Fashion cuts a dash in Australian galleries – but is it art?

The ACMI Hollywood Exhibition – just one of many fashion-focussed gallery shows this year. Mark Inducil

All year, the Australian fashion industry has been making the wrong sort of headlines. There have been boardroom shenanigans, empty shop fronts and retail woes. Of course, the news hasn’t been all bad. But away from the commercial fashion world of shopping malls, high streets, catwalks and red carpets, the more interesting fashion story has been unfolding in Australia’s art galleries and cultural institutions.

Mary Ann DeWeese, 1913–93 active Los Angeles, Woman’s swimsuit 1961, Spandex, Lycra, Gift of Mary Ann DeWeese, DeWeese Designs Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), © 2011 The Warnaco Group, Inc. All rights reserved. For Authentic Fitness Corp., Cole of California. Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, there was the small but well-curated exhibition of photographs, The Fashion of Helmut Newton and Bettina Rheims, and a popular series of public lectures, Fashion Matters: Fashion, Art and Society, by the design historian, Peter McNeil. The Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation presented Feel & Think: A New Era of Tokyo Fashion in conjunction with the National Art School Gallery.

After Five: Fashion from the Darnell Collection travelled from the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre to the Newcastle Art Gallery and, at the Sydney Jewish Museum, Dressing Sydney: The Jewish Fashion Story is running until the end of the year.

There was Richard Avedon: People at the National Portrait Gallery, and fashion also makes an appearance in California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way, now showing at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.

Melbourne has it

For a real fashion fix, Melbourne has been the place to be. There was barely room to move at Hollywood Costume when I saw it at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in the middle of the year. Also lifting any winter gloom was the technicolour explosion of Walter van Beirendonck: Dream the World Awake, a retrospective devoted to the Belgian designer at the newly opened RMIT Design Hub.

The Hijab Stylist. Museum Victoria Lahza Photography

On show until June 2014 is Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia at the Immigration Museum.

Building upon its solid reputation in the area of dress and fashion, the Bendigo Art Gallery has scored an international coup this summer with Modern Love: Fashion Visionaries from the FIDM Museum LA.

Back in the city, the only Australian designer in the FIDM collection, Toni Maticevski, has created a three-tiered installation for Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) – where you can also see the crowd-pleasing combination of fashion photography and exquisite clothing in Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion.

Fashion photography as fine art?

It was a sign on the wall at the Edward Steichen exhibition that got me wondering what to make of this explosion of fashion in our art galleries. Posted at about hip height, it read:

Edward Steichen created beautiful pictures of models and movies stars. He took these photographs for a magazine. Now they are in an art gallery. Do you think his pictures are art? Why?

Edward Steichen, American 1879–1973, worked in France 1906–23, Actress Pola Negri 1925, gelatin silver photograph, © 1925 Condé Nast Publications. Courtesy Condé Nast Archive

The question itself was fair enough, but what struck me was the heading – “For Kids” – as if the elevation of Steichen’s ephemeral, commercial work for Vogue and Vanity Fair to the status of art was a proposition so simple a child could understand it. Of course, the truth is it’s anything but simple — the acceptance of fashion photography by the fine arts establishment has been hard won, with all manner of controversies and compromises along the way.

Steichen’s own attitude was one of ambivalence. At the height of his career at the publishing giant Condé Nast, he claimed his greatest contribution to the field of photography had been to make it more lucrative.

Later, as director of the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he stood by his rejection of photography as fine art, promoting it instead as a democratic form of mass communication that shaped cultural values.

It’s a claim that is well supported by the show at the NGV, as well as by the work of Newton, Rheims and Avedon that was shown elsewhere. Equally, it’s a claim that could just as easily be made of fashion.

Pure fashion

The point, though, is not to get bogged down in debates about fashion or fashion photography’s status as art. Fashion is far more complex and interesting than that, not least because it can’t be unhooked from its commercial, industrial base.

MATICEVSKI, Melbourne (fashion house), Australia est. 1999, Toni Maticevski (designer), born Australia 1976, Triptych in white 2013, silk, neoprene, acrylic, dimensions (variable), © Toni Maticevski, supported by Wai Tang and Kee Wong. Collection of the artist

Of all the exhibitions listed above, only two involve works that were expressly created as “art”. The rest arrived in the gallery after the fact. That’s not to say fashion/art installations, such as Toni Maticevski’s or those on display at Feel & Think have a monopoly on experimental and conceptual work. As anything at Walter van Beirendonck or a visit to Modern Love would attest, at its highest level, fashion is excellent for making you think.

At exhibitions such as After Five, Dressing Sydney and Faith, Fashion, Fusion the focus is on social and cultural history. But, as with aesthetic appeal and entertainment value, those sort of educational elements are woven (however lightly) through any dress, costume or fashion-related exhibition.

Finally, there’s nothing to gain by pretending that fashion’s pulling power in the gallery is divorced from its appeal in the everyday. Surface beauty, glamour and celebrity will always draw people in. This is not a failing of fashion, but part of its power.

As a sign of culture, fashion doesn’t need to be art. It’s enough just being fashion.