Stitching up the higher ground

If we really are what we wear, the claim by fashion designers to be artists, darling, may not be absolutely fatuous. Susan Irvine on cultural cross-dressing
A woman living in the time of Descartes is vilified for trying to integrate Eastern philosophies into the rationalist world view. Outraged Cartesians destroy her books. A troupe of dancers, attempting to express her ideas in dance form, wear magnetised clothes that attract and repel each other. But the audience ridicules the dance, throws iron filings on the clothes, then kills the dancers and buries them.

This is the fictional story behind a collection of clothes by Hussein Chalayan exhibited in the West Soho Gallery. Some of the clothes were made from the spines of ripped up books, strings dangling, tantalising snippets of our heroine's theory spewing forth. The clothes were buried in Chalayan's back garden, complete with iron filings. Disinterred, they were presented for sale in the gallery, and at Browns, London's high fashion emporium.

Another story: a true one. A girl of seven is sexually abused. As a defence, she "reinvents" herself as a boy. She asks her mother why men's underwear has a hole in the front. "It's a hanky pocket," says her mother. This is the story behind a pair of Y-fronts from the front of which spills a red bandana symbolising the blood of a broken hymen and of castration. It's the work of Charles LeDray, who creates exquisite, hand-sewn, miniature clothes.

Chalayan is a fashion designer; LeDray is an artist, but you could be forgiven for getting their roles mixed up. They inhabit the hot zone where fashion is art and art is fashion.

Some people still think clothes are designed to be worn by people and art is made to be worn by walls. But in the new atmosphere of crossover, cutting-edge designers see clothes as a blank canvas and the body as yet another hanging space for art. Artists find in fashion both a metaphor that we are all adept at decoding and a new body of materials, allowing for the expression of new ideas.

It used to be that if you wanted to be a fashion designer, you went to an atelier and learnt how to sew a dress. But that began to change when fashion design became an art school subject in the Fifties and Sixties. Fashion designers became art students first, pattern-cutters second, imbibing artistic ideas and expressing them in - skirts. It was not enough to do brilliant bias cutting. Your clothes had to express a concept as well.

Some would say this has got out of hand. The tabloids for a start. Who will wear Vivienne Westwood's bum cushions to the supermarket, they moan. Surely fashion is supposed to be about frocks, and having to get dressed in the morning? Even some students are concerned about the mania for concept clothing. At Central St Martin's in central London, a notorious breeding ground for arty fashion, one student tells of her tutor complaining: "I don't understand. You're just making clothes for people like yourself." Er, yes. Some problem with that?

"There will always be people making wearable clothes," says Wendy Dagworthy, head of fashion at St Martin's. "But there are others who are trying to extend the language of fashion, push the boundaries. That's a big part of our philosophy here. Fashion would stagnate without it."

The already fted Fintan Walsheis seen as inhabiting this grey art / fashion area. Walshe showed a series of electronic dresses at his MA show. In the dark, the dresses became a territory of flashing lights. "Very clever," says Dagworthy. "But unwearable," says Samantha Murray Greenway, editor of hip fashion vehicle Another magazine. "When the lights came up the dresses looked stiff because of all the neon tubing. Fashion must be defined as something you want to wear. You have to ask, is this fashion or is it moving art?"

Or do you? The question seems redundant. In the sculpture department at the Royal College of Art, one student sculpts rucksacks with a sewing- machine, another makes hats, a third, Hannah Greenaway, knits torn-up plastic bags into big sheets and then heats them to form a board from which she moulds skirts. Greenaway's thesis was The Skirt. "I want to reclaim knitting as art," she says.

This comes as no surprise to Maggie Pinhorn, artistic director of Alternative Arts, a publicly funded body set up to exhibit the work of young artists, including fashion artists. This week, Alternative Arts is running the Alternative Fashion Week in Spitalfields in London, featuring work by designers such as The Vexed Generation, whose show is entitled "Anger Is an Energy". "Of course fashion is an art and of course it can address issues and concerns common to all artists," Pinhorn says. "We are not interested in what is wearable on the High Street." The Vexed Generation addresses one of the issues that obsesses the art world, the environment, through recycled clothes. To Pinhorn, this is every bit as valid as Andy Goldsworthy creating environmental sculptures of snow.

Fashion and art have converged as both have become increasingly conceptual. The artist Jordan Baseman is working on an installation called "We Are What We Build". It's 26 identical shirts each with one letter of the alphabet on the chest, made from human hair that seems to be growing through from the breast beneath. The message is clear: "Fashion is a language".

It's a language artists are using with increasing precision. It lends itself well to the exploration of the other big fashionable subject in art: gender politics. An artist like Charles Ray used it for his 10ft- high mannequins exhibited at the ICA in London. Each wore a power suit created by a fashion designer The message: invasion of the killer women. A designer like Dane, whose work can be seen at the Alternative Fashion Show, explores gender through corsets and skirts for both men and women. He says his clothes are "about" gender freedom.

But why do clothes have to be "about" anything? Why do even our coats and jackets have to be weighed down with meaning and metaphor? Partly because it satisfies a lot of egos. Artist-designers like Issey Miyake, Koji Tatsuno and Vivienne Westwood, who conspicuously explore ideas, are rewarded with kudos in the fashion world. The status of the artist is much higher than that of the frock designer, however brilliantly he or she may cater to the woman in the street. How the fashion journalists love a coat with a concept: it makes for a better story and flatters their intellect.

And in a world where art can be anything from a pickled shark to a giant vat of hot chocolate, why not harem pants, too? In our deconstructed world, everything can be given artistic context, everything signifies. Fashion is being taken seriously. Which is why a respected artist like Baseman can state po-faced that he is "playing now with hairstyles and bouffant looks. Hairspray is amazing stuff, you know".

"It's all about turning ideas into substance," says Lee Grandjean, sculpture tutor at the RCA. "Just like sculpture, fashion is its own expressive world."

"I can't categorise what I do," says Chalayan. "I'm just cross-feeding different disciplines and creating a new category in the process." Expect ball gowns made from preserved sharks any day.