Hemlines: When Cloth Meets Canvas

Posted 9 months ago in Fashion

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A colourful smattering of artists and designers decrypt their dress sense.

“I’ve always used clothing as a customary mode of expression, an exhibit of individuality”

Are there any two industries more intrinsically meshed than art and fashion? Take the highest tier of creative directors, whose helming of long-celebrated design houses, for lengthier or short-lived stints alike, has been frequently captured on film. Dior and I documented Raf Simons’ stressful rise to prominence, his psychological fatigue softened – albeit temporarily – by exhibition-hopping. Any on-camera interviews with Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci, see him cite myriad art shows and classical masterpieces as his primary means of a mental reset. The two fields funnel into each other eternally, and when you strip away those transitory trend guides (the sartorial equivalent of lacklustre speed dating, where clothing choices are quickly shopped and dropped) one’s garment choices reveal a much stronger reflection of self. As last year’s V&A show on Frida Kahlo surely testifies, the dress sense of artists is a source of public fascination. When Tate Britain ran a show on Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor’s functional wardrobe spawned an accompanying collection of shirts and dungarees created by Margaret Howell. What are these creatives trying to say with their selection of dress – or are they actually trying at all?

For the majority of makers with kaleidoscopic tastes, intuition overrides intention when it comes to their outfits. Any Om Diva goers in the early/mid-2010s will have witnessed Morganna Murphy in full get-up – she favoured glittered eyebrows at the time – and her fervour for colour has remained resolute: some standard hues in her wardrobe include powdery mint and punchy chartreuse. “My school uniform was black, which I think is why I never wear black!”. Her creative output shifted from painting to accessories to womenswear, before currently settling in children’s design. “I think the creative process, for me, is all-consuming: it’s not just a way of doing something, it’s your whole outlook. My clothes aren’t really an extension of my process, they’re part of the whole package. When I’m deciding what I want to wear and how I want to feel, colour is the key factor.” Multi-hyphenate artist/fellow colour-fiend Aoife Dunne is of a similar mindset: “I feel my work and my dress are naturally inseparable, as my work feeds into every aspect of my life… I’ve always used clothing as a customary mode of expression, an exhibit of individuality and, as I’ve always felt that style is instinct, it’s not something I’ve ever had to overly focus on.”

For painter/sculptor Eleanor McCaughey and jewellery designer Lisa McCormack, their creations are also brimming with vibrancy – but when it comes to personal garb, pops of colour are juxtaposed with an all-black base. “My clothes are a sort of backdrop for my work,” McCormack explains. “Like most people, I find I can’t wear certain colours or tones, so creating Capulet and Montague [McCormack’s jewellery label] let me pair a functional backdrop with a killer pair of colourful earrings.” McCaughey finds that fashion influences her work more-so than her wardrobe, but she notices ongoing projects seeping into her dress sense: “If I’m working with a lot of yellow, I’ll order a bright yellow jumper – there’s a subconscious link. I tend to have one bold colour, like a bright pink, with black… I would go to a lot of charity shops since, as an artist, you often can’t afford to spend money on clothes because it’s all going towards art materials.”

When it comes to studio-wear, function trumps form. Raggedy garments take precedence for Helen Steele, who is well-familiarised in working with both cloth and canvas. “It’s all about the creation of the print, so I would wear my trusted, paint-covered clothes. I have these awful harem jersey trousers, really stretchy, with some band t-shirts and Topshop hoodies… it’s all about being able to move.” Unhampered mobility is of equal priority for Jill & Gill, a dynamic design duo formed by illustrator Jillian Deering and screen-printer Gillian Henderson: “We have to be practical in what we wear when we’re screen printing, as it’s a very messy job at times – especially in the ‘trial and error’ period of testing colours onto whatever the current medium is that we are working on.”

Abstract artist Lola Donoghue affirms that “the look of the clothes is second to the practicality of the clothes. If I am just doing a couple of hours in the studio and have to head out later in the day, I will dress that morning in my normal day-to-day wear so I won’t have to change again, and throw my apron on over that.” Solo shows trigger a shift in this wardrobe dynamic, however, with dressed-up comfort coming to the fore. In ritualistic fashion, McCaughey will purchase new attire for every show she launches, whilst Donoghue (who nearly picked fashion over art college) does “a photo shoot with my paintings and dress[es] up in a few different outfits, at the end of every collection. I would never try to match a painting deliberately, [but] I could literally pick any outfit from my wardrobe, stand in front of one my paintings and I will look like I spent hours trying to find the perfect piece to match my work.” The politics of group shows get a little trickier to navigate – McCaughey states that “me and my mates often ask ourselves what on earth we should wear to these things – maybe that’s why so many people go dressed in black.” Murphy has always gravitated towards expressive garments, “but other people will respond to that differently. I don’t wear the clothes I wear for attention, I wear them because I love them – but going to events, it might come across as you trying to steal the show.” Steele recalls showing at Art Basel in the late Noughties, “a bit of a minefield – what do you wear? You obviously can’t go all contoured with fake tan, and a strapless dress! I do think there’s an aesthetic snobbery in art that extends to the way you dress – it’s really not cool to be flexing your labels head to toe. There’s a thin line between looking achingly cool and looking disheveled… the art industry can be awfully selective and alienating, whereas fashion is the most glorious mix of everything.”

What of the non-makers enamoured of how artists and designers dress and, by extension, eager to emulate their wardrobe choices? Chanel’s watercolour styles for SS15 captivated audiences, and Steele’s hand-painted wares (all crafted with no whiff of size or ageism) generate similar applause. Her activewear range for Dunnes dropped in January to overwhelming buzz, with the next drop due in May: “It will be really painterly and colour-therapy based. There’ll be a real mixture, from amazing rain ponchos to these printed cycling shorts with printed, long-sleeved crop tops… I live in rural Monaghan, and I saw a woman there – at least in her early 70s – walking her two Alsatians in one of the crazy raincoats!” With Steele previously snapped in her paint-splattered dungarees, Jill & Gill are just as forthcoming with posting shots in their studio-wear.

“The reaction we get when people see our inky overalls, aprons and sneakers is one of fascination. For us, putting on those clothes is like the magical cape of creative madness. It means we are creating, making, expressing ourselves and have no worries of messing something up – that exact mindset of not caring that your overalls get covered in every possible colour you could imagine means you suddenly become your own canvas. We’ve discovered it’s a great way to see how certain colours sit together without pre-planning or thought. For those who don’t find creativity in their everyday life, being able to buy a garment that has splatters of ink on it might be there way of bridging that gap.” With a label that has long-staggered art and apparel, the end of this month will see Jill & Gill expand upon this ethos with a six-piece collection for ARC Fashion Show.

“We’ve been itching to challenge ourselves and expand more on how we illustrate and print for garments. We met with pattern designer Gillian (yes another Gill, no joke) who runs Worthy Design Studio here in Dublin… [her] love of garment construction, details and fabrics and our love of illustration and print just ticks all the boxes for us in what it takes to have a good collaboration. There’s a lot of intertwining of the illustration and pattern work within the printing, we want to play around with the illustration, create more layers and be bolder with colour.”

Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady









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