The DM Manual of Style

by Leslie Adkins | 4/24/09 2:29am

Fashion in itself is clearly an art form, with its plethora of shapes, lines, styles and designs. If you've ever doubted this fact, just review many of the couture designs that have graced the red carpet in the past five to 10 years. Yet more so than the traditional process of designing and constructing clothing, what is most amazing to me is observing how traditional art and popular culture inform fashion. What happens when art and culture use fashion as the canvas?

The most basic example of this phenomenon are the countless famous paintings appearing in replications as wall calendars, pens, mugs and even on T-shirts. While I used to view a full long-sleeved tee of Monet's "Water Lilies" as something of a tacky museum memento, accessorizing with art does add a different softness to stark ensembles. After viewing Van Gogh's "Starry Night" printed on a large canvas purse on a chair in the Hop, I began to consider what statement this accessory made.

Mass-produced replications allow each buyer to possess a timeless masterpiece -- thus any consumer has access to the work. However, featuring such work as a centerpiece of fashion implies not only an admiration, but also a connection to the masterpiece. The artwork becomes a mode by which the consumer expresses his feelings about the artwork and the world in general. So placing the "Water Lilies" image on a medium-sized tote bag can succinctly evoke a peaceful delicacy and worldliness that garments alone struggle to achieve.

Designers and consumers cross the line between fashion and traditional art each day. Many of the lacquers, acrylics and metals used commonly in today's fashions would have caused scandal if used on or against cloth textiles today. Luckily, fashion tends to redefine traditional perceptions and formulas to create products that are inherently artistic and groundbreaking.

Similarly, fashion's awareness of popular culture has always informed the artistry of clothing. Geometric designs and prints, back in style for the spring season, blossomed from the kaleidoscopic designs of Emilio Pucci. These designs, however, mirrored kaleidoscopic, psychedelic imagery of 1960s drug culture. Moving from lamps and posters, the designs soon appeared on scarves, shirts and other pieces.

It is obvious to see how art informed fashion during the 1960s and 1970s, but the same connection cannot be made as easily today. While the freedom movement and other similar movements gave rise to a new generation of artists such as Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, there has really been no resurgence of a popular artistic revolution since. Certain styles reemerged amongst artistic communities, but the past few decades have been unsuccessful in captivating our generation through one specific art form.

Perhaps this is why there is popular, almost hero-like worship, of vintage cultural fashion in lower-end fashion today. From coast to coast, I've seen women and girls of all ages wearing silk-screened tees featuring Andy Warhol's rendering of Marilyn Monroe. Recently, vintage designs of popular brand names have appeared on T-shirts. Brands such as Fanta, Coca-Cola and Disney have appeared on T-shirts, using classic advertisement designs and classic cartoon characters to lure a new generation of consumers. Perhaps this trend has existed longest with reference to music. Classic album covers and band posters appear on the shelves of Virgin Records and on the backs of new millennium hipsters.

As I think about Dartmouth culture specifically, I immediately think of the T-shirts that sororities and fraternities design during sophomore summer. Each shirt seems to fittingly represent the carefree atmosphere of the Summer term, as well as each house's distinct identity. I remember seeing my friends proudly sport their house's creation, eager to show off and explain their Greek masterpiece. The endless chatter about each house's shirt design and tagline made me realize the multitude of what can be expressed through a cotton-polyester blend.

In our culture, visiting a museum isn't the only way to show your appreciation for classic and popular art. The best way we can show our admiration for these masterpieces is by incorporating them into various aspects of our lives, including how we dress. Next time you see a Campbell's soup can label printed on a red tee, think about how well popular art and culture translate into our daily ensembles. It certainly says more than your "I'm with Stupid" T-shirt.