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Not as it seams

Just where does art wear end and fashion begin? A new exhibition walks that line, exploring an area that's anything but gray.

June 26, 2005|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — What is wearable art? The Legion of Honor museum tackles that question with an engaging retrospective covering the past 35 years. "Artwear: Fashion and Anti-fashion" follows the genre from its counterculture roots to the more fashion-oriented works of the 1990s, including the 1974 collage vest by Bay Area artist Kaisik Wong that was copied seam for seam by Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga in 2002.

The definition is difficult to pin down, but generally wearable art is "artist-made clothing constructed from artist-made textiles," according to curator Melissa Leventon. "A lot of wearable artists were trained in fine art and weren't interested in learning how to be fashion designers," she said. "They were interested in beating their way into the art world with clothing." The genre is also characterized by low-level production and capitalization, she said. "Wearable artists are not backed by [luxury fashion conglomerate] Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. They work within a cottage-industry model."

The show begins with some historical context -- examples of other anti-fashion movements, including an 1885 Liberty of London smocked dress. Loose-fitting and designed to be worn without a corset or crinolines to constrict and shape the body, it was emblematic of the dress reform movement of the late 1800s. In Venice, Mariano Fortuny was liberating the body with classical forms such as the fabulous hand-dyed 1930 Delphos dress on display, with its gently undulating pleats. His work also prefigured art wear because of its emphasis on technique and materials, Leventon said.

A series of pieces demonstrates the variety of techniques used in art wear, including recycled materials and commercial pleating, loom dyeing and Japanese shibori dyeing. One of the most stunning items, featured on the cover of the exhibit catalog, is Ana Lisa Hedstrom's late-1980s fan vest, dyed using the shibori method invented in Japan in the 1880s, which involves shaping cloth by folding, stitching, tucking and twisting before dyeing. Displayed on a clear dress form, it has the lightness of a pair of insect wings.

The origins of art wear were in the hippie movement, which placed a value on handmade things, thought to have soul and integrity that industrially produced things lacked. The hippie look featured hand embellishment -- embroidery, painting and dyeing -- on new and vintage clothing.

It was so popular that Levi Strauss & Co. staged a denim contest in 1974, inviting people to submit photos of their customized jeans to be judged by a panel that included L.A.-based designer Rudi Gernreich. More than 10,000 submissions came in, including the "Tree of Life" jeans on display by Peggy Moulton, with branches embroidered on the legs. Another example of hippie wear is a Levi's shirt Alexandra Jacopetti embroidered for her husband, Roland, with motifs of their life together. The shirt was featured in Jacopetti's 1974 book "Native Funk & Flash."

Leventon sees similar do-it-yourself impulses in today's culture. "There is a whole vogue for hand-crocheted things. Just look at the frenzy surrounding Martha Stewart when she left prison wearing a crocheted poncho."

As a genre, art wear began developing simultaneously in the Bay Area and in New York City in the late 1960s. Fine artists became involved, particularly women, inspired by the feminist movement to recontextualize what was traditionally known as women's work. In New York, the wearable art community was centered on a group of art students at Pratt University, who experimented with crochet. An example of their work is Janet Lipkin's 1970 hand-spun and hand-dyed crocheted wool coat, titled "African Mask," which envelops the wearer in a kind of sculpture.

"They wanted to make art with thread, because they were artists, not designers," Leventon explained. "And they wanted to put it in an art context. That's how you get the idea of wearable art rather than handmade fashion."

The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 30, also takes a thematic approach, exploring the transformative nature of many art-wear creations, such as Jane Kosminsky's 1985 "Lizard Wizard" leather coat (once owned by Elton John), its laced spine and overlapping scales evoking a reptile without actually depicting one. Wong's exquisite 1976 "Orchid Dress," made from airbrushed jersey, transforms the wearer into a big pink bloom.

Another gallery touches on cultural connections. Kimonos are important in wearable art because they are the ultimate shape, a canvas for the body or the wall. Yoshiko Wada's 1975 "Coca-Cola Kimono," screen printed with soft-drink logos, is a sendup of Japanese culture, while Dina Knapp's 1982 "See It Like a Native, History Kimono #1" juxtaposes sunny images of Florida tourism, such as flamingos and palm trees, with news photos of warplanes, guns, protest marches and Haitian refugees.

The bottom fell out of the art-wear movement with the economic recession of the early 1990s. But in the past five to eight years, there has been a resurgence, Leventon said. The difference now is that wearable artists are moving closer to fashion.

"Maybe it is because fashion has become an academic study. It's high profile; it's in museums; it's big money. The fashion world has worked its way farther into the art world, so maybe wearable artists no longer feel as if they have to keep fashion at arm's length."

Two pieces demonstrate the new closeness of the genres: a 1988 Bill Blass jacket depicting a scene from a Matisse painting, and a similar jacket, titled "The Abstract," produced in 1992 by wearable artist Jeannette Kastenberg. "Blass conceived of the design, which was then completed in a workroom, and Kastenberg embroidered her creation herself," Leventon said. "You have the couture model and the wearable art model."

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