Fashion historian Christopher Breward on close ties between fashion and art Fashion historian Christopher Breward on close ties between fashion and art Fashion historian Christopher Breward, who will become the director of the National Museums Scotland next month, on how the brocades, silks and chiffons of historical portraiture are good fashion lessons. The Edinburgh-based fashion historian and author is currently the director of collection and research at the National Galleries of Scotland NGS. Ahead of the lecture, Breward speaks about the close ties between fashion and art, and why historic portraits contain some of the best clues to understanding the history of Western fashion trends. Edited excerpts: What can Western art history and portraiture teach us about fashion?
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On the one hand it is a straightforward issue of clothes, but it also about style, impermanence if it didnt change, it wouldnt be fashion , it is an industry involving at times huge amounts of money while our fashions have immeasurable semiotic power. Fashions also mark and embody place we recognise the tam-o-shanter as being of Scotland, the cheong sam as being of China although For something seemingly so simple, fashion is a remarkably complex and challenging thing to try to make sense of.
This intriguing but uneven collection is driven, in part, by an effort to make sense of the archaeology of this fashion industry-urban dynamic by exploring the place, form and idea of the Fashion City. Despite this sense that so many of us have of knowing and recognising the Fashion City, several of the essays and case studies in this collection do well to unsettle our takens-for-granted — but it could have done so much more.
The essays that make up these sections reveal the richness of styles, approaches and theories in fashion writing so we see geographers, cultural studies practitioners, historians, curators, film studies scholars and anthropologists among others rummaging around in the network of ideas and themes that make the fashion and urban studies field so rich.
Despite this methodological and disciplinary difference, however, the geographical spread is limited with eight of the 12 chapters other than the two introductions centred on western Europe and the north Atlantic — and of the other four one deals with Moscow and one with California, leaving only Tokyo and Dakar.
That only one of these new cities Dakar merits significant attention in this collection although Gilbert pays close attention to Shanghai in his introduction is not a sign of the newness of the new, but the gaps in this collection. In some cases the name of the fashion capital is incorporated into a brand name itself as perhaps most famously in the case of DNKY — Donna Karan New York. He was the very first Japanese designer to take part in the biannual ready-to-wear Paris fashion collections.
Kenzo was famous for mixing plaids, flowers, checks and strips, a combination that no Western designers ever imagined. Tokyo has done this but has not been successful. Yet they have managed to invite only fifty-two designers and apparel companies for the Tokyo collections in November , which is fewer than half of the participants in the Paris or New York Collections.
Thus, the structural weaknesses of fashion production in Japan forces Japanese designers to go overseas, especially to Paris which remains supreme, at least in the minds of the Japanese consumers as well as the designers. The Japanese designers who became successful in Paris took advantage of the system in Paris while Japanese teenagers are creating their own fashion with their own force making a major contribution to the construction of Tokyo as a fashion center.
This is what Tokyo needed for a long time, and it is finally happening. An investigation of New York fashion leaves out the counter-cultural movements of San Francisco and the red-carpet influence of Los Angeles. Also excluded from this discourse are other well-dressed cities like Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, with their own fashion traditions and wealthy, fashion-preoccupied patrons.
New York supplanted these important American fashion centers by the mid nineteenth century when steam power made the Hudson River navigable. And although by the end of the twentieth century Los Angeles had the highest concentration of garment production in the United States, New York continues to be the preferred design headquarters for emerging American designers as well as many major fashion brands. Even American high street giants like Gap and Limited Brands, whose head offices are in San Francisco and Cleveland respectively, have separate design offices in New York.
What no one expected, however, was that the American designers would outshine the reigning stars of French and at that time, world fashion. But the French themselves conceded defeat. The event marked a symbolic turning point in world fashion history. As in the case of Tom Ford at Gucci, the objective was to infuse American sensibility into the European luxury market, at a time when fashion was becoming a more commercialized and global enterprise.
New York always had a specialization in mass markets given its origins in ready-to-wear production. Magazines, retail buyers and Seventh Avenue manufacturers could no longer turn to Paris for inspiration or for models. Thus, the focus shifted inward. Necessity demanded that a new source of talent be nurtured to fill the void, so industry elites took on the talk of bolstering this new source. This early version of lifestyle merchandising had now been extended through the development of the flagship store, whereby the designer decides on the content and layout of their collections as well the interior and exterior architecture of the space.
Another significant image-maker for the industry is the Council of Fashion Designers of America CFDA , an honorary society of high-end designers, which was established in In their efforts to validate local talent, they also sponsor an annual fashion award. Now more than ever, the ability to achieve a balance between art and industry demands the integrity of the District as an industry and a place.
Fashion historian Christopher Breward on close ties between fashion and art
The Culture of Fashion : A New History of Fashionable Dress