Is fashion art? If you look at the definition of art — the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form — then yes, fashion counts. Yet some of the top fashion designers and critics, including Marc Jacobs, Coco Chanel, Miuccia Prada and Karl Lagerfeld, have openly opposed including fashion as a form of visual art.
Whether you have an ongoing interest in contemporary fashion or simply enjoy the allure of beautiful objects, check out The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens’ current exhibition, Icons of Style: Fashion Makers, Models and Images.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the show features 30 dressed mannequins with runway pieces by John Galliano for Dior, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Olivier Theyskens for Rochas, Arnold Scaasi and Christian Lacroix, as well as photographs and original fashion illustrations.
“Fashion is an art form on many levels,” says the Cummer’s chief curator, Holly Keris. “The brilliant creative spark of the designer, the act of translating that idea onto paper and then the artisan crafting it out of fabrics and beading.”
Keris sees a strong corollary between the world of fashion design and the realm of visual arts. “There’s no difference between these acts and a photographer seeking the right light and best angle, a painter working through a composition, a sculptor seeing a new form in a block of stone, or a landscape architect creating a new vista in perspective, color and texture through plant material.”
Keris has been with the Cummer since 2003, and is routinely in touch with the folks at MFA Boston. She curated last year’s Future Retro: The Great Age of the American Automobile exhibition, which brought six classic cars to the Cummer, as well as art from Jean S. and Frederick A. Sharf, from the Massachusetts museum’s collection.
“I consider Icons of Style and Future Retro to be his and hers exhibitions,” Keris explains. “They both feature 2D drawings with 3D finished products. One focused on the art of automobile design and one focuses on the art of fashion.”
Presented in The Mason Gallery, the Cummer’s main gallery space, this is the final stop for Icons. The collection was shown last year at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota and the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Japan in 2012.
“There are three conservators from the museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts Department who travel with the show to dress the mannequins,” Keris says. “Some of these fabrics are equally if not more delicate than the canvas of a painting.”
Many of the dresses are creations by Arnold Scaasi, a Canadian fashion designer who has created gowns for everyone from First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower and Hillary Clinton to notable personalities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore and Ivana Trump. Scaasi got his start in the 1950s and enjoyed his heyday throughout the next three decades.
“I was very excited to see the gowns emerge from their packing boxes. They are beautiful, and their craftsmanship is amazing,” says Keris. “The only problem we ran into with this show was that there wasn’t enough space. There’s never enough space.”
Keris, who earned her undergraduate degrees in history and humanities from Stetson University and a graduate degree in the history of art from the University of Virginia, admits she wasn’t exposed to the history or current practices of fashion during her studies, but still finds it an important aspect of art.
“You can’t look at these gowns and not see the design,” she says. “From the moment a designer is thinking about creating a garment to the execution, fashion is certainly an art form.”
The Cummer will host nearly a dozen special events revolving around Icons of Style, including Fashionable Jacksonville, featuring a talk, appetizers and cocktails with local stylist Fitz Pullins on Nov. 13, and a fashion photography lecture on Dec. 9.