Artistic Vanity

Here is an article I wrote for the latest issue of Missy/Ink Magazine which is available across Canada at Chapters Indigo!! It's called...

Artistic Vanity

Primarily associated with and commercially directed toward women, fashion and makeup artistry are of very few mediums in which women are granted more freedom than men. So it is not surprising that fashion and makeup are also treated as culturally unimportant or shallow. Society has coded these types of expression as distinct from other art; calling us cultured if we attend art galleries and shallow if we read a fashion magazine. This hardly seems coincidental; dismissing fashion as vain prevents it from ever gaining the same cultural respect as other expressive outlets. But the way my body is cloaked and my face is painted is art. Art is creative, it is political, and its influence is far-reaching and long-lasting.
In order to make sense of the world around us, humans created language. We assigned meaning to arbitrary sounds, symbols and behavior. And, just as we’ve assigned a specific meaning to the word “suit,” that of garments of the same cloth meant to be worn together, the clothing itself has taken on another meaning, that of power, influence and masculinity. There is nothing inherently powerful or masculine to a 3-piece suit, though. It has simply had that meaning assigned to it. This kind of coding can and does change over time, when styles fluctuate in popularity, so does their apparent appropriateness, or even what it is thought to represent. What we wear is a statement, interpreted through the coding of our time, social norms, and ideals of beauty. Fashion is a language without words. When I flip through the pages of a fashion magazine, I am admiring the poetry of artistic expression. But, rather than a single painter creating an image, a fashion spread is more often a fusion of individual designers, stylists, makeup and hair artists collaborating to form a single frame. There is a synthesis of expression, a mix of mediums toward a common artistic end. Fashion as a language speaks loudly because it is both personal and collaborative.

Art is often considered significant due to its political message or history. Fashion is thought to be merely ornamental, an attempt at beauty, which lacks the depth to be considered a proper art form. The truth is fashion has historically played an ongoing role in the politics of gender. From the carefully chosen jewelry of suffragettes (green, white and violet jewels as shorthand of their imperative: ‘Give Women Votes’) to the famous shoulder pads and pantsuits of the 1980’s female workforce, style is a political statement. It shapes how we are read and categorized in the real world. It often determines our ability to get a job, a promotion, and respect. Media consistently reinforces the idea that how we dress indicates how seriously we will be taken, whether by employers, customers or potential suitors. The media also lets us know that how we dress is being viewed through the male gaze; coding our style through the sexualisation and objectification of our bodies. This can be seen throughout society, from dress codes for young girls in schools to the constant comments on the clothing of female politicians to the fetishization of cultural dress (see: sexy geisha, for example).  But fashion is more than sexual (often it is far from it), it is an inherently political statement because it is a statement about our bodies and ourselves.
However, the fashion and beauty industries are certainly not without flaws. The impossible ideals often sold to us through fashion complicate its place in the art world. If art is raw, expressive and political, then why do fashion spreads suggest that beauty comes only in the form of a white, skinny body? It’s important to realize that while fashion may be problematic in its ideals (as are many aspects of society) its ability to influence should not be dismissed too quickly. Creating what I find beautiful through style, makeup, and hair may seem a small act against an industry of unattainable ideals, but it is an act of self-expression, of political weight, and it has the ability to repurpose a language we’ve all been taught. Fashion is a powerful weapon – double-edged in its ability to both restrain and empower us.
By looking at fashion as art, we are no longer required to view it as law. In other words, fashion does not need to look like it does on the catwalk to be beautiful, and it does not even need to be beautiful to be provocative, creative, political, or significant. Not all art is beautiful and rarely is any one piece of art beautiful in the same way as another. Taking fashion seriously as an art form means allowing ourselves and each other to express agency through our bodies without requiring conformity. Fashion is art because beauty is not required, it is created. And we are all our own artists.

1 comment:

  1. This is so great! People belittle fashion as 'frivolous' so often. I've frequently been told that my interest in it is shallow or a waste of time. But fashion can be every bit as influential as any other art form, especially when we make space for the side of it that is less commercially driven and less focused on profit, convention and likeability.