Fashion: The Most Persuasive Artform




  • Yves Saint Laurent
  • Originally written as a paper for the course ANTH 3510 - Anthropology of Art at Trent University. This paper led the Anthropology department to offer a full course on the effects of fashion on society in the following year.

    Fashion, in our world, includes everyone and affects everyone. Contrary to popular thoughts, fashion is not restricted to fashionistas, the wealthy population, or the runway. Fashion involves everyone. As long as each person decides to put on an attire before leaving the house, the world will be shaped and formed by fashion. This is because clothes are no longer only protective wear humans put on to shelter their bodies: it has become human culture in its everyday use. This is a paper that glorifies fashion to be more powerful than any other forms of art. Paintings, sculptures, or other types of art forms are generally thought to be more prestigious than fashion. With modern ideologies that values individuality, clothing has come to mean much more than a necessity in our social world. Clothes are now art, and they represent the humans who wear them. Any attire is fashion, and any piece of clothing could have the potential to be art. It is simply a matter of looking at your wardrobe attentively, not passively. Imagine a morning routine of picking what to wear. Each article of clothing that a person chooses to put on their body is a decision; and within that decision artful ideas are factored into the final attire. What colour it is, how it forms and wraps around the body, what it expresses about your identity, what personal story is behind the piece, how expensive or trendy it is, are what drives the article of clothing to be chosen to be worn that day. The decisions that creates the attire is a process of creating art, and not only one type of art. Fashion creates functional art, performance art

    Fashion Makes the Body Art “…Appearance may occur in the places where the garment gapes, and in the gaps between the garments.” (Fashion As Communication, p174) Art is about humans. Art can portray human emotions, feelings, and experiences. Fashion revolves around humans too: specifically the human body. It’s first and foremost motivation is to cover the body, but while doing so clothes can highlight the structures of the human body. As aesthetically pleasing the piece of garment is, the human bodies behind the clothes are beautiful as well. Clothes can add structure to the human body, or hide the body; similar to how it can expose the body, or protect it from the elements. With modern ideologies that encourages for individuals to take pride in their bodies, clothes now act as enhancers of what is already beautiful. Fashion brings out the body as its focal point of attention, where the bodies, or the people, receive the glory for the aesthetic qualities of the clothes. Clothes truly are functional art – it covers, protects, and enhances the wearer.
    Clothes are also flexible in what body shapes it could conform to. Small or big, short or tall, with new materials and technological innovations, the fashion industries are producing quality clothes to fit any body structures. With the aid of post-modernism (fashioning the frame, pg 104), there are notions to promote all body types and enhance the structures of the body. Fashion adds aesthetics to the human body, makes the human body a canvas for which the clothes can go on. Fashion is about setting the human body as an artwork itself, whatever form it is, and it follows the body wherever it goes to affect any audience.

    ioffer.com (google “women in 50’s)

    Fashion as a Performance Art “Their dress conveys the mood, establishes the character, and creates an illusion.” (Wedding Dress Across Cultures, pg217) There is something very eluding about performance art. Perhaps because they are meant to be performed and impermanent, they have a fleeting quality that the audience must pay attention for. Performance art demands attention, and forces the audience to pay attention. A perfect example of how fashion can act as a vortex to attention and interests could be the artist and performer Lady Gaga. Her outrageous customs and garments are no doubt part of the reason why she is so famous. Fashion, in this way can be used as performance art. Wherever a person go, his or her fashion follows the body, and that attracts the attention of onlookers.
    In theatrical performances, clothes can give the wearer new identities. Costumes are extremely important for actors and performers who rely on their clothes to make believe certain roles. Shakespearian actors, for example, must use their costumes to convince the audience of the story set in the Victorian era, a period in time which is very distant from out culture. In performance arts where a story is being told, fashion act as a bridge between two periods, where it can be performed to convince audience of the story. It might be convincing that actors or performers use their clothes for their performance art. What is more difficult to prove could be how everyday people in the world use fashion to perform. Fashion is fundamental in job interviews. It serves as the first indicator of the potential of the applicant, where even before the resume is read, a whole list of messages about the applicator is sent. What is worn on the interview day determines the first impression. It is in theory, the costume unlike the Shakespearian actors wear, where its goal is to convince the audience of a certain story. In the case of the job interview, the story of how suitable the applicant is for the job. Clothes are also performance art by what kind of message it communicates. Yinka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist who uses textiles on mannequins to illustrate a message to his audience. (Elliot, David, yinka shonibare) As an artist he exposes the post-colonial relationship between the Western culture and the African culture through his Dutch textiles. The textiles represent the cultural association with African culture produced in the globalized world telling the story of the relationship between West and Africa in modern post-colonial times.
    Fashion is performance art. Clothes serve the wearer to be artistically expressive on a daily basis. From drawing attention to convincing the audience of a certain message, clothes creates the possibility for communication through their style.

    naijaholic.blogspot.com (goggle Yinka Shonibare)

    Fashion/Personal Identity “One’s identity was not written on the body by one’s skin color or by anthropometric measurements but signified rather by the ephemerality of clothes.” (Eye on the Flesh, fashions in masculinity in the early twentieth century, pg 180)

    Believe it or not, every piece of clothing has its life story. From the material it is made out of, to the production and its owners, to their sometimes mysterious disappearance, any single article of clothing has a story to tell. This history can be linked to the wearer’s identity itself. For example, a necklace given to an individual by loved ones can hold personal significance. The story behind the socks, or any piece of clothing, makes it special to the wearer. There is a website, for example, that has a campaign called “What’s Your Denim Story” where people can post stories pertaining to their jeans and the personal events that they associate with their denim wear. (http://www.ortablu.org/web/topics/your-denim-stories) Clothes can come to reflect the wearer and their identity, where a pair of jeans, can come to reflect the identity of the person. In late 1800’s the controversy of a white woman in America getting married to an African American man illustrates the role of fashion in determining the identity of the wearer. Regarding this issue of race and social class, one author explains: “It meant that when wearing the proper clothes, a “savage” could pass as, and in fact even take the place of, a white gentleman; ultimately it meant that the difference between the white man and the native was not a matter of skin but of garments” People took offense and it was such a controversy, because the image of a black man getting married to a white woman suggested that blacks were equal to that of a white man, with the appropriate attire.

    Fashion/National Identity “Fashion is international… national characteristics must be taken into consideration.” (Against Fashion pg 151)

    Fashion can also come to mean national identity. Every culture has distinctive traditional wear that is deeply associated with the nation’s cultural heritage. “In numerous societies, the wedding couple still dress in attire that originated in a remote past in order to meet cultural hopes and expectations.” (Wedding Dress Across Cultures, pg3) In South Korea, for example, the colourful satin dresses come to mean the country’s heritage. Interestingly, with globalization, and the influence of Western culture, Korean wedding traditions have shifted into a Western influenced Korean traditional weddings. “…newly-weds often hold the food ritual at the wedding hall right after the wedding ceremony, at which times, some grooms put on traditional wedding dress over their western suit, mixing the two cultures.” (Wedding Dress Across Cultures, pg64) Many Korean brides and grooms now have the classic western suit and white wedding dress in their wedding ceremony, and afterwards at home they dress in the traditional Korean wedding customs to continue the celebration in front of their parents, paying tribute to the traditional Korean dress. Fashion marks events, and times of change, where a single dress can come to mean national identity.

    caytonphotography.com (Korean wedding)

    In her book, Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia, Linda Welters talks about what each article of clothing signifies in different cultures. Veils or scarves are believed to fend off the evil eye, coats or coverings are thought to be protective, accessories protects against evil spirits, or belts and shawls attracts women’s bodily features, signifying readiness for marriage (Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia, pg 7-8) In Kocakovacick Womens’ lives, the dresses that women wear may signify their marital status and abilities as a mother, where “… the woman’s dress once again indicates this change of station in her social and biological life cycle.” (pg45) A young Kocakovacick girl may wear a head scarves, signifying her puberty, while married women wears two head scarves, which is psychologically tied to the woman’s identity as a mother and womanhood. (pg 46) Different articles of clothing in different cultures have their own unique significance and beliefs within that culture. The associated clothing to a culture can come to represent the people who practice their unique cultures. Clothes mark national identity, as well as events or custom. In the western world, the white dress with a train means it is somebody’s wedding, a group of people in all black attire can mean there is a funeral, and the decorative wears of green and red could mean that Christmas is near. In other cultures there are just as varied fashion wears that signifies their cultures and their own national holidays or events.

    Fashion is a Statement. “Everyday experience, in which clothes are selected according to what one will be doing that day, what mood one is in, who one expects to meet and so on, appears to confirm the view that fashion/clothings are used to send messages about oneself to others.” (Fashion As Communication pg28) Fashion, for me, is first and foremost a statement. Whether the statement is a loud one, or a small one, fashion serves to express, impress, or put forth a statement. Fashion as language. And by wearing it, it becomes a portable aesthetics; where it is introduced into the world for audience to see, enjoy, and experience. Similar to walking into a gallery of an art exhibit, a downtown street of New York, Paris, Milan, or Toronto is theoretically a fashion exhibit, where each person and their unique style in clothes tells a story, inspiring reactions.

    Fashion and Culture “Dress serves as one of the most important markers of cultural activity.” (Wedding Dress Across Cultures, pg 1)

    “Whatever status it may ultimately be granted, dress acts as a daily reminder of our dependence on margins and boundaries for the purpose of self-construction.” (Fashioning the Frame: Boundaries, Dress and the Body, pg xvi) Baseball players with their lucky cap, hockey players with their lucky underwear, or swimmers with their lucky goggles.

    Anti-Fashion Anti fashion ideals Nudists Anti or hostile attitudes to things outside of norm

    In talking about Anti-fashion, an example is in the professional tennis world, where people wore the same things, antifashion against the fashion of the tennis world became fashion itself. (Fashion, culture, and identity pg185)

    Fashion in the Art Business. “The fashion economy forever changed the class relations among women.” (Fresh lipstick, redressing fashion and feminism pg 4) Couture, ideas of thin and beauty keeps the business and our culture going. Body Ideals When talking about how as popular or celebrity status women acquiring more taste in fashion, so did the role of women.

    Contemporary Modern View/Ideologies and It’s Role in Making Fashion Art “Dress seemed infinitely far from art… We were wrong… They have discovered that limiting beauty to painting or monumental sculpture neglects vast fields… the modern renaissance of the applied arts began with architecture, furniture… everything… Finally… that of a dress. (Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, pg125) “Modern cultural meaning and values, in particular those that elevate newness and the expression of human individuality to a position of dignity, have played a preponderant role.” (Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, pg 2) in talking about the new definition of fashion as modern sense of art. The phrase “Nothing to wear” (The face of fashion pg204 and on) “Fashion is closely allied to modernity and intertwined with the “modern temper”…” (Fashion, culture and identity pg 117)

    Conclusion Fashion encompasses what no other art forms have been able to do. Fashion can not only be original, aesthetically pleasing, or a masterwork; but it is also about form and shapes, identity, functional art, a performance, culture, media, ideologies of avant-garde theories, and anything the wearer chooses it to be. It is in this sense where fashion can be more powerful than a painting or a sculpture. Attires can be a painting and a sculpture combined into one performance art, a truly portable and expressive show with potential profound messages or ideas behind the clothes, the intentions of the wearer can be infinite in what he or she is trying to portray. Glorifying fashion to be an art form stronger than paintings or sculptures is a bold statement for an art form that was not even considered to be art not too long ago (quote needed), but fashion has now come to mean everything artful in our society.

    Conlcusion Fashion is art, for everyone and anyone. It can be just as aesthetically pleasing as a painting, as structurally formed as a sculpture, as expressive as performance art, and it embraces ideas or statements of the artist, formed by culture, reflects the media, and contextualizes modern ideologies. All these aspects of fashion come to be powerful sources of inspiration in art, and therefore be argued that it is the strongest form of art, one that is most central to our culture.

    In the historic sense of the word art, fashion, not too long ago, could not even be included into the category. It served a functional role to cover up the body primarily. Style came later However, times have changed and its social role has become a prominent reason for humans to wear clothes. Human beings are the only species to wear clothes, and in our society, fashion is central to our lives.

    Because fashion is not limited: it is infinite in how many artful ideas it can portray, how many people it can influence, and how accessible and flexible it is.

    Fashion is not restricting; although couture fashion is not necessarily translatable to everyday wear, and although you cannot get more superficial than the fashion industry, what you are wearing today affects everyone you meet. Not many people will agree with this notion, of your daily fashion affecting everyone around you – what will one deduction of a scarf on your attire affect your job, for instance. However, I’d like to argue through my paper that the scarf itself may not be art itself, but depending on the idea behind that scarf it can be a masterpiece, a fashionable equivalent of a masterpiece.
    With the emergence of post-modernism and the glorification of self-expression, Fashion has come to be a highly important definition of art.


    1. Paul Yee, trans. Blood and Iron: Building the Railway, Lee Heen-gwong British Columbia, 1882. (Toronto: Scholastics Canada Ltd., 2010), 208.

    2. Ibid., p. 211.

    3. Patrica E Roy, “White Canada Forever: Two Generations of Studies”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 11:2 (1979): 98.

    4. Gunter Baureiss, “Chinese Immigration, Chinese Stereotypes, and Chinese Labour”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 18.

    5. Baureiss, 17.

    6. Ibid., 26.

    7. Yee, Blood and Iron, 210.

    8. Baureiss, 21.

    9. Roy, 105.

    10. Yee, Blood and Iron, 220-221.

    11. Ibid., 14.

    12. Ibid., 211.

    13. Baureiss, 17.

    14. Miriam Yu, “Human Rights, Discrimination, and Coping Behaviour of the Chinese in Canada”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 118.

    15. Ibid., 114.

    16. Yee, Blood and Iron, 20.

    17. Baureiss, 30.

    18. David C Lai, “The Issue of Discrimination in Education in Victoria, 1901-1923”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 47.

    19. John L Tobias, “Protection, Civilization, Assimilation: An Outline History of Canada’s Indian Policy”, The Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology, 48 (1976): 18.

    20. May Yee, “Chinese Canadian Women: Our Common Struggle”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 180.

    21. Jean-Guy Prevost, “Immigration, statistics and eugenics: measuring racial origins in Canada (1921-1941)”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 28:2 (1996): 2-3.

    22. Baureiss, 23.

    23. Gillian Creese, “Kay J. Anderson, "Vancouver's Chinatown: racial discourse in Canada, 1875-1980" (Book Review)”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 24:2 (1992): 128.

    24. Baureiss, 17.

    25. David C Lai, Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988.), 70.

    26. Roy, 100.

    27. Baureiss, 23.

    28. Ibid., 16.

    29. Ibid., 21.

    30. Bennett McCardle, “The Records of Chinese Immigration at the National Archives of Canada”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 19:3 (1987): 165.

    31. Edgar Wickberg, “Some Problems in Chinese Organizational Development in Canada, 1923-1937”, Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes ethniques au Canada, 11:1 (1979): 91.

    32. Matthew Annis, “The “Chinese Question” and the Canada-Us Border, 1885”, American Review of Canadian Studies, 40:3 (2010): 354.

    33. Yu, 117.

    34. Annis, 356.

    35. Ibid., 353.

    36. Lai, 64.

    37. Baureiss, 16.

    38. May, 183.