Pretension à porter: Can fashion be art?

The Royal Academy thinks so, but its latest show leaves Adrian Hamilton unconvinced. For a more stylish take, head to the Barbican, he says

Art has never been so fashionable," declared the author of a new biography of Coco Chanel, Justine Picardie, on a recent edition of Start the Week. "And fashion has never seen itself with quite such seriousness." If you want to see the truth of that statement, look no further than the Royal Academy's latest exhibition, Aware: Art Fashion Identity. Pretentious isn't in it. The show starts with a mission statement: "Clothing is an important marker of individuality and social identity. While fulfilling a practical, and at times protective function, it is also acknowledged as a means of communication, through which elements of personal and collective identities are revealed. Clothing can be effective in celebrating identity and indicating allegiance; for these reasons, it is often subject to suppression and regulation... The artists' particular interpretation uses clothing to explore identity and to speak more broadly of our experience of the world."

Things get worse as you get to the exhibits. An "Artist's Robe" by Grayson Perry, which opens the show as you ascend the stairs of Burlington House, behind the main galleries, is said to refer "to the uniforms associated with society, clubs or academies, while commenting on the position and perception of the artist in contemporary society". An installation by Dai Rees, of leather sewn in animal shapes and called "Carapace: Triptych, The Butcher's Window, 2003", is accompanied by a caption explaining that the detailed "marquetry, which shows scenes of decay in reference to death and trauma, and carries echoes of the branding iron, reinforces the effort and expertise traditionally required to make a piece of clothing, in contrast to much of today's fashion". A double-headed knitted pullover by Rosemarie Trockel "examines the human tendency to form life partnerships, in which we link ourselves to another person. The double figure also suggests the multiple personalities needed to adapt the complexities of modern life".

It is tempting to dismiss all this as truly a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. But it would be a pity. Stripped of all this intellectualisation, the show contains much that is fresh and enjoyable and occasionally revealing.

Whatever it is meant to say about the role of the artist in society, Perry's robe is a genuinely exciting work which uses the weight of fabric and the force of patchwork design with great effect. There is a truly stunning black full-length dress by Susie MacMurray, its surface covered in dressmaker's pins. It is entitled "Widow", but you really don't need the catalogue's interpretation – that it gives "shape to feelings of separation, to a body that has suddenly become tender, to an interior solitude that repels others and condemns the wearer of the dress to painful isolation" – to appreciate a work that communicates glamour and femininity in shape but hardness and painfulness when seen close-up.

Some of the installations are engrossing. A film from 1977 of the artist Marina Abramovic and a male companion standing naked at the entrance to a Bologna Gallery, while fully clothed visitors push between them, is great fun; it makes its point about the body and our embarrassment over it with great wit. There is a very endearing Cindy Sherman from 1975, in which she plays a doll being stripped and clothed. Yoko Ono is here too, filmed inviting an audience to snip off her clothes bit by bit. On the heavier side there is a forceful installation by Kimsooja, concerning the reality faced by cloth workers in Mumbai. Four walls portray aspects of people washing, travelling and sleeping in the mass workhouse that is India's economic miracle.

The trouble with Aware: Art Fashion Identity is partly that modern installation and conceptual art arouses in curators an irresistible urge to explain everything, when the works either succeed (as many do) or fail (as some particularly risible pieces in this show also do) on their own. Trouble is also to be found in the title. This is an exhibition about clothes and identity, necessarily dominated by women artists looking at dress as a symbol of their state and the context in which they live. It is not really about fashion at all, which is a business and a design statement about the self.

"Fashion," Picardie quoted Coco Chanel as saying, "is neither a tragedy nor a painting. It is a charming and ephemeral creation, not an everlasting work of art. Fashion should die and die quickly in order that commerce may survive."

Chanel was being deliberately disingenuous, pricking pretensions. Fashion is design and it is craft. It is also, as Sir Mark Jones, just leaving after a highly successful stint as director of the V&A, put it on Start the Week, "the point at which most people make design decisions for themselves".

There are historical periods – the 20th century above all, but also the Renaissance – when a sweeping art movement spreads itself almost to every art form, from jewellery and coins to textiles and dresses. You only have to see the Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A, one of the highlights of the last year which is now in its last week, to see how eagerly artists from Picasso and Matisse to Cocteau and Bakst took up costume and scenery for the ballet. Freed from figurative art, modern artists felt the draw of clothing the human body with their designs. In vogue or out, fashion is above all about the body as a shape to be flattered and disguised as well as adorned.

In the Royal Academy exhibition, the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto is represented by a dress made out of wooden slats. While the caption may waffle on about it being a comment against corsetry the item itself makes the opposite argument, that the female form can be sculpted in hard material as much as soft and still retain its curves. Later this year, Yamamoto is to have a whole show to himself at the V&A. He deserves it. Like Chanel, he is one of the truly great influences and craftspeople of the business.

Yamamoto is also one of the dominant figures of the current exhibition at the Barbican, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion. Anyone wanting to understand what fashion is about today and the revolution that the Japanese have wrought upon it should hasten to this show. Indeed, anyone who is interested in the Japanese aesthetic as expressed in design and crafts should not miss it. For Japanese design, often praised but too rarely understood, is based fundamentally on craftsmanship, with all the sense of tradition and care with materials that lies behind it.

Yamamoto, along with Kenzo Takada, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo, brought a whole new aesthetic as well as a new look to fashion, turning it into fluid sculpture. These designers made dresses that did not adorn the body; they re-shaped it with daring forms of muted colour, experimental textiles and startling lines. They did it – and are still doing it – because they used a profound knowledge of fabric and design to rework the old in new ways with new materials. Even today, some 40 years after they first came on to the scene, their first designs shock you with their courage.

Fashion is not art. Of course it isn't, in the sense of creating a work to say something significant. But it is craft of the highest order and for all Chanel's cynicism, it can create something enduring.

'Aware: Art Fashion Identity' Royal Academy, London (0844 209 0051; www.royalacademy.org.uk) to 30 January. 'Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion', Barbican, London (020 7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk) to 6 February

News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Humanities Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities teacher required for ...

    English Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: ENGLISH TEACHER REQUIRED - Humbe...

    Chemistry Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are looking for a Qualified C...

    Year 6 Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits