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Cubism and Fashion


Effet De Glace, Manteau Du Soir, De Paul Poiret., Digital ID 817906, New York Public Library“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” -Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

What about the impact of the great modern art movements on fashions of the times? Perhaps the most influential of those movements was Cubism. Fortunately, a long-sighted costume historian addressed this topic in a small but influential exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute back in 1998. Richard Martin organized “Cubism and Fashion” to contrast the striking similarities between clothing silhouettes from 1908 to 1925 and the artistic revolutions of that period. Marshalling the formidable resources of the Costume Institute, his exhibition permits viewers to see the direct and subtle transformations in modern dress. High and low (popular) culture contributed to these changes, but the designers involved were powerfully impacted by the artistry of their times.

What is remarkable is how designers did not stay satisfied with the status quo, but were willing to take risks. Being avant-garde in those days meant finding a clientele that would be open to changes in apparel, often well before the mainstream could acknowledge that those changes were appropriately modern. My research on modernity in clothing shows that the avant-garde stance of the early twentieth century was very important in developing those freedoms we appreciate today. Brave, too, were those designers and clients who adopted other movements, such as Surrealism, and purchased garments that were wearable art.

If everything old is truly new again, this means we need to keep our eye on today’s avant-garde clothing designs for a hint to the future…

p.s. Want some good current exhibitions on fashion? Go over to The Museum at FIT and view “Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion,” and the special exhibition “Gothic: Dark Glamour.” I’d love some reactions to the latter.


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