Of all the arts, one of the least considered is probably clothing. It was not until the nineteenth century that the creators of clothes (only female, by the way) were really considered as artists. And almost nothing is known about the fabulous artists who dressed the women and men painted by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Goya, and so many others.
Why such ostracism, for an obviously creative activity that is clearly in search of beauty? Why do they talk of “fashion” in a degrading manner when, in other areas, they speak of “schools” or “present-day”?
It is probably because what was recognized as a work of art was what could only be seen from afar and that could not be touched—even less be worn. The work of art was, and still is, distant, remote, haughty and seigniorial. While clothing, it was claimed, would only be worthy of the one who wears it; it would have no virtue other than the role of accompanying and showcasing. It would, it was thought, by nature, only be seen as an addition or a subsidiary article. Moreover, it is made of fragile materials; and we had not consciously thought of, before the 20th century, of preserving it (except for some opera or theatre outfits).
Yet, in speech, nothing is more essential than clothing when talking about what is beautiful. Nothing is more fascinating than a cloth, a sheet and a cut. It is a work of art independent of what it shows or hides.
It speaks for itself: It is a language; like any work of art, be it literary, pictorial, musical or cinematographic, it creates a tale in order to tell us a story. And the one who wears such and such clothing speaks through them, rather than through his words.
Today, more than ever, clothing speaks. And it must be considered as a story. It speaks for itself. And it speaks on behalf of whoever has chosen to wear it.
Of course, clothing is first and foremost an art of class; it says everything about the social group to which the one who wears it belong. Or the ideology of this group.
For example, wearing the Islamic veil in a public place is legal, but it says something related to proselytism; and whoever wears such veil must know that they deliver a message that society may not want to hear. In the same way, wearing a uniform at school speaks of wanting to write the story of the community of destiny of all the children of the same school, and one may want to hear it. Similarly, to dress in a neglected way says a lot about the importance that one attaches to himself, and to the judgment of others as well.
For life, all lives, to be works of art, the art of clothing should be taken seriously. The art of dressing and looking at clothes as potential works of art.
It’s not just about money. Sometimes, in some cultures, there is little but high quality clothing, and very good care is taken of it. They are laid out, even at home. I still remember, in my dazzled memory, a peasant girl from Tamil Nadu, by the side of the road, wearing a yellow sari and carrying a pickaxe. One of the most beautiful works of art that I have ever seen.
All of this, of course, has little to do with the interests of the textile and of ready-to-wear industries: once again, art appears for what it is: revolutionary.