Dynamist Blog

Fashion and Culture

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 16: A model walks the runway at the J. Mendel Spring 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at the The Studio at Lincoln Center on September 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz)

While I'm catching up on the Dynamist blogging, I should call attention to another article I wrote for the WSJ, during New York Fashion Week. Here's the opening:

In March 2009, a few days before a major exhibit of Andy Warhol portraits opened at the Grand Palais in Paris, the curator faced a minor crisis. Pierre Bergé, the partner of Yves Saint Laurent and keeper of his legacy, objected to having the late fashion designer's portraits grouped with the likes of Giorgio Armani and Sonia Rykiel under the heading "Glamour." Saint Laurent was an artist, Bergé said. His image should hang with those of David Hockney and Man Ray. After all, Mr. Bergé said, Warhol himself had proclaimed YSL "le plus grand artiste français de notre temps."

The show went on, to glowing reviews, without the Saint Laurent images. It was an irony-drenched and very French moment, all about maintaining the status distinctions that Warhol himself had exploded. This was, after all, the man who famously compared department stores to museums. "Why do people think artists are special?" Warhol once said. "It's just another job."

Absurd though it was, Mr. Bergé's protest expressed a widespread conviction: that fashion is an inferior, unworthy, trivial and culturally suspect pursuit. Art is much, much better. In museum circles, observes Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, "Fashion is really seen as the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity."

So Sept. 9, when Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week opened at Lincoln Center, marked a significant cultural moment. The performing arts complex is doing more than providing a venue for runway shows. (You can, after all, rent its facilities for a bar mitzvah or corporate conference.) The center has hired a director of fashion and will incorporate fashion, along with opera, theater, dance and music, into its year-round lineup of featured arts, with plans for fashion films, photo exhibits and lectures.

It's a high-profile indicator of an intellectual trend that has been building for decades. Fashion is shedding its cultural stigma. It is increasingly recognized as a significant cultural activity—indeed, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization.

"Fashion attests to the human capacity to change," writes the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky in "The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy," his iconoclastic 1987 book. Like science and industry, "fashion is one of the faces of modern artifice, of the effort of human beings to make themselves masters of the conditions of their own existence."

Read the rest here. I highly recommend Lipovetsky's book and also Anne Hollander's Seeing Through Clothes, which I mention in the article. In 2007, I wrote this Atlantic column about fashion in art museums.

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