I hate the hoighty-toighty shit that happens sometimes with the art world. There’s this idea that because it’s in a white-walled gallery, it’s untouchable and it’s very, very serious…[with fashion] You do it, it’s done, it’s over and you’re on to the next thing.”

That’s not to say fashion is fickle, for it was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sense of style that released him from the shackles of social and racial injustice. Basquiat’s friend, stylist Karen Binns, recounts to Charlie how when she first met Basquiat, she “thought he was a rich kid. I thought, a black kid is not going to walk around looking like that, being as confident as he is, unless he’s got loads of money. Meanwhile he was probably homeless.”

Richard Hamilton. Photograph: Tony Evans

Charlie charts throughout the book when and how artists clothing became so important. French artist, Sonia Delauney first exhibited Simultaneous Dress in 1913. In doing so, clothing was no longer restricted to either protection for labourers or enjoyment for the wealthy, but could now be appreciated on a greater level.

Charlie explores this new relationship between artist and garment, noting how Yayoi Kusama approaches fabric as another art form, so too does New York artist Taboo! who places fashion and art in a symbiotic relationship, “the clothes inspire the art that inspires the clothes. One seeds the next. To me clothing is a spatial thing.”

Both worlds share numerous spaces. Both are often directed at and ran by women, and yet are ruled by men. Both are creatively restricted by their buyers or collectors. Often people who are interested in fashion are perceived as vapid or vain. Ukrainian artist Louise Nevelson shares a similar experience within the art world, fighting against the notion that “‘the older and the uglier’” an artist looks, the more dedicated to their work they are regarded.

Sarah Lucas, Self-portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996. Courtesy of Sadie Coles

Charlie presents his findings against the backdrop of how we consume both fashion and art, a relationship that has changed enormously over the past century, “art has become a lived experience. Artists regularly feature in their own work. What they wear is often crucial to their practice.” Coinciding with this, “formal dress codes have begun to break down. The line between work and play is blurring…Shopping is now a mass leisure activity.”

Art is still not consumed by the masses and yet this book can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of your art or fashion knowledge. The beauty of What Artists Wear lies in Charlie’s nuggets of details, scattered across the book — “Louise Bourgeois kept a rail of clothes opposite her gas stove”; American artist Jack Whitten spray-painted his sneakers silver every day; Joseph Beuys wore a hat to protect himself from the cold of his metal plate in his skull after a plane crash in 1944, serving in the German Air Force.

Richard Tuttle, in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Pants, 1979.
Photograph: Will Brown

Charlie shares each anecdote with the confidence and clarity of a story teller, weaving memories into the book. Perhaps most delicious of all is his account of Andy Warhol’s denim surprise. When greeting President Ford at the White House state dinner for the Shah of Iran on the 15th May 1975, Warhol wore a pair of jeans underneath his tuxedo.

Indeed, Warhol was so obsessed with Levis, in his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he wished he “could invent something like blue jeans. Something to be remembered for. Something mass.”

Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture, 1992. Photo courtesy White Cube

Perhaps it was the action of slipping into his denim uniform that transformed Warhol, like a warrior into their armour. Charlie delves into the notion of fashion as performance art — Gilbert & George are synonymous with their conservative style, whereas Cindy Sherman uses wardrobe in her portraiture to give “clues to a character’s personality.”

Clothing isn’t just another tool in the artists box but “a vehicle to shape shift, as a way to transcend present time, go into parallel time, and connect with a fictional idea of an abstract homeland” says Canadian artist, Zadie Xa.

Same goes for American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson who created Roberta Breitmore — living and breathing her life for five years, wearing the same maroon polka dot dress, wig and cardigan for the entire duration, “‘for me it was an investigation of the blur of reality.’”

Charlie passionately demonstrates in What Artists Wear the intensity hiding within your choice of outfit, for clothing is the ticket “to dismantle the structures of power, wealth, class, race and gender that control what we all wear. It is urgent, vital, full of possibility.” Your wardrobe has never looked so great.

by Charlie Newman

What Artists Wear will be available to buy on May 27 in full-colour, fully illustrated paperback for £14.99 and is available to pre order now