Is Fashion Art?

I’ll not beat around the bush.  The dress above is a Claire McCardell.  I bought it last spring, knowing it was damaged and not wearable.  Does that mean the dress is a useless and unwanted item?

Of course not.  As you can see, the dress displays quite well.  The problem with it is that for some reason the cotton fabric has not held up well, and in two spots the fibres are breaking down.   I’ve stablized the two places, and from a distance, you don’t see them:

I had been looking for an early 1950s McCardell for sometime.  I wanted a casual cotton, and was thrilled to find this one for $20.  The small bit of damage didn’t bother me a bit, as this filled a place in my collection – a place that required a specific type of dress from a specific designer.

I’m not a museum, but I am a collector who has worked to narrow the focus of my costume collecting.  Like any good collection, it is not filled nilly-willy with odds and ends and bits of this and that.   It would be easy to do that, because I really do run across lot of wonderful things that do not fit within the framework I’ve set for myself.  But it is not just my need for organization and order that keeps my collection focused – it’s also the very real problem of proper storage.  I’d rather have fewer items in a collection that has a direction and that are properly stored, than tons of unrelated stuff, no matter how marvelous,

I’m not alone in having this “problem.”  Real museums often struggle with how to balance donations they receive with the institution’s mission statement and collections policy.  In other words, they can’t justify using the limited storage space they have to store items that do not fit within the scope of the collection.  This leads some museums to  deaccession items that do not add to the collection or that are too similar to other items in the collection. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as donors realize that their prized possessions might be converted to cash – the thing most museums really need.

Just because an item is deaccessioned does not mean it is is not valuable.  It merely means the museum does not need the item.  I have a late 1960s Chanel couture suit in my collection that was deaccessioned by FIT.  Does that make my suit trash?  Hardly.  It means they had more than enough late 60s Chanel suits to adequately represent her work of that era.

To treat deaccessioned items as useless items could be a big mistake.  It’s possible that you have already seen the work of a blogger who is taking deaccessioned items from LACMA and “repurposing” them into useful objects.  I suppose a silk witch’s hat is a useful object, though I’ve never felt the need to possess one.  I have felt the need to possess Claire McCardell dresses, and unfortunately, there is now one less Claire McCardell, and one more witch’s hat in the world.

I’m all for recycling, after all I am a child of the 60s and we thought we invented recycling.  If you want to recycle,  find yourself some vintage fabric and turn it into all kinds of wonderful hats.  But before cutting into a piece of vintage clothing, ask yourself, “Why do we as a society not value fashion as art?”  Then ask yourself, “Am I destroying art to create art?”


Posted by Steph @ Tart Deco:

I am amazed at the cut and construction of vintage clothing and I often find myself studying the inside of a piece to see how it was put together. I also will buy pieces to reconstruct a pattern, sometimes taking apart an item to trace and putting it back together if the material is still strong and the seams aren’t. I can often add a few years to the garment by doing this and I’ve learned a new construction technique. I especially love finding home-made dresses for this.

Wednesday, July 29th 2009 @ 6:59 AM

Posted by Cookie:

Yes, fashion is art, but art that is meant to be appreciated and valued for itself, not to be transformed into “something else.” There is no need to do so. For an artist to destroy in order to create, when there are bountiful materials available to create, is incredibly disrespectful of the original item, its designer, and collectors who would treasure such an acquisition. In fact, to the diehard vintage fashion afficionados among us, it is not only disrespectful, it is a venial, if not mortal, sin.

Would one paint over a Renoir or Vermeer or Matisse simply because the museum no longer needed it? Or because the paint on its surface had started to crack? Of course not. Then why destroy a piece of art that is in the form of fashion?

Wednesday, July 29th 2009 @ 10:31 AM

Posted by angatdorotheasclosetvintage:

Cookie, yes! Exactly. The lack of respect for fashion as art is appalling. Given that the buyer bought it from a museum who deemed it worth showing speaks volumes! Clothing can be a goldmine of not only artistic value but a link to our past, a narration of where we’ve been and who we were and ARE today. We can learn so much from a person’s wardrobe about who they were, how they lived, how they weathered the times they live in….and with a designer piece like a McCardell, we have a shining example of a woman’s creativity and drive that has inspired generations of design.

Make me a dress from a costume hat that has some flaws, I call that upcycling. But to take a dress….a fairly rare dress at that, and make it into a hat that you call “art”, perha[s not even to ever be worn as such? Waste. Its waste. Not art.

Wednesday, July 29th 2009 @ 5:06 PM

Posted by theredvelvetshoe:

I have such immediate attachment to vintage clothing when I find it, the thought of cutting it up into something else simply sickens me. Of course, it makes it difficult to decide what to do with garments such as your slightly worn dress, but I’d still err on the side of caution by according them their dignity to remain in their vintage whole state than to assume they no longer wish to live, if only in the back of a gal’s closet. . .maybe we just love the stuff too much to think clearly? I don’t know, but all I know is I love vintage clothes and would never hurt them in any way!!

Friday, July 31st 2009 @ 7:49 PM

Posted by Tom Tuttle from Tacoma:

very interesting insights. i don’t really have an opinion on this subject, cos i know hardly anything about vintage. i wouldn’t say it’s mortal sin to deconstruct vintage clothes. won’t it (also) be a waste if the item rots away unworn by someone who could use it even if not in its original form? so what’s the right thing to do, if no museum would take it in? 😕

Saturday, August 1st 2009 @ 6:14 AM

Posted by Jen:

Well, said.
And you did it so much better than I could have, since I would have “gone ballistic”!
(knowing the good people in the Stein Center (costume & textiles) at LACMA, I can assure you that what has happened is their worst nightmare….

Saturday, August 1st 2009 @ 9:53 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Oh, I don’t think it is a mortal sin, but I do think that there is a lot of very thoughtless chopping going on. I’m all for reusing, recycling, repurposing (did I get them all?) but there needs to be some forethought. If this had been an ordinary black vintage dress with no label, people would have been concerned, but I don’t think we’d have seen the angry reactions I’ve read all around the web. My point is that to the right collector, even a damaged Claire McCardell dress has value. I’m not sure why the museum sold this dress in a lot at auction, but I do suspect that it was damaged.

All collectors must think their field of collecting is special. The book collectors must cringe at all the altered books that are so popular right now. I could easily alter a book without worry, but you can bet I would do my homework first. How hard is it to look up the value of almost any item these days with the net right at our fingertips.

And the same goes for painting old furniture. Go to any antique mall or flea market and find lots of vintage furniture with white paint slapped on it. Seriously, it would not bother me to do that either, but I have some uneasy feelings remembering the Danish modern bedroon set that was my mom and dad’s until 1971 when I decided it would look better with avocado “antiquing” splashed on it.

I realize that the blogger has a greater goal than saving these items from the dump. He’s making a point about what is valued in museums, and I suppose, in society as a whole. But it does pain me to see items from my field turned into witch’s hats and teddy bears. He’s getting his message out there, but we are still short one McCardell dress.

Monday, August 3rd 2009 @ 9:06 AM

Posted by rachel:

I struggle with that as well, for me it sort of depends how old it is, and how damaged. I hate to see beautiful 50’s dresses shortened to make them more contemporary, but recently I did this myself with a circle skirt, that I felt was just too costumey to wear around so I chopped (and properly hemmed) about 12 inches off. I am determined to use the extra fabric for something else.

Sometimes though I’ll buy a damaged dress just because it is beautiful, I have a Lorrie Deb prom dress hanging on my wall that is too damaged and fragile to wear but beautiful to look at.

Sunday, September 13th 2009 @ 6:16 PM

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Filed under Collecting, Museums, Viewpoint, Vintage Clothing

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