Artists’ Dress and Identity

Many thanks to all those who contributed comments to my last post on academic dress.  The stories about the librarian who challenged her colleagues to reconsider their sartorial presentation in light of public perceptions or the art teachers preference for particular high street clothing stores were both funny and moving, I was also reminded of just how potent dress is as an intended and unintended signifier of our socio-cultural identity.   In addition, I realised that we often fail to inquire further about our relationship with dress as part of a constant construction of everyday appearance.

A self-portrait of my mum, June 2014

A self-portrait by my mum, June 2014

This weekend, I had the important task of supporting my mum, an artist, with her open studio. This not only involved making sure she was fed and watered but it also meant I had time to chat to her about what she wears as a working artist. While I wasn’t surprised to hear that this involves bulk buys of shirts from the Gap for those frequent moments when paint was spilled or ink splattered, I wasn’t expecting to hear that when it came to dressing for exhibitions, my mum is concerned not to overshadow her work by her choice of clothes. In other words, my mum didn’t want to her clothes to get in the way of people looking at her paintings. In sartorial terms, this tends towards a lot of black across minimal, angular cuts of cloth that will probably sound familiar to anyone who has ever been to an art gallery private view. For my mum, the practice of her work is not a feature when it comes to the representation of that work beyond her studio.

Francis Bacon in his 7 Reece Mews Studio, 1974. Photo: Michael Holtz © Michael Holtz Estate. Via Francis Bacon Estate/Facebook.

This is in direct contrast with the way in which the painter Francis Bacon literally impregnated his clothes with the materiality of his studio in an effort to signify his practice beyond the confines of his studio. In London: After A Fashion, Alastair O’Neil describes how Bacon was remembered for bringing a dry cleaned suit back to the studio and laying it out on a table covered in paint and detritus from his work. When a friend moved the suit in an effort to retain its cleanliness, Bacon retrieved the suit only to put it straight back on to the table. O’Neil draws upon Bourdieu’s observation that artists dress in such a way as to divest their appearance of assumed values. In this case, Bacon asserted his artistic identity by inverting the prevailing significance of a suit as something to be protected and maintained.[1]

Yet, as one of my favourite writers about dress, Elizabeth Wilson, points out, my mum’s choice to wear black is also an attempt to oppose the status quo, because we no longer wear it for mourning and so any attempt to wear this colour is instantly at odds with its earlier significance. It is perhaps this fact that has allowed black to be subversively adopted by social groups in an effort to draw attention to economic, political and cultural concerns.[2]

Wilson also suggests that where one’s profession concerns artistic or intellectual pursuits, dress conformity will always be secondary and this might explain why the dress of both artists and academics are often overlooked. It is assumed that clothing just appears upon these people because it has to, not because it wants to be there. However, as the example of my mum and Bacon show here, the way in which artists dress is not a natural phenomenon born out of a disinterest in fashionable dress but rather a carefully ‘raised’ identity that serves to distinguish the artist from both the production and practice of their work.

Lastly, there are so many good exhibitions taking place in London this month that I am having a hard time deciding which one to review for my next post! If you want to hear about any in particular, please do let me know via the comments below. The choices are Wedding Dresses 1775 -2014 (V&A), The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014 (V&A), Return of the Rudeboy (Somerset House) or Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture and Fashion (Fashion & Textiles Museum). I aim to see them all but be nice to know if there’s a preference for the first review!


[1]Alastair O’Neil London: After A Fashion 2007 Reacktion Books (p111)

[2] Elizabeth Wilson Adorned in Dreams 2003 RUP (p189)

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  • Maria O’Donnell June 04, 2014 10.05 am

    Very interesting blog. I was wondering if an artist’s dress is sometimes an extension of their creative flair. I follow your Mum’s work on Facebook and from what I’ve seen she predominantly does portraits in inks and paint in either monochrome or a fairly muted pallette…. I should say at this point that I love everything she does……I have come across many artists/designers who produce very colourful artwork and it usually follows that they dress with the same colour and creative flair and even joy! Would you agree?

  • Emma June 04, 2014 01.53 pm

    Hi Maria,
    Many thanks for reading the post and glad you like my mum’s work. To be honest, I’m not sure there’s a straight correlation between colour and artists’ dress. Certainly, fashion designers tend to work in colour but this is rarely reflected in their own choice of dress. I will think a bit more about artists and colour and get back to you! It also made me consider what happens when, for example, the medium changes. How might a conceptual artist define their dress without any specific material to reference?

  • Jilly June 08, 2014 09.33 pm

    I recently had the pleasure of seeing Linda Przybyszewski who writes about fashion and what she terms the Dress Doctors, women who helped other women present themselves to the world in a fashionable light in order to be taken seriously among other things. But, she talked about the Goldstein sisters who emphasized European Art Ideals and fashion. It was all very fascinating. I have not finished the book, but it’s been highly enjoyable.

  • Emma June 16, 2014 10.43 am

    Hi Jill, this sounds really interesting and I will definitely follow this up as always on the look out for those writing about guidance on dress.


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