The Spectacle of Sartorialism: Performance Art in Fashion

The relationship between fashion and art has always been evolving. While some suggest, fashion is an extension of an art form; there are those to employ artistic elements to weave a sartorial narrative.

The impact of performance art on fashion can be traced back to the 1960s. The idea, then, was to shun the connection between fashion and spectacle. While it brought forth interdisciplinary collaborations among artists and fashion designers, they were lined heavily with the context of irony and minimalism.

MarGa Van Mechelen, in The Tête-À-Tête of Performance in Fashion and Art, says “Performance art in the sixties and seventies tried to stay as far as possible from the theatrical sign or to use the word of the time: the sign of the spectacle. “

However, in the 1970s we saw fashion become a strong tool of self-expression through clothing, accessories, and makeup. With artists like David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Elton John and Prince pushed the envelope on what encompassed a performance; they opened the conversation on performance, spectacle, and the vital role fashion played in this.

Simultaneously, in Asia, television became a pioneer of the element of the spectacle.

In India for television, shows that focused on mythological texts like the Mahabharata and the Bhagwad Gita brought the OTT expression to everyone’s living room. With Indian Cinema peaking in the 1980’s we birthed the idea that would revolutionize fashion for us; the quintessential superstar Heroine. Helen, Zeenat Aman, Sri Devi, Madhuri Dixit and Urmila Matondkar created personality tropes that were adopted across the country.

This larger than life persona would soon inspire content across mediums like film, television and music. The impact of the “Heroine” on Indian fashion still resonates, 4 decades later with brands like Pero and Shehlaa Khan.

Suzy Menkes of Vogue, however, believes that the idea of fashion as performance art, “started well before the new millennium when drama on the runway was normalised by defining fashion shows as theatre.”

This developed the fashion show as a space of observance and intimacy to one of mystery, whimsy, and most importantly, theatrics.

Designers across the world like Thierry Mugler, Alexander Mc Queen, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld, transformed the runway into a stage with enthralling performances, elaborate set designs and enough drama to be talked about across the world, in an era devoid of social media.

In India, we saw the 1990’s as the era that cemented the relationship between fashion and film. Bollywood by now had positioned itself as a pioneer of Indian Fashion. The Heroine was who we aspired to be.

The heroine eventually stepped onto the runway when “showstoppers” became the norm. Designers like Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla, Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal, Wendell Rodericks were forerunners in bringing Indian fashion to the global playground. Rohit Bal, known for the element of “drama” he brought to his shows, evolved the runway into a more interactive space.

Now, however performance art and fashion are viewed as extensions of each other. Be it Kanye West and Vanessa Beecroft’s ongoing collaboration or Norwegian designer, Fredrik Tjaerandsen viral balloon fashion show, the purpose of performance on the runway is to be both provocative and thought-provoking.

It is to engage the spectator and almost introduce a shock to the system that is almost in a void as he views the world from behind a cellphone.

Designers like Gaurav Gupta, Shivan and Narresh and Prashant Verma are starting conversations on our responsibility as spectators and encourage us to interact with their art.

Performance in Fashion now is done to create a tangible connection between the spectator and the artist.

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