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Fashion as the Avatar of an Avant-garde Essay

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Updated: Apr 13th, 2020


Art and fashion share many significant characteristics in the way they function in society. Both have also changed with increasingly dramatic speed over the centuries. In art, the movement known as the Avant-garde set out to continually redefine itself; in fact, to redefine art. However, this continual discarding of what was done already has had a tendency to be self-destructive of the movement itself.

In fashion, because of its continual pattern of rejection of the past and re-creation of itself, the mood and positive goals of the Avant-Garde may be able to retain and regain a foothold.

In the discussion that follows, the links between fashion and art will be explored, the potential for fashion to represent the Avant-Garde will be addressed, and the specific case of Viktor and Rolf will be examined as a possible avatar of the Avant-Garde in fashion.

Fashion, art, and the Avant-garde: how are they related?

Fashion defined

Fashion seems to be a universal feature of human societies. No matter how near nakedness a human may be, there appears to exist an urge to decorate, and, over time, for the character of this decoration to change. At its most basic level, this impetus to add to our bodies, and in ways that evolve, is the root of couture and fashion.

As Entwhistle puts it, “Conventions of dress transform flesh into something recognizable and meaningful to a culture and are also the means by which bodies are made “ decent,” appropriate and acceptable within specific contexts.

Dress does not merely serve to protect our modesty and does not simply reflect a natural body or, for that matter, a given identity; it embellishes the body, the materials commonly used adding a whole array of meanings to the body that would otherwise not be there.”

Even the most apparently simple societies demonstrate this tendency to adorn, modify, and embellish bodies, hair, skin, and even the odor of the body, and this is the essential core of fashion and style. The evidence suggests that even the human race’s Neanderthal cousins modified their appearance in various ways that are instantly recognizable even to modern eyes.

Art defined

Art also seems to be a universal feature of human societies. We see modification of the environment in ways that cannot be attributed to the actual tasks of physical survival as far back as we can define our species as truly human. In fact the making of art is almost a marker archeologically for identifying an ancient site as belonging to people who shared our modern penchant for symbol and expression.

The current date for the oldest known art is now 20,000 years B.C.E., and could be pushed back even further . This suggests that the tendency to modify the environment in ways that are not totally functional in a materialistic sense (considering that the artists of 20 millennia ago may indeed have believed that these rock or cave paintings ensured their good treatment by the forces of nature) is deep-seated.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in an effort to cover all cultures, all times, and all political perspectives, requires that any definition of art meet the criteria of applying to:

“entities (artifacts or performances) intentionally endowed by their makers with a significant degree of aesthetic interest, often surpassing that of most everyday objects… in virtually every known human culture…sometimes…[with] non-aesthetic — ceremonial or religious or propagandistic — functions… new genres and art-forms develop, standards of taste evolve, understandings of aesthetic properties and aesthetic experience change.” (Italics added for emphasis)

The criteria go on to require that a definition of art acknowledge that,

“there are institutions in some but not all cultures which involve a focus on artifacts and performances having a high degree of aesthetic interest and lacking any practical, ceremonial, or religious use…[and] such institutions sometimes classify entities apparently lacking aesthetic interest with entities having a high degree of aesthetic interest.

This last is a clear attempt to account for the sometimes inexplicable choices that museum curators make. Clearly, the definition of art has evolved drastically over time.

The Avant-garde defined

What has changed is the increasing velocity with which these two aspects of human life have changed, and how the process of change, itself, has acquired value in and of itself.

Whereas in cave paintings, we may not be able to distinguish one millennium from another, never mind one year from another, ever since the Renaissance, and especially since the advent of Impressionism, the speed with which art styles and approaches have changed has accelerated. Furthermore, since perhaps the Enlightenment, the old, the ‘ancien’, the former, the past, have all become terms of opprobrium in art. To some degree, this was a democratizing reaction to the elitist exclusivity of the Academie.

The Avant-Garde is one of the most recent and most dramatic expressions of this trend. Starting in the last decades of the 19th century, many artists intentionally set out to discard the past and all that went with it.

From the nonsense of Tristan Tzara, and Dadaism , to the most current and conceptual pieces , the aims and techniques of ‘traditional’ Western art have been tossed out. The increasingly global and devastating wars that occurred in the same period must have been motivating factors in the rejection, as in Dadaism , of all meaning in art.

Ward points out that such art was connected neither to market forces or the old academic system. It was ‘DIY’. She also points out that the women associated with the early manifestations of the Avant-garde regarded their experiments with clothing as either art, or costumes, a reflection of the decreasing separation between fashion and art .

The Avant-garde, however, continues to reject the past, even its own past. This has the destructive effect of the mother devouring her young, or perhaps vice versa.

Is Fashion Art?

To assert that fashion is (or can become) the last bastion of the Avant-garde requires the redefinition of fashion as a form of art. Fashion, as noted earlier, shares with art its character of an essentially perennial indulgence. It can be said of both art and fashion that neither is necessary for physical survival of the species or the individual. And yet, in all cultures, there is some form of both art and fashion, no matter how simple, or accessible in technology, so it seems reasonable to infer that they are both somehow necessary for humans.

Fashion refers to and borrows from art regularly. This pattern of appropriation and quotation stretches from Worth’s portrait-influenced styles from the 1800’s, inspired by his visits to museums, to the Mondrian-inspired color block mini-dresses of St. Laurent in the 1960s. More recently, we have seen the use of Byzantine motifs by Giovanni Versace .

However, the art world has moved away from the artisanal, and therefore relatively menial, role it occupied until well after the Renaissance, as evidenced by the frequent absence of signatures on earlier works of art.

In this movement away from that role, art has, for the most part, excluded fashion as a ‘craft’ or trade, until very recently. Couture, after all is defined in plebeian terms as the business of making clothes.

Both fashion and art are status symbols, accessible only to those who have the wealth and the imprimatur of social acceptability (style, class, savvy) to indulge in them. Any doubt as to whether this long-time prejudice has been dissipated should be set aside.

As evidence, note the tone with which Wal-Mart heirs’ creating a pret-a-porter, instant museum, full of the best art, has been received by the art world and the public at large. Crystal Bridges Museum is in the American state of Arkansas, a state better known for the folk tune Arkansas Traveler than its high culture.

It may, as critics have conceded, made innovative use of space and be a showcase for much good American art. The attitude towards the patroness, her acquisition techniques, and the choices her ‘insta-pour’ art collection includes, is one of dubious suspicion. The motif of new wealth trying to buy its way into either fashion or art circles is thus alive and well .

Fashion and art also share the characteristic that their most prominent and influential critics and arbiters are seldom themselves practitioners. Examples of these potentates in the fashion world include Anna Wintour, of Vogue, and Clement Greenberg, in the art world. Such critics have the literal power to make or break the career of a designer or an artist, based on little more than their verbal adeptness at articulating the mood of a body of work2.

However, in spite of this slender basis for judgment, the compliments or caviling of such critics’ (often very subjective in their choice of favorites) can shape the directions that artists and designers take in their future work.

Artists, not surprisingly, object to the tyranny of being forced to spend time and attention on achieving critical acclaim. However, there is little way to avoid this at the moment. Purchasers of cutting edge art often depend on the opinion and pronouncements of noted critics to validate what can be astonishingly expensive price tags.

Furthermore, these major expenditures purchase items that often have no apparent value. They often have little or no decorative value either, and in fact, many high end art purchases spend more time in art galleries than they ever do in anyone’s home. Thus, the art critic really is in control of the artist’s financial success, at least in the short term. Personal taste and pique can therefore acquire an outsized significance.3

Similarly, in the world of high fashion, prospective clothing or accessory purchasers are faced with a price tag that could easily underwrite the purchase of a boat or a second-hand car, for something that may actually look quite ugly. The item may be so difficult to clean and maintain that wearing it is impractical.

The positive pronouncements of critics can reassure them that this or that item is a good investment, although the lifespan of a fashion piece is measured in months rather than decades, for the most part. For couture customers, wearing an outfit older than a few months requires enormous confidence (or the excuse of early dementia).

Thus, for both fashion and art, seeking after profit, or at least financial survival (although the practitioners resent and may try to ignore it), is a central and troublesome issue. This notion sometimes clashes with the image of the unfettered creative genius, motivated only by the pressure of great ideas, which both fields cherish for themselves.

Another aspect shared by the fashion and art industries is their tendency to compare and critique what has gone before. There is an ongoing dialogue between the current and the past.

Art, at least since the Renaissance,4 tends to abandon as inadequate what has gone before, as not effective, expressive, realistic, or abstract enough. In fashion, each year; each season, in fact, constitutes a critique of the aesthetics of the body; the human physique is distorted, adorned, and utilized to show off sewing and cutting techniques, in new ways each time the lights come up on a runway.

Fashion also qualifies as art based solely on its physical properties. In the simplest of terms, the clothing article itself is a form of soft sculpture that requires the human form for completion of the work.

There is a parallel in the plastic arts, where avant-garde sculpture can be constructed of clothing, such as Claes Oldenburg’s 1969 constructions that included stockings . The all-encompassing term under which fashion can be included, ‘garments’, can take form in a variety of media limited not only to textiles, but including garbage bags, neoprene, and flattened aluminum cans.

As further evidence of the permeable barrier between fashion and art, no less august an institution than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City now possesses an entire costume department, as do a number of other major world-class museums. They mount exhibits of fashion items as thoroughly and lovingly curated as the most ancient artifacts or the most treasured examples of the fine arts, for example, featuring Schiaparelli and Prada . Other major museums globally now accord the same care to living fashion designers .

Fashion and art also occupy a space analogous in several ways to that space which Michel Foucault describes as a heterotopia. Although not directly parallel, there are interesting similarities. Fashion and art, indeed, seem to be “absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about”

For example, art is real, and reflects reality, even if it is aggressively conceptual and reflects only the materials of which it is made, even at the artist’s insistence, as was the wish and intent of, for example, Sol LeWitt . And yet the discourse around art inevitably refers to things that may never have been intended to imply.

Fashion, as well, deals with tangible items, but the purpose of the item, i.e., to clothe a body (create a garment), is often, if not almost always, subverted by the actual construction of the piece. It may not even be wearable as a garment outdoors, or without trained assistance, or by the vast majority of human bodies.

Both fashion and art, then, are to some degree at odds with themselves, creations that inspire ideas and discussion and have impacts beyond the gallery, the atelier, or the catwalk, although they do not actually do what they are explicitly created to do.

Thus, fashion can be considered an actual art form, but it has generally been denied this status given that it operates for the most part, in its creation, sale, and use, outside of art institutions, although parallel to it. This very exclusion, however, is what makes possible, in part, the opportunity for a revival of the Avant-garde in the world of fashion. This is because of the nature of the Avant-garde, a nature to be discussed in the next section

What is, or was, the Avant-garde?

In trying to nominate fashion as the avatar of the Avant-garde, it is necessary first to identify what distinguished the Avant-garde from any movements that came previously. It is also necessary to evaluate its aims. After all, it could be asserted that the Avant-garde deserves to fade from the world entirely.

The term ‘avant-garde’ literally means ‘advance guard’, or those who patrol and scout ahead of the rest. The phrase carries with it a notion of deliberately moving beyond the main body of the crowd into the unknown, the untried, and the potentially dangerous. The art to which it was first applied was meant to shock, to undermine, to carve a new, perhaps better, alternative path for both art and society.

In the years leading up to the First World War and beyond, especially, there appeared a strong element of political critique, and even an anti-war warning in the practice of all the arts.

The world was seemingly headed heedlessly for disaster, and the tools of statecraft, governance, class structure, education, military strategy, diplomacy and everything else that people had depended on for centuries, were failing to prevent it.

The message of the Avant-garde was that all the old conventions were therefore useless and deserved to be left behind. The aim was nothing less than the transformation of art, and, by the way, society . Although many participants seem to have been themselves members of an intellectual elite, the need for increasing the dignity of common folk and items (typeface, for example) was emphasized in Avant-garde works .

However, the participants in the Avant-garde were using a new means of transforming society, less bloody than that which was applied in the 18th century to overthrow, for example, monarchy in France, and subsequently in most of Europe. Thus, art in the hands of the Avant-garde was hoped to be able to push or pull people in a new, hopefully positive direction without violence, except to the traditional values the movement hoped to supersede.

The elitism that designated the Academy as the only validator of art’s 5 quality was a major target of the Avant-garde . A similar elitism that separated the fine artist from the craftsman or the amateur was another of these many targets of the Avant-garde.

The do-it-yourself performances, the ready-made artwork, and the use of such ‘craft’ items as printing typeface fonts and interior design elements, that cropped up in the Avant-garde, for example, could usher in a flattening of the hierarchical distance between the average citizen and the fine artist.

At the same time, the commoditization of art was also a target of the Avant-garde. This is a persistent problem of this movement. It happened with the movement of Cubism, which seemed so drastic at first, but which relatively soon thereafter became the fodder of hotel lobby art.

As soon as a piece of work, a style, an approach, or an individual artist, no matter how ‘out there’, becomes accepted, even a little bit, it is no longer ‘out there’.

If the public, that public whose taste is suspect, and generally described as common, begins to actually like and appreciate something, it loses its credibility as revolutionary. If other artists begin to adopt whatever has been cutting edge, there is a tendency for the new to be diluted and its abrasive impact blunted and dulled.

The absolute nadir of ignominy for an innovator of the Avant-garde is when a radical idea, image, or technique is adopted by what some would call low-brow practitioners, or used in popular, profitable venues. As evidence of the perennial nature of this discussion, no less a practitioner and promoter of the Avant-garde, and a founder of Surrealism, Salvador Dali, was castigated by that other prominent Avant-gardiste, Andre Breton, for his “commercialism” . To cite one contemporary example, Piet Mondrian might be appalled to find that his rigidly abstract, cerebral, anti-realist color blocks are now used freely (with his name, no less) in commercial doors and windows for suburban tract homes . This is far from a revolutionary usage, although it is, indeed, admirably democratic.

The Avant-garde’s place in today’s world

As can be seen from the above, the original impulses for the Avant-garde were to promote revolutionary transformation. Today, although there are plenty of people who are seeking transformation of their own society6, in the Western, developed world, there is a tendency for our tolerance of differing opinions and lifestyles to mute the effect of even the most radical creative gestures.

Has the impulse, the potency, and even the purpose, of the Avant-garde therefore disappeared? According to Gilles Lipovetsky, people in “modern democratic societies are always prepared for change; consistency has become old hat.” The “systems of dominant ideas” of the past no longer hold sway, having been “swallowed up by frivolity.”7 As Lipovetsky put it, people are, however, despite their urge to change the world, “no longer inclined to die in great numbers for their ideas…”8

The reasons for this mixture of apparent apathy, and willingness to embrace change may have arisen from 200 years, and more, of the laissez-faire approach of classical liberalism, the resulting separation of government and religion, or even the rise of feminism and other civil rights struggles.

As noted earlier with respect to art and fashion, the pattern of acceleration of change is occurring throughout society. Certainly, society today is primed for instant gratification and novelty; anything ‘so last month’ is as good as gone from the public mind. Change is as expected and desired now as sameness once was. In such an environment, how can a work of art generate any sort of impact if it obsolesces in a few days?

In spite of the Avant-garde’s having, in a sense, come up against a seemingly insoluble self-destructive paradox9, does the Avant-garde still have validity? There still exist today, nonetheless, the same sorts of yearnings that impelled the original Avant-garde.

As expressed by the very contemporary Michel Foucault, “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life.

That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?” This is clearly a nearly identical dissatisfaction with art as an elite activity, in which everyone cannot or does not participate, as that expressed by the Avant-garde.

Fashion’s qualifications to be the proponent of the Avant-garde

Given that art has essentially burned itself out in the effort to abandon each innovation almost as soon as it becomes public, and has faced and accepted its inability to quickly change the world through shock and disgust, could fashion take up the charge? Fashion is uniquely fitted to express the Avant-garde because it always has been a carrier of message and content, it has no problems being sold in a large, free market, and it has been kinder to its antecedents.

Fashion re-creates itself each season. It attempts to, or purports to, capture what Karl Lagerfeld termed “the mood of the moment” . This essential feature of the fashion world is entirely consistent with the Avant-garde’s insistence on constantly presenting something new. Of course this is what generates a following among a novelty-hungry public with discretionary income to spend.

Furthermore, fashion has been attempting to follow the same path of liberation from dependence on a small elite group that art has taken over the last several centuries. Up until the moment when there developed a true market for art, artists were dependent on patrons, whether these came from the aristocracy or from the merchant princes.

Peter Burger, quoted by Schulte-Sasse, identifies a historic shift caused by this severing of art’s almost feudal relationship to patrons, to be supplanted by, “anonymous, structural dependence on the market and its principles of profit maximization.” Art became, in some respects, actually more elite.

By ignoring the commissioners who had determined who got visibility and who did not, the artists became their own arbiters. This created a sort of self-referential bubble that left out anyone who was not actually making art. This elevation of the artist is perceptible in the painting by Courbet titled Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854).

Only the artist is actually portrayed as a real person, obeying the laws of gravity with solidity and weight. The patron is more or less floating without impinging on the sunlight or the soil . Clement Greenberg actually suggested that, in an era of a diminishing “cultured elite”, artists deliberately pushed their own art well beyond the capacities of the public to appreciate it – specifically to make it inaccessible to that same public – at least the “uneducated” public.

The importance of the role of such critics (who may, with notable exceptions, neither make nor, perhaps, probably able to afford the art they critique) has not abated, at least not in their own minds. Consider the statement by Greenberg that, “without experience enough to tell good abstract art from bad, no one deserves to be heard on the subject”.

His audience, he maintains just a few lines earlier, was too “lazy-minded” to tell the difference between calendar art and a Rubens.10 A parallel example of this sort of unfortunate professional scorn for the great mass of the fashion public is found in the stylist who resigned over the use of normal-sized models.11

Additionally, fashion has been approaching ever closer to the role of political and social commentator. This role, embraced fully by the Avant-garde, has been popular for the subsequent decades of artists. Even in the relatively constrained environment of modern China, the capacity of art to comment politically is growing, as exemplified by the art of Xiuwen.12

Burger, as quoted by Schulte-Sasse, identifies this secular13 moment of readiness of the artist to make commentary, and of the audience to absorb and respond to this commentary as, “the individual and psychological preconditions for the construction of an ideal society.”

The third phase of the development of art is, according to Burger, as quoted in Schulte-Sasses, that it acknowledged and recognized its apparent inability to change the world. This is because the “critical content” of any work of art is “undermined” by the “mode of reception”. Burger suggests that this is due to art being separated from daily life, except for a privileged few.14

Fashion, happily, suffers less from this dilemma, since everyone wears something every day, something which either echoes, copies or contradicts the prevailing style. Additionally, everyone is always sending a message with their personal adornment, even in a nudist colony. The notion of fashion containing meaning –just as the art of the Avant-garde was intended to do – is an easy one for everyone, from anthropologists to school principals trying to prohibit gang colors, to job candidates attempting to dress for success, to affirm.

Additionally, fashion has never suffered the same degree of conflict over the entire capitalist system. In fact, it has benefitted immensely from the very liberal and democratic system that some proponents of the Avant-garde were hoping to eliminate .15

Fashion is already in a cycle of new forms replacing the old. It has less of the conflict over this process than art has had. This allows it to generate innovation with great efficiency.

Thus, fashion has the potential to carry the aims of the Avant-garde forward. Already, there has been a massive decentralization of the creative spark of fashion, via the internet. Young people generate ideas and share them widely without the slightest need for a ‘house’ of fashion or a show. There is an existing formal structure for the dissemination and diffusion of products and messages well in place and a ready audience for them as well.

Case Study – Viktor & Wolf

If we can perhaps agree that the aims of the Avant-garde retain value even nearly a century later, we must ask; who among fashion designers can be considered as a representative of an Avant-garde? Who among the literally thousands of creative people producing in the global fashion industry is carrying the torch for, or expressing the same impulses as those that impelled, the original avant-garde? Who could count as the avant-garde in fashion, and what is their expression of this movement?

Designers both with established roots and well-known names, as well as those with little track record have taken an avant-garde turn in their styling. Fashion houses such as Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Maison Martin Margiela, and Christopher Kane…etc., come to mind.

All of these designers have produced both styles and shows that evoke the over-the-top silliness or shock of classic Dada stunts. They demonstrate what Evans calls, “unexpectedness, ephemerality, and mortality…masquerade, artifice, and play”.

Evans describes the trend in these recent highly theatrical fashion shows and collections as “mapping the modern”. She sees them as profiting from the endemic “estrangement” of modern society, as well as the equally endemic eroticization of nearly everything to sell products, and the commoditization of sex, and the glorification of wealth.

For purposes of this project, the efforts of the design team of Viktor and Rolf will be examined.

The Dutch-born design duo of Viktor & Rolf evokes the visual jokes of Elsa Schiaparelli, (for example, her lobster-adorned dresses). However, they take the notion of fashion and style as a form of art a bit further. At the same time, their technical skills are impeccable; such that any piece, no matter how bizarre in appearance, will inevitably demonstrate exquisite cutting and construction.

They moved to Paris in the late 1980s, and spent several years doing what they, themselves, describe as more art than fashion. Their work took up all the space in their tiny apartment, and it took them several years to get a foothold in fashion. They showed initially in art spaces. The work produced in these first years apparently reflected their loneliness and alienation in the midst of the City of Light.

The fashion show Viktor and Rolf, Spring 2008

Viktor and Rolf, Spring 2008

Their styles really cannot be worn in any practical way, but they ask questions and challenge assumptions. For example, a transparent chemise covers all but the parts that would cause an arrest for indecent exposure. A skirt is worn around the neck. A one-shouldered dress could double as shelter for the homeless.

The mounting of their shows in un-authorized locations and venues, such as art galleries, and their willingness to perform in their own shows, places them within the avant-garde tradition, if there can be said to be such a thing.

Where does this approach by Viktor and Rolf originate? Why would this pair of well-trained designers take this iconoclastic tack in their work?

One reason was their inexperience. They must have had more talent and passion than expertise. In an interview, they said,” It’s true that for the first five years we were more presenting ourselves in an art-related context than in a fashion context. Fashion is a very strictly regulated environment and we had no clue how to function in the fashion world, so it took some time before we were prepared to work in fashion.”

Another obvious reason is a basic lack of funding. According to Susannah Franckel, when Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren arrived in Paris with no money, after graduating from design school in Holland; they struggled to support themselves.

In 1996, they lacked the funds for a full-scale show, and they were irked that they had been ignored by the all-powerful fashion critics. They posted signs saying that they were “on strike” and documented this with models holding signs to that effect, dressed in, naturally, couture outfits.

They are quoted as saying, “our work exists only when it is publicized”, so they mounted a show in miniature, featuring beautiful doll-clothes. As Evans points out, the use of dolls was self-referential, evoking the doll-gowns used to advertise styles back in the immediate post WWII period of severe fabric rationing.

Viktor and Rolf’s use of dolls to advertise couture.

However Viktor and Rolf’s thrifty use of dolls to advertise couture is more complex than merely a protest or a cost-savings measure. The substitution of tiny female figurines also refers back to the practice of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, periods with less available transportation and communication, when fashion dolls acted as ambassadors for styles all across Europe.

These little models, or mannequins, were the fore-runners of the live models of today, according to Evans. An additional layer of historical reference points to an impressive artifact in Amsterdam; an eight foot tall doll house that the two designers may well have visited when they were younger.

This combination of humor, historical awareness, self-reference, political statement, turning a medium on its head, and impeccable craftsmanship, is a repeated feature of V&R’s work. It is also very reminiscent of the tactics of the original Avant-garde.

For example, consider the entry of a urinal, perfectly mounted, as a sculpture entry into a prestigious annual art show by Marcel Duchamp . As another example, consider Hugo Ball’s 1918 recitation of nonsense verse in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich . This, like the 1996 V&R miniature fashion show, took an expected format and made it a joke.

Viktor and Rolf also, in 1996, and in later shows, used the discordant scale of dolls and doll houses, in various sizes and combinations with real human models, to inject a distinct note of surrealism into their shows. Like Salvador Dali, and the Surrealists, they were fiddling with the viewer’s perceptions this way .

This tampering with the mind has little to do with actual clothes to be worn on actual bodies, and much more to do with a possible commentary. They might be referring to, for example, women’s ideas about their own body size, or the circumscribed role of women in society, or, as Evans suggests, the two young designers’ wish for their own future fashion ‘house’16.

Viktor and Rolf also play with the very definition of garments, or clothing in their shows. Archer describes their dresses as “sculptural pieces to be looked at rather than worn”. They themselves have said that, “the clothes were designed to be looked at rather than to be worn”.

For example, the 2007 presentation, entitled Fashion Show, included dresses festooned with their own lighting systems, looking like nothing so much as mobile stage sets.

The presentation, entitled Fashion Show, included dresses festooned with their own lighting systems.

This is perhaps both a gibe at high fashion clothes that cannot be worn by normal people (i.e., anyone with a real human body rather than the victim of a famine). The dresses are alternatively perhaps a joking evocation of the curtain dress that Scarlett O’Hara rigged herself out in for Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

It may also be an implicit rebuke against the tyranny of elaborate fashion shows. This represents the same sort of double layer of meaning that was implicit in the work of the Avant-garde. Note that Marcel Duchamp’s urinal sculpture was both a joke about sculpture and about the value of the show’s judges and their taste .

Another show, titled L’Apparence du Vide, made more of a critique of the emptiness of the fashion world than offering dresses or pantsuits to be worn. The golden, bow-covered clothes were shadowed with black silhouettes in different fabrics. Such a political statement about the superficiality of the contemporary haute couture industry is reminiscent of the Dadaists.

They also demonstrate a blithe willingness to mix media and arts, such as in their show entitled Bells. This included pieces entirely festooned varying sizes of jingling, tinkling, bells in quantities normally reserved for sequins or paillettes. The effect was of making music, according to those who were there .

The show that featured models with black make-up, wearing black clothes trimmed with white, under black light, was fantastically disconnected from real life. No one is going to wear black make-up in daily life, and black lights are not installed in every setting in which people live and work.

However, the show, titled Blacklight, made a very strong statement about identity and perception. Looked at in natural light, the clothes were variations on tuxedo suits and shirts.

Under black light, they looked more like undersea creatures. Evans sees in the shadowy figures that the models presented, with their invisible faces and bodies picked out in gleaming white trim, frills, and shirt-fronts, an evocation of the Nazi period in European history.

At this period, she points out, no one could be truly themselves, and everyone, in some sense was a shadow or lived in a shadow. For younger viewers, this message may not resonate as powerfully, but that does not mean that these clothes presented in the way they were presented do not have enormous impact.

The human body became, in Viktor and Rolf’s hands, a set of moving sculptures. This is performance art, with the possible message that we all have different identities, depending on our setting and audience. This reminds us of Marcel Duchamp, falsely registering his urinal under the name of Richard Mutt.

It also is reticent of Duchamp’s stunt of modifying the iconic Mona Lisa. It is intriguing to discover, after so long, that his tampering with the famous Giaconda was not only with the instantly visible mustache. Evidence now suggests that he played around with her physiognomy through print-making processes, modifying the lovely features to more closely conform to Duchamp’s own features.

He did it so subtly that no one noticed for decades, because the mustache was such a shocking distraction. Viktor and Roth are similarly asking us to ponder the whole notion of identity, and what makes a dress, a show, or a brand, desirable, or meaningful.

The cultural references in their shows, and in their work, range all over the map and across history’s timeline. Their early show titled L‘Hiver de l’Amour evoked silhouettes seen in pictures by Fragonard .17

L‘Hiver de l’Amour silhouettes seen in pictures by Fragonard.

This is a reference to fashion history, and to a time when style was self-conscious and quite extreme. However the garments are realized in what appears to be an unusable contemporary form.

They appear to be so heavily padded that the wearer would hardly be able to move in them. The dresses are displayed on headless figures behind glass. This vaguely gruesome combination is reminiscent of the Avant-garde’s lampooning of the past. The example of the Mona Lisa with a Mustache by Duchamp comes to mind .

In the 1999 show, titled Russian Dolls, the designers themselves dressed the model in successive layers of crystal-embellished upholstery and wall covering fabrics – jute, and hessian. Juxtaposed luxury and scratchiness rebuke the entire notion of fashion.

What makes a dress worth a fortune; the fabric or the idea; the cut or the brand name on it? Similar fundamental questions were posed by the best works of the Avant-garde. The Bicycle Wheel of Duchamp represents an earlier but similar question: ‘What makes art, ‘art’?’18

The Bicycle Wheel of Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp

In their show titled Long Live the Immaterial: Bluescreen, they used the models as surfaces upon which to project scenes of nature and the evidence of human activity. This called on the viewer to consider the relationship between the highly artificial environment of the fashion world and the rest of the world, pressed and strained ecologically by the very commercialism that supports fashion.

The theme of paisley (a motif that is Indian in origin) is also a subtle reference to the whole history of textile and manufacturing; the trade in cloth between the colonies and Scotland or New England, where the fabrics were actually produced. This sort of of multiplicity of evoked images, referents, and ideas, is typical of the Avant-garde at its most powerful.

In their show with the telegraphic title No, the models wore largely monochromatic dresses and suits with simple words as three dimensional embellishments.

Words like ‘No’, and ‘Dream’ popped off shoulders and chests. The designers themselves said that they were responding to the intense speed of change in fashion and saying ‘no’ to it. This is evocative of the sort of strategic use of words that appeared in many Avant-garde works such as Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, which included typeface.

2012 Viktor and Rolf fashion show.

In a 2012 show, they irritated some in their usual adoring public by stitching together clothes with gigantic giant-sized stitching. This seems to be a deconstruction of the literal meaning of the word ‘couture’ or sewing. The fact that Vikto and Rolf are not cowed by the possibility of creating and showing something that will be seen as actually ugly recalls the often peculiar output of the Avant-garde.

The apparent obliviousness to the traditional images of female beauty was certainly a characteristic of Picasso, Braque, and all the Cubists who distorted the feminine form.

The willingness of a century of artists to make women look unattractive has been attacked by Wendy Steiner in her book Venus in Exile, but Viktor and Rolf seem not to have gone too far in that direction. Even these 2012 dresses have graceful lines. In this regard, Viktor and Rolf are, happily, not in congruence with some of the less constructive impulses of the Avant-garde.

A model on Viktor and Rolf fashion show. A model in a dress on the Viktor and Rolf fashion show.

Richard Martin takes it for granted that Viktor and Rolf have been trying to combine art and fashion from their start. As he puts it, the viewer does not ask whether they are attending a fashion show or an art show.

Both are professionally trained, and have lived in one of the great centers of both fashion and fine art, so they have the exposure to both industries that they need for movement between the two worlds. By their own assertions, they are already aiming to create things that are more than merely fashion. They are quite willing to “make a statement’, to create a “magic realm” in their shows, and to offer more than just a “pretty dress”.

They understand the power of media, and can effectively manipulate the components of fashion; the show venue, the lighting, the sound, the press package, the promotion, as well as the actual clothes themselves to propose ideas that are multi-layered and thought-provoking. Like the best of the Avant-garde, they have the talent, the vision, the creativity, the technical skills, and the grasp of history and current events to be bearers of the standard for an Avant-garde movement revivified for the 21st century.


Fashion and art share important characteristics and these similarities may qualify fashion to take up the charge of the Avant-garde. Among these similarities is their essential uselessness to human survival combined with an evergreen attraction for large portions of the population.

Another shared characteristic is their increasing acceleration of change over time. Fashion and art also share a trajectory in terms of their role in society. They have both evolved towards a position of liberation from subordination to the commissions and tastes of privileged, wealthy, and often well-informed elite. Both now provide products for a relatively free market of sizable proportions, often including those with money but little experience as customers of either fine arts or haute couture.

Practitioners in both fashion and art have taken on the goal of trying to make social, political, and aesthetic commentary on the world around them. They may eventually both reach a point of realization that their aims can never be realized as they hoped. However, in the meantime, however, fashion seems to have some chance of achieving some of the goals of the Avant-garde.

These might include casting many accepted notions into question and making viewers/customers think about them, such as the role of women, the role of markets, humanity’s relationship to the planet’s eco-systems, and the formation of personal identity. The aims of an Avant-garde might also include the opening up of the way for new forms of creativity.

An Avant-garde led by the fashion industry could also be the champion of a democratization of creative expression. This is because everyone, no matter how oblivious to the movements in the world of couture, is always wearing something that represents or contradicts fashion. Every individual therefore has within their grasp, no farther away than their closets, the tools for creative statements.

An Avant-garde led by fashion could perhaps avoid some of the violent disagreements that plagued the original foot-soldiers of the project. This is because fashion could particularly readily accommodate the ever-evolving nature of an Avant-garde because fashion itself changes swiftly already.

Fashion has already become a commodity, offered cheerfully for sale, and has no political fight to pick with the structure of society that is termed classical liberalism. Finally, fashion has, ever since people evolved to lose their body hair and needed something to wear instead, always contained messages, sent messages, been interpreted for messages, and been read with the same clarity as a billboard.

The messages of the Avant-garde as conveyed by fashion could be equally or even more positive than those of the original Avant-garde. Fashion, in its subliminal communication to masses of humanity in a global marketplace could promote and supporting and promoting openness to new ideas. It could suggest that people think more carefully and insightfully about their consumer decisions. It could shed new light on relations between the genders.

Fashion as a bearer of the torch of the Avant-garde could encourage peaceful interaction between peoples (think of the rather tame Benetton messages). The messages of Viktor and Rolf already make viewers and customers consider their own impact on the earth, and the relationship and between humanity and the environment.

With the potent tools of the internet to carry the striking visual images and the buzz of viral commentary, every gesture of talented, thoughtful designers such as Viktor and Rolf can be magnified and intensified with a truly staggering geographic and demographic scope. The Avant-garde could, indeed, fulfill at least some of its original goals, and perhaps some wonderful new ones, with fashion as its avatar.


There are several important books, for example, Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-garde, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and Renato Poggioli’s Teoria dell’arte d’avanguardia, which would have been helpful to read in full for depth of background, but which are not readily available.

Perhaps a more aggressive use of other libraries, purchase of used copies or e-book versions of these relatively rare books might have helped. The use of secondary sources in order to obtain a sense of the perspectives found in these and other books seems to have been a valid and creative solution.

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2 This dubious qualification of critics is noted in other creative fields as well. Alexandre Astruc noted that the cinema critics would not have been able to spot the new beauty that he saw in movies by Paul Bresson, e.g., La Regle du Jeu. This body of work, up through the 1960s, formed the foundation for The New Wave of French cinema. He predicted that, “cinema will gradually break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative.” Clement Greenberg, a critic with a very long career, interestingly, both painted, and collected art, by his own statement

3 Fortunately, over the very long term, there seems to be a shaking out of those pieces of art with lasting appeal.

4 Prior to the Renaissance, conservation of the old, retaining and copying the iconic forms of the previous millennium, seems to have been a major goal, based on the similarity of images over those centuries.

5 Rasmussen notes that a very extreme branch of the Avant-garde, the Situationists, was so anxious to incorporate the ideals of the project into what he terms a “post-artistic revolutionary praxis”, unconstrained by any institution of art, that they excluded practicing artists . Understandably, they became only a footnote in the history of the Avant-garde, much in the same way that the Shakers’ celibacy doomed that group to eventual disappearance from the American religious and cultural scene, despite their indubitable creativity.

6 Note the Arab Spring in 2011, and the Occupy movement in the same year.

7 This frivolity was a target of the Avant-garde, as evidenced by their overturning of such mores as conventional marriage.

8 He was clearly not speaking of the populations of the developing world!

9 This is the persistent issue of the radical gradually becoming the accepted and thereby losing its punch as a political statement.

10 As an interesting side note, Mr. Greenberg’s personal art collection, conveniently listed in a Wikipedia article but not detailed elsewhere in and accessible way, comprises very few names that non-professionals would associate now with the canon of modern art.

The names that current students know might include Frankenthaler and Pollock, but there are many others who seem to have not gotten the long-term attention that Greenberg clearly felt they deserved, including: “Edward Avedisian, Walter Darby Bannard, Stanley Boxer, Jack Bush, Anthony Caro, Dan Christensen, Ronald Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Enrico Donati, Friedel Dzubas, André Fauteux, Paul Feeley, Robert Goodnough, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Wolfgang Hollegha, Robert Jacobsen, Paul Jenkins, Seymour Lipton, Georges Mathieu, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, William Perehudoff, Larry Poons, William Ronald, Anne Ryan, David Smith, Theodoros Stamos, Anne Truitt, Alfred Wallis, and Larry Zox.”

Although beyond the scope of this paper, it is interesting to speculate on what distinguished those whom he liked who succeeded from those whom he liked who did not.

11 This attitude is paralleled in the anecdote of a young business and fashion graduate who, when asked whether she would consider applying her talents to plus sized fashions, on the grounds that this was a reliable, steady, and captive market for good quality clothing, responded that such clothes had no style, and that ‘such people’ could not appreciate style anyway.

12 This female artist’s photographic montages make statements about the treatment and place of women in Chinese society, and the population pressure that is such a riveting issue for that nation.

13 Used here in the sense of ‘universal throughout society’.

14 Foucault also bemoans this, as noted elsewhere.

15 The Situationists were the most extreme in their support for socialist/communist revolution .

16 Franckel quotes them as saying, “We wanted to create a new world. Using dolls is like taking control. When we had just started we created a series of miniature installations visualizing our strongest ambitions.”

17 These included the distinctive effect of the dress train flowing over a rear bustle that so typifies the costume of the day as seen in portraits from the period.

18 These appeared in several versions because the originals kept getting lost. It is tempting to imagine the originals being stolen to repair someone’s transportation!

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