When artists, curators, historians and others talk about art and fashion as separate things, I’m always struck by the conversation. While taking in the essence of the 2004 exhibition Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh through the luscious images and the short, pithy essays in the catalog, I made note of the ways in which fashion was spoken of as a cousin of the art world—a first cousin, for sure—but a cousin nonetheless. If you listen closely to the the way many of the catalog contributors articulate the conceptual heart of Skin Tight, it’s clear that fashion is understood and interpreted as not having both feet squarely under the umbrella of visual art, but rather as the wild one that has one foot under the umbrella and all other limbs dancing out in the rain.  Fourteen years ago, when Skin Tight opened, fashion was  thought of more as an exception that one must make an effort to create space for within art museums.  Now the conversation has moved more fully into fashion as an inextricable sibling, or identity-exerting, rebellious daughter of art, carrying the same DNA that is shared between the paintings, sculptures, performance art, architecture, video, and photography that we accept as natural inhabitants of art museums. 

“Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh,” 2004, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo courtesy Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.

Art is an arena that grapples with but wholly embraces the role of the body in how we understand visual culture, art history, and theory through performance art, lens-based work and other practices. With that in mind, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to fashion as not just an extension of that bodywork, but as an important piece of the puzzle that raises a fresh set of questions. Fashion makes us talk formally about construction, space, functionality, and the architecture of the body. But then, too, it begs us to discuss the body beyond the surface of the formal qualities by bringing in the realities of protection/safety, sexual expression, identity expression, dis/ability, touch, pleasure, pain and an autonomy over how much (or how little) we want to reveal—the somatic, emotional, spiritual, and psychological parts of ourselves, and not just the physical. As Frédéric Bonnet states in the short essay Desire—at Skin-Depth when talking about how conceptual understandings of fashion began to change in the late 1980s, “fashion saw a new liberation of the skin—the last barrier before the flesh—as an epicenter of sensations and a receptacle of desire. At last, fashion was coming closer to sensitivity1.”

And with a move like that, it’s impossible to keep it clean, clear, and confined.

“Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh,” 2004, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo courtesy Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.

But still, clearly expressing the distinction between the two worlds was an important premise on which  Skin Tight  was able to stand, and a way to explain the motivations of each featured designer. This contrast between art and fashion—which both have their own variety of historical evolutions—made the separate paths of influence and examples of disruption, expansion, and necessary experimentation much easier to discern. Within the context of the exhibition, these lines allow us to better understand the social and environmental influences of the designers in the show—for instance, how the activist spirit of the duo BOUDICCA showed up in their collections starting in 1998 and what made that different from things we’ve seen in recent fashion trends.

But here we are, fourteen years after Skin Tight was first exhibited within the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. We are now in a position where we can further consider how the conversation has changed while also reflecting on ways that the premise of Skin Tight can be expanded upon.

When Skin Tight opened, it was the first fashion exhibition that the MCA ever presented in its thirty-seven year history. The Pritzker Director at the time, Robert Fitzpatrick, stated that, “perhaps more than ever the boundaries between art and design are constantly being blurred2.”

It certainly may have felt that way within the exhibition with the smart inclusion of cultural connectors like fashion forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort, who with her company TREND UNION is able to move across the worlds of fashion, industrial design, and consumer products to act as a kind of fortune teller and synthesizer across multiple design worlds. But outside of the tall walls of the museum and the long catwalks of fashion, those boundaries have been blurred for decades, if not more.

Since the 1960s, artist Jae Jarrell has been using fashion as a tool of revolutionary thought and action by creating brilliantly designed and wearable ready-to-wear garments that spoke to the political and social climate of the time, and which, even today, hang in the closets of and are actively worn by many of her clients and fans. One of her most iconic works, the Revolutionary Suit, was a women’s two-piece suit, created in 1970, that spoke to the trends of current fashion through its A-line skirt design and tailored, collarless jacket3.

Jae Jarrell examining her work at the Brooklyn Museum. By Heathart [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

But what made it speak to the militant spirit of Black politics of the time was how the jacket’s trim housed a stunning faux bandolier with bullets sewn within. For Jarrell, the streets, sidewalks, and homes of the people who wore her clothes were, and still are, her runway—even as her work is being now hailed within the galleries of everywhere from the Tate to the Smart Museum, and after she has moved away from fashion and into furniture design.

Another important anchor of the blurred lines is the highly-anticipated, opulent spectacle that is the Costume Institute Gala, which today is more commonly known as the Met Gala. Equal parts fashion and fundraiser, the Gala started in 1948 and has always operated as a way to infuse some art historically-rooted, cultural inspiration into the fashion decisions of the top people and personalities within not only the arts, but also popular culture with film, fashion, music, and high society. Now in its 60th year, the Met Gala still plasters the front page of countless publications, magazines, and is the hot topic of news segments in its aftermath, with people rating how well its guests were able to respond to the theme of the evening—a theme which is directly inspired by the annual exhibition that is mounted for the fundraiser. This year, one of contemporary music’s reigning queens and a fashion icon herself, Rihanna, turned heads with a remix of the Pope’s traditional Catholic regalia.

That said, music, art, and fashion have always had a powerful and trendsetting relationship. As someone who came-of-culture in the 1990s, that is quite clear. And what I mean by came-of-culture is that I became aware of art in its many forms as well as the vastness of my aesthetic and cultural inheritance and its malleability in the decade that brought us everything from Bjork whose music videos are undoubtedly works of art, to the music trio TLC whose gender-bending and sex-positive style of the early 1990s taught me about collage years before any early 20th century Cubist or Dada musings ever did.

Speaking to the spirit of Jae Jarrell and straight from the pages of magazines and television screens, the spaces in which I lived my everyday life were comparable to the catwalk, and also took a cue from other design platforms and tools. The large, puffy, quilt-stitched jackets that my older sister wore with her name airbrushed in bubble letters on the back spanning from shoulder to shoulder so that everyone knew her name now reminds me of the billboards we see every day and the way we understand how branding works. I think about the way I, my friends, and everyone I knew plastered the inner walls of their lockers at school with images of inspiration and the things that we loved as a way to construct for ourselves and express to others our developing identity, style, and fashion sense.

Just a few years after Skin Tight closed, we were able to see how fashion and the art world were continuing to collide in a much more accessible way through ready-to-wear collaborations. In 2008 the work of top international contemporary artists came down to street level through a partnership between a selection of that year’s Whitney Biennial artists and The Gap. That was the year we were able to see Kiki Smith, Cai Guo-Qiang, Barbara Kruger, Glenn Ligon, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Kerry James Marshall, Hanna Liden, Sarah Sze and others on billboards, wearing limited-edition t-shirts designed using the aesthetic, conceptual, and often political palette that they each are known for.

And over the years we have also witnessed the art and fashion infusion with key players in the arts blessing the pages of fashion and lifestyle magazines and advertisements. Recently we’ve seen glorious spreads that include art world players like Deana Haggag, the President & CEO of United States Artists, who was the subject of a photoshoot for Anne Klein. We’ve seen other canon-disrupting, fashion-forward darlings of the art world like Kimberly Drew or Alexandria Eregbu being hailed in fashion magazines for the way they adorn themselves on a daily basis as a reflection and extension of their artistic practices and cultural or curatorial work. In 2014 Wangechi Mutu teamed up with almost two dozen designers from Vera Wang to Victoria Beckham for a clothing line that brought attention to the mother-to-child transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in garments designed using textiles patterned with the bodies and faces of the marvelously spirited, vibrant, and jarring characters she is known for creating.

Now, in 2018 we can use the MCA Chicago and how its programming and exhibitions have evolved as a case study for how fashion has found a permanent home within museum spaces. In the past year alone, their atrium and galleries have welcomed some radical, refreshing, and rising stars in the art world to explode common understandings of the defining characteristics of fashion, style and function. Last winter they presented the work of Rational Dress Society, a member-based collective that is working to define utopia-dress through ideas of counter-fashion, anti-fashion, and folk costume approaches by creating “ungendered, multi-use monogarments for everyday wear4.”

Rational Dress Society. Photo by Lara Kastner.

Rebirth Garments, a line of hand-constructed, gender non-conforming garments made by designer Sky Cubacu, addresses the disparities within the fashion world in respects to the spectrum of body types, disabilities, and gender bending and defying that exists5.

Sky Cubacub, Rebirth Garments. Photo by Ireashia Monét for Sixty Inches From Center.

Celebrating the ethos of Radical Visibility and catering specifically to QueerCrip people, Cubacu is pushing the fashion industry to expand and grow in ways that it rarely has before by realizing that it’s not enough to address the issues around weight and body-type, but we must think about the spectra of ability and gender as well. The MCA welcomed them this summer for a special one-night-only showcase and performance.

Clearly, Skin Tight marked the beginnings of an expansion of how one contemporary art museum began to appreciate and now understands fashion within its frameworks, giving it space to now be the untamed but essential connective tissue for all of our cultural, artistic, and design worlds.


1 Quoted from the exhibition catalog of Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh

2 Quoted from the exhibition catalog of Skin Tight: The Sensibility of the Flesh

3 From the article Soul of a Nation. Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell: Partners in Life and Art, published by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

4 You can find more about Rational Dress Society at jumpsu.it

5 You can find more about Rebirth Garments at rebirthgarments.com

Header image: Rational Dress Society. Photo by Lara Kastner. 

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