PRINT March 1996


HAIR COIFED, MAKEUP DAZZLING WHITE, six-inch ankle-strap platforms on her feet, Claude Wampler slowly works her way through a party of people made to stand and receive her disregard. Stiff black gloves rest on top of her wrists, eerily, emptily doubling any gesture her hands make; a pointy cone shoots out from her white satin dress. She looks at once suave, ridiculous, and utterly—fashionably—out of it. Probing the sticky underbelly of fashion, Wampler, in her performance piece She Is High. True or False?, 1995, spotlights the psychic consequences of party going and dressing up by channeling Jackie Onassis–intimate and Madame Grès-maven Chessy Rayner, a ubiquitous society-page presence. Aware that one of fashion’s strongest devices is its various distancing effects, Wampler abolishes any notion of chic’s warmth through a ravishing display of social chill; bemused, mumbling to herself, approaching a guest (someone in the audience) only to ignore him or her, she dissects the bonhomie of cocktail hour into its constitutive parts: anomie, contortion, narcosis, escape from it all. Dry heaving, laughing without a sound, her appearance simultaneously stunning and ghostly grotesque, she contemplates fashion through the feigned, attenuated movements of those (Rayner, Nan Kempner, various wasted models) who make fashion what it is. While her self-designed and self-made items of apparel remain weird and beautiful, her appearances supply what no photo, video, or static display of costume can replace—the body with its frisson of the immediate.

Ephemeral, trivial, effete, fey, and frivolous; hyperbolic, vain, and gauche; finicky, sentimental, and dreamy; sanctioning the ruthlessness of surface and the thrilling cruelty of style while providing the sustaining antidepressant of glamour: fashion helps pattern and eroticize meditation on crucial matters still frequently dismissed from considerations of art, which is why so many young artists are now engaging fashion. The most interesting artists, though, don’t just slip their limbs into the overcoat of fashion or appliqué their work with its spangled remnants—rather, they take fashion apart at its seams and its seeming, they think through it as a system (couture, commerce, cosmetology, gossip, shopping, etc.). They are thinking through fashion’s embodiments, thinking through super-models Kate Moss and Amber Valletta, to discern the racy pleasures of the inappropriate and to reveal the elegant havoc of a mind presenting the self through apparel.

If fashion only gets to qualify as art by checking at the door the fantastic bodies that made it purr in the first place, then forget that idea of art. Sadly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent “Haute Couture” show provides a case in point. Few curators are as expert as Richard Martin and Harold Koda, but, unlike many of their previous shows—the 1993–94 “Diana Vreeland: Immoderate Style” exhibition, for example, or the 1994 “Madame Grès” show—“Haute Couture” felt strenuously pedantic. Despite the brilliant selection of outfits instructively displayed to demonstrate their unbelievable handwork, the fun, the thrill, the uncanniness of fashion (the kick of paging through glossies; the electric charge of window shopping) disappeared—as if for clothes to be considered art the perfume of fashion had to be removed. How disheartening that a show confined to haute couture—a show that ignores the fashions of Hollywood (Adrian, Norman Norell, Edith Head, Theadora Van Runkle, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor) or the sleek designs of now (Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela, Lutz Huelle; Nike, Adidas, and Fuct)—should be the one positioned to make tired claims for the serious (while leaving unmentioned the importance of the flighty, utterly nonserious) consideration of fashion.

Among others, Simon Schama’s dull praise of the show in The New Yorker bespoke the entropy of continuing to make an argument (fashion is art; fashion is serious) that, at least since Duchamp (or Florine Stettheimer), no longer needs to be argued. After chiding Diana Vreeland’s penchant for “extravagance” in favor of the Costume Institute’s “evocation of a fifties fashion show” and “displays conceived with exceptional intelligence and integrity,” Schama had no problem putting his educated signature to the citation of fashion as art. Although he wrote that Martin and Koda “didn’t really have to invoke a list of heroic modernists—from Manet and Degas to Seurat and the Cubists—to clear themselves of suspicion that an exhibition like this one is a gala-driven exercise to gratify well-heeled donors,” Schama does something analogous in championing the classic turn-of-the-century creations of Charles Frederick Worth and Paul Poiret (the designer responsible for, in his words, the “current exhibition’s showstopper—the ‘Sorbet’ dress, of 1913”) while proving himself much less sanguine about Versace’s 1995 nacreous polyvinyl chloride and clear vinyl evening gown for Madonna which he calls an example of “the ultimate folly of couture’s painful mismatch of popular and high culture.”

But that “mismatch” is the point. Fashion exists because of now, fashion exists to mediate now—the quick succession of now on the body. Like Versace’s nacreous fabrics, fashion transvalues the synthetic, it synthesizes (by paradoxically revealing through concealment) the somber, glittery, ferocious, personal interiority of the moment. The extravagant, gala air Schama disdains in his idea of the art of fashion is not something to be skirted. At some point, everyone wants to look well-heeled, whether those heels are by Roger Vivier, Christian Laboutin, or Reebok, and fashion depends above all on people (and not just designers) to make it happen as it happens, whether they are living presences (Joel West, Chloe Sevigny, Sandra Bernhard, Kristen McMenamy), alive and kicking only in the collective mind (Josephine Baker, Edie Sedgwick, Montgomery Clift, Dovima, Jackie O., for whom the entire fashion community, with its return to ’70s classics, is still in mourning), or never lived at all (Cruella de Vil, Speed Racer). Hubert de Givenchy’s Evening Gown, ca. 1968, is a soigné frock, but the gown’s art, unlike a painting or drawing, is more than just an object: it’s an ode to Mrs. Claus von Bülow, who donated it to the Costume Institute; it’s an ode to Newport “cottages,” to excess, drugs, and booze; it’s an ode to someone who partied and didn’t really ever have to do much of anything she didn’t want to. It should have been exhibited with pictures of Sunny in the gown, a note about her scent and hairdo, the shoes, jewels, and wrap she wore with it, the purse or clutch she carried, her undergarments. Sunny animated the art, the fashion, as much as it animated her. Her comatose spirit allows the pristine envelope of the Givenchy ensemble to be slit so that the love letter of the illicit, which fashion always contains, can be more easily read. At the heart and in the petites mains of fashion is the often-invisible seam between the expertise of the sewer and septic funk of the sewer. How invigorating to see in one of the exhibit’s vitrines an incidental bit of lint on the Valentino black skirt once worn by Nan Kempner!

Diana Vreeland always cut into the dark heart of elegance, understanding the power of uglification and bad taste (as opposed to no taste) on which real style depends. The severe outrageousness of Vreeland’s visage and personality turned her dour Givenchy “oatmeal wool tweed double knit” day dresses pristinely exhibited in “Haute Couture” into meditations on the piquant clout of banality. Fashion (from couture gown to quotidian jockstrap) demands an esthetic exploration of lint, grime, fat, sleaze, sweat, and hose runs; of exactly what many would say it ignores. (In this respect, it would have been much more apposite to have John Waters rather than Schama review “Haute Couture,” since it is Waters who, along with Divine, reminds us that fashion celebrates, even feeds on, violation: its lodestar is refusal, turning its back on what it has just embraced.)

WATCHING ALEX BAG, in her video Spring ’94, duplicate with ruthless abandon a Eurotrash fashion-television hostess going into sado-robotic reverie over the knitwear of Azzedine Alaïa (“This is an Alaïa dress that I wear. Isn’t it beautiful? Get a shot of the dress. You see how it holds my shapes—beautiful! Azzedine Alaïa, he is a small man. A small. Man. But he has big head, big ideas for fashion.”) encourages an examination of the fashion system in all its allure and inanity. Her art makes it absolutely clear that, after the avuncular, post-Solanas presence of Warhol—it is less his early work in fashion illustration or his canny use of the photographic in his ’60s work but his creation and use of an entire hypnotic scene of fashion in the ’70s that prepare the way for the most invigorating work being done today—the sharpest art is made by those who are not afraid to use and abuse, to relish and resist, the fashion that excites them.

No one thinks through Amber Valletta better than Karen Kilimnik. Her meditations on fame, beauty, and fashion make it appear as though her question, What is it like to be you?, were about a specific model (Amber, Kate, Naomi, etc.), but as with I love you, the pronouns shift from the idiosyncratic to the democratic in the blink of an eyelash. Her eerie Valletta paintings (e.g., The Great Hamptons Fire, 1995) are as much self-portraits and homages as depictions of an ego and superego, hers and much of society’s. Her drawings of Kate Moss, done with the energy of an obsessed fan, and photos of herself as Elizabeth Taylor reveal the unnerving power of her Nico-like project: her mantra is “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and the more she reflects the more she becomes herself. All the mirrors to which everyone in the fashion world turns show only another possible appearance of Kilimnik.

Sylvie Fleury insinuates herself into every venue of the fashionable by another route entirely; not content to be the head of her own atelier, she presides over a fashion empire, the House of Fleury, producing what appears to be the work of others—“found” objects (designer makeup, shoes, perfume), magazines, shopping bags filled with unopened luxe goods she has bought—but is really all hers. Her streamlined, silvery Plexiglas placard, Moisturizing is the Answer, 1995, suggests that fashion is a lubricant taken into the skin of art and comments metaphorically on art’s fashionable nature (who’s in, who’s out; who’s hot, who’s not), at once invoking and emptying out Jenny Holzer’s signage by being funnier and closer to Holzer’s source material (advertising). One of Fleury’s savviest pieces, Victor and Jean-Paul, 1995, is a close-up photo of her own torso in a Vasarely-inspired Gaultier unitard. Victor and Jean-Paul could be pet names for her breasts, which heighten the already-illusionistic geometry of the Gaultier material. In the photo, Fleury crops out her face and covers any glimmer of skin with the geometric fabric. (This commentary on the absent presence of the female body in fashion and art was made a stranger, funnier, and even more prescient aperçu on fashion when Bill Cunningham photographed the Gaultier item on various personages in a New York Times “On the Street” spread: smiling, self-styled, they all looked dreadful.) By knowing the erotic, striptease power of keeping the body just out of sight (as in her piece consisting of the shattered remains of the Chanel eyeshadow she ran over with her car, or the various works featuring many pairs of empty shoes, or the appropriated Estée Lauder makeup video of Private Lesson, 1992), Fleury proves the impossibility of fashion without the body. Unlike many others working with similar material, she is able to negotiate the syncopation of keeping fashion as it is while in the process of turning it into an art it was perhaps never meant to be (a feat that Chris Moore, though missing the beat in his photos of himself and a model at the site of an airplane crash, also accomplishes in his piece If Angels Could Walk, 1994, in which two facing rows of black stackable chairs, each stenciled with the models’ name for whom it is reserved—Helena Christensen, Christy Turlington, Nadja Auermann, etc.—line an absent catwalk). Fleury investigates the flicker of the moment of fashion: the body that wears or shops for this outfit in this space at this time has moved on, yet haunts like a lingering scent.

While ephemerality is central to much of Fleury’s work, for others it’s a starting point to investigate fashion’s material, environmental, and performative aspects. Seemingly objectlike, Wiebke Siem’s sedately delirious concoctions probe what it means to wear something. Her philosophical objects, though announcing themselves as “fashion,” as things constructed of cloth, are made to be in close proximity with active bodies. By exaggerating form and material, Siem’s suit, Tailleur, 1984–85, allows anyone to contemplate the idea of “suit” and being “suited.” Her hats often dwarf the head, suggesting questions about the relationship between head and hat (Is any place where a hat rests a kind of head? Is anything on top of a head a hat?). The stiff wool, grids, and “off” colors draw attention to the separation of skin and second skin by highlighting a handmade quality remarkably different from but related intricately to haute couture, the handiwork of which is refined to the point of invisibility.

If Siem returns fashion to the realm of semantics (hat, suit, dress; clothes; cloth), Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s clothes are environments that confine the body, confound somatyping and gender stereotyping, and seek out fashion’s architectonics and ecorelatives (cocoon, carapace, exoskeleton). Guilleminot’s “unisex” Chapeau-Vie, 1993, makes Andrea Zittel’s seasonal uniforms look almost trendy; the chapeau-vie, in her words, can fit any body type as “cushion, receptacle, hood, mask, collar, straitjacket, coat, bag, sleeping bag, body bag. . . .” She claims its “everyday use . . . will keep your body fit, increase your blood circulation and at the same time give you a pleasurable massage,” making “life more bearable.” Recalling fashion’s locus at the interstice of the world and the body, Guilleminot tailors “fashion” the way Joseph Beuys did felt.

Reinterpreting Beuys’ itenerant projects through a meditation on the militaristic (fashion/fascism) aspects of uniform, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas’ stated mission in From Army to Armani, 1993, was to “travel from London to Geneva by train, wearing full army kit, equipped with hammocks, and smoking Duty Free Marlboro Light cigarettes,” and to “return to London six weeks later wearing classic Armani suits and smoking big fat cigars.” Documenting their tour of duty with tape recordings, photographs, diaries, and “love letters back home, written in the 19th century Romantic style of Byron and Shelley,” while in Geneva, the two used recycled and found materials to construct a model army, listed by rank and file. By concentrating on fashion’s mobilization of “looks,” Emin and Lucas demonstrate how an outfit’s meaning always calls up the gendered and power-saturated codes that constitute an “appropriate appearance.”

In Trudie Reiss’ Two Pretty Girls Crying with Camera, 1993, a brilliant interrogation of models and emotion, two “girls” in couture gowns with “TV perfect” makeup stand 15 feet apart against a brightly lit white wall, evoking a photographer’s “seamless.” Reiss, dressed in a black pantsuit, sits in a director’s chair behind a long-lens camera on a tripod. As the models start to cry, very softly, Reiss snaps their pictures and berates them: “Imagine your mother in a coffin.” “You’re not getting any younger . . . wouldn’t it be easier just to be dead?” The piece ends when Reiss says “Thank you” to the girls and they depart, still crying. While the performance ranges in intensity from whimpering to all-out bawling, the severe silence of fashion returns when Reiss displays these photos under the title Misery Loves Company (Documents from a Live Performance), 1993. By exposing the pretty hate machine of the fashion shoot, its often-demeaning erotics, her piece illuminates fashion’s reliance on artifice and trumped-up emotions that can be slipped on and off like a garment: sadness, misery, and abuse are nothing more than the look of a certain moment; all that matters when the photos are displayed is that emotions appear “real.” When Reiss staged another version of the piece as The Crying Man, 1994–95, she intentionally chose a male model, recalling Steven Meisel’s use of Joe Dallesandro in Calvin Klein’s CK Jeans ads. Rather than berate her model, she sat, silent and stern, director and voyeur, a video camera capturing each tear he cried for an hour. While acknowledging the importance of fashion for a postfeminist analysis of masquerade, Reiss refuses to allow “fashion” to become a synecdoche for Woman, as it so often is.

Unfortunately, Reiss is rare in regarding fashion as consequential and influential for men. Many artists operate as though fashion could be simply reduced to a matter of white femininity instead of allowing what is so often invisible in the fashion system to lead them somewhere else entirely. This has to do with a certain critical nervousness about fashion’s pervasive influence (some want to believe that the “serious” realms of politics or morals are unaffected by it) as well as about its unacknowledged homosociality and homoeroticism—girls looking at girls in Vogue, boys modeling for boys in Details. As disconcerting, spooky, and beautiful as Sam Samore’s “Allegories of Beauty (Incomplete),” 1995–96 (mostly backstage photographs of female models caught unawares), may be, it is not hard to understand why Samore limits himself to capturing the longueurs of beauty preparing herself, although one may wish he had done otherwise: human embodiments of beauty are still seen to be feminine and passive, and similar backstage photos of male models (whose occupation is one of the few structured by a tradition of women’s work) would be too easily relegated to “Allegories of Abjection or Cheesiness.” When Haim Steinbach analyzed the architecture of fashion shows by designing elegant, neo-Bauhaus gangways and catwalks with a working shower system, as well as ambient sound and lighting, for the Spring ’96 Strenesse Group in Milan, the sexy tattooed men taking showers at the beginning of the show are merely elegant props for a return, once again, to women’s looks (although an echo of the usually silent economic power structures of fashion, which are still largely controlled by businessmen). Likewise, Matthew Barney’s catwalk opening to his recent retrospective in Rotterdam was passed off by most in the press as caprice, a rascally bit of whimsy in no way tampering with the supposed seriousness of his project, although given Barney’s interests—or at least what others find interesting about his work (masculinity, athleticism, mythos)—why shouldn’t his early work as a J. Crew model be an integral part of his art career?

There are exceptions to this absence of men as fashion beings. Bruce LaBruce’s movies depend on men’s looks and the men responsible for and enamored of them (hairdressers, models; he casts model Tony Ward in the upcoming Hustler White). Larry Clark’s career can be seen through the conceptual lens of men’s fashion, especially his books 1992 and The Perfect Childhood, which are insistent inquiries into the gaze between men—how boys and men look at each other, what they do (or don’t do) while they’re looking and being looked at. Clark’s influence on the photography of fashion, including that of Steven Meisel, Wolfgang Tillmans, Corinne Day, David Sims, Juergen Teller, and Mario Sorrenti, is overwhelming. Day manages to find beauty in the narcotic rock-and-roll of male slenderness (see her portraits of George Clemts), while Teller gives fashion a potent dose of male beauty as something gritty, disorienting, and louche; his comely work for Helmut Lang’s new line of men’s undergarments couples Clark’s zoned-out boys with Fassbinder’s lusty ’70s tenderness.

But it is Jack Pierson, particularly in his stunning All of a Sudden, 1995, who most perceives the shattering poignance at the heart of fashion, glamour, and (often male) beauty. Pierson enjoys observing men; he is made anything but nervous by men lounging around, looking and being looked at. Seeing the possibilities rather than the limitations of the fashion system, Pierson creates a haunting perfume from the musk of porn, the cinnamon of desire, and the citrus astringent of fashion. He shows how to think not only through Amber Valletta but also through Tony Ward, how to locate their similarity in the exciting mystery of some anonymous winsome distraction. With his glowing, light-drenched colors and staunch adherence to the esthetics of immediacy, Pierson finds fashion’s frivolity, seduction, and hotel calm in the backyard flower garden of art, which he knows already belongs to him, as it does to anyone else. He has allowed fashion to hone his glance, his look and looks, readying him for the collision of fantasy and reality called life. Finding that is all we want of fashion, all we need of art.

Bruce Hainley contributes frequently to Artforum, Frieze, and Spin.