Issue Thirteen: Wearable Art

“Dress as though your life depends on it or don’t bother.”

Leigh Bowery (1961 – 1994)

Perhaps more so than any other art form, wearable art is the place where the decorative becomes most dissident. Costume amplifies the inherently expressive nature of the clothes we choose (or are forced) to wear; it is a powerful and accessible medium to tell stories about who we are, who we want to be, and the nature of our relationship to the society we live in. A simple decorative flourish – a badge, a tie pin, a piece of jewellery – can communicate far more than words. As Carol Tulloch notes in The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora (2016), ‘style narratives’ are embedded with agency, ‘[style] is part of the process of self-telling, that is to expound an aspect of autobiography through the clothing choices an individual makes’. Through costume and wearable art, we make these narratives bolder, more questioning, more transgressive.

By its very nature, wearable art breaks down boundaries between art and everyday life: the body becomes canvas, the street becomes the gallery. It allows us to stage unexpected encounters with art outside the rarefied spaces where it’s usually kept, opening up new possibilities for making and subverting meaning. Although wearable art has a specific aesthetic history (rooted in 1960s American counterculture), in this issue we embrace its myriad messy, cross-disciplinary, boundary-pushing iterations. Indeed, costumes and wearable art have a history almost as long as that of humanity; the twentieth and twenty-first century, however, brought about a flourishing of self-fashioning through costume, particularly among marginalised groups seeking to create community, subvert stereotypes, or celebrate their own creativity in the face of systemic injustice. Crafting and wearing artistic costumes is a playful way of disrupting societal hierarchies around gender, sexuality, race, class, and disability. Creating a visual, sensuous language, the costume articulates the unutterable – reaching and disarming audiences often alienated by cultural institutions. In the same way, it can also empower makers that are also excluded from art schools and galleries.

1980s performance artist and provocateur Leigh Bowery was notorious for working at the boundaries of absurdity, taste, fashion, art and performance. Using elaborate, handmade costumes to disguise and distort his body, Bowery constantly unsettled the status quo and queered traditional conceptions of the body. He located the potential for radical transformation in the ‘tension’ between the decorative and the disturbing. In Charles Atlas’s documentary about Bowery, artist Cerith Wyn Evans (a close friend) highlights the serious intent that lurked beneath the dazzling surfaces of his costumes: ‘It wasn’t just dressing up and showing off and shocking people. It actually had to have some radical element of change within. There had to be something that was contra, against.’

Bowery’s alarming outfits and all-encompassing art-as-life performance evoke a much earlier shocking artist and performer: the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. In Caroline Knighton’s wonderfully evocative portrait of the Baroness – ‘Like an Empress from Another Planet’: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s couture d’ordures– Knighton shows how she disrupted gender stereotypes and used her body as a ‘living canvas’, often using detritus from the streets of New York. 

While the Baroness terrorised even the avant-garde residents of Greenwich Village, elsewhere in Harlem, another form of queer costume culture flourished. The singer Gladys Bentley, who performed in Harlem clubs wearing a tuxedo and top hat, often accompanied by a chorus of drag queens, is emblematic of the subversive acts of self-fashioning that were a vital part of the Harlem Renaissance – which continues to exert influence today. Decades after Bentley’s heyday, 1980s design innovator Willi Smith drew on the area’s creative spirit with his ‘street couture’ style – affordable, often gender neutral designs that brought high fashion and good design onto the street.

Modernist jewellery designer Art Smith – featured in this issue’s spotlight – was also inspired by New York’s Black, queer communities – at the salon of Frank and Dorcas Neal, he met rising cultural icons like Lena Horne and James Baldwin, as well as connections from the world of dance. Smith began selling his surrealist-inspired designs (notable for their intuitive relationship with the body of the wearer) from his Greenwich Village studio in 1946, sparking a groundbreaking career in jewellery design. 

This issue’s Recommended list contains a variety of resources and podcasts where you can find out more about Smith, Bentley, and Harlem’s costume culture. 

“Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for colour and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there.”

Willi Smith (1948 – 1987)

Innovative contemporary designer Leeroy New also continues the Baroness’s radical assemblage practice. Using everyday objects to create striking, androgynous, sci-fi inspired wearable sculptures that he inserts into everyday spaces of the city – such as parks and launderettes – New is one of the most exciting artist-designers working today. New’s ‘Aliens of Manila’ began as a playful riff on Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York to highlight problems with infrastructure and governance in the Philippines; the project has extended to question hierarchies of gender, and art and craft, as well as respond to the current Covid crisis. New has also staged ‘Aliens of Manila’ in other cities, including Taipei, Lyon and New York, working with found materials in each location. You can read more about New’s timely multidisciplinary practice in Elisabetta Garletti’s wide-ranging and insightful interview. 

Away from the bright lights of New York, many other modernist artists were using costume and clothing to express their aesthetic vision and explore new ways of living in the modern era. Scottish artist Jessie M. King used the fabric dye technique of batik to craft accessible yet beautiful and otherworldly clothes, making her technique widely available in a manual ‘How Cinderella Went to the Ball’ (1924). Karen Mailley-Watt explores the ways King used batik to create and share her own distinct style in ‘Wrapped up in a fairy tale: Jessie M. King and the production of wearable  designs’. In Paris, Elsa Schiaparelli developed a reputation for creating fantastical creations in the much more exclusive field of haute couture. Olivia Bailey takes a close look at one of Schiaparelli’s most iconic designs – the Tears Dress, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali – suggesting that Schiaparelli undermines Surrealism notoriously misogynistic imagery with the whimsical couture she created for society women.

Elsewhere in this issue, Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie considers strategies for deconstructing and destabilising traditional gender binaries in her interview with artist Ben Caro. Cutler-MacKenzie talks to Caro about his turn to making wearable art, specifically his efforts to remake medieval armour using quail eggshells. As the pair discuss, this project raises fascinating questions around the performance of masculinity, and the ways we both shape and are shaped by the things we wear. Artist Emily Beaney also reflects on the way costume can facilitate an exploration of the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity that takes place as our own ‘style narratives’ are subsumed by institutional and societal strictures. In Breaking the Fall, she uses costume as a visual metaphor for the feelings of restriction and intrusion being perceived as a subject in the intrusive world of medical culture feels. 

A number of articles in this issue consider the ways wearable art sits somewhere between strength and fragility: exploring how what we wear can both expose and protect us, or transform insecurity into power. In Laura Grace Simpkins’s creative response to Freddie Robbins’s Craft Kills (2002), she imagines climbing into Robbins’s wearable sculpture, as if it might offer protection from the anger that – to quote Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion – pricks her skin. In an intensive, hands-on level, artist Daniela Lara-Espinoza uses literal acts of needlework to speak back to the unspeakable: in response to the epidemic of misogynistic violence against women and girls in Chile, she stitches beautiful decorative embroidery onto school aprons, making the sometimes dangerous reality of women’s lives visible.  


Icelandic textile designer and artist Ýrúrarí brings us back to wearable art’s playful side. Made from discarded textiles, her cartoon-like knitted masks and ‘monster’ jumpers have a fun, whimsical quality, but they ask serious questions about the destructive cycles of fast fashion. In conversation with Suzanna Petot, the pair discuss sustainability, ethical making – and how not to spill hotdog on your clothes! 

In The Fashion System, Roland Barthes suggests that:

 “Every new Fashion is a refusal to inherit, a subversion against the oppression of the preceding Fashion; Fashion experiences itself as a right, the natural right of the present over the past.”

Yet where fashion is future-oriented, encouraging consumers to engage in a never ending quest for new, more stylish versions of themselves, wearable art draws on craft’s slow processes; it can facilitate a process of reworking and transfiguring archival items. As she discusses in conversation with Anahi Seravia Herrera, artist Stephanie Francis-Shanahan’s mixed-media practice, which uses pop culture imagery and her family members’ clothing, creates a living, working-class archive. Francis-Shanahan’s work commemorates the ephemeral and celebrates the creative potential of domestic spaces, outside of art institutions – in 2019, she staged her exhibition ‘life is just a precious minute baby! (one nite can change ur life)’ in her mother’s council flat. Despite touching on issues of loss and grief, it is inherently joyful: Francis-Shanahan’s work returns us to the radical nature of celebration in the face of struggle, censorship, and the daily grind of ordinary life. 

Although the clubs will stay closed for a while longer, we hope the articles and interviews in our Wearable Art issue inspire you to embrace its dissident potential, to fashion yourself in disruptively decadent style, and to ‘dress like your life depends on it – or don’t bother’.