Style over Substance: the problem with female artist fashion exhibitions

Susan Mc Ateer

When the V&A London announced that they were going to hold an exhibition focusing on Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe next year, I became the emoji with hearts for eyes. An opportunity to see clothes, jewellery and other personal belongings that have been stowed away since the artist’s death has finally presented itself. Kahlo’s body of work is primarily made up of self-portraits, so her style is documented not only through photographs, but also through her paintings. The colours, embellishments, and bold silhouettes she adopted are enough to make you hot under your folk-dress collar. And of course there are the flower crowns (the relegation of floral headwear to a ‘festival wear’ category in online retail is something we need to sincerely apologise to Kahlo’s legacy for). The museum have noted that the exhibition will feature several paintings, and that the presentation alongside her clothing and personal effects allow for a new way to understand her work and life. While I don’t deny that an artist’s belongings and aesthetic choices beyond their work can add a rich layer to interpreting their art, I wonder if we put too much emphasis on fashion when it comes to female artists?

Frida Kahlo ‘The Two Fridas’ 1939

Frida Kahlo ‘The Two Fridas’ 1939

Pretty much any search or list regarding famous and influential artists exclusively feature men. If you don’t get tired of scrolling you might finally hit Mary Cassatt or Frida Kahlo, but who has that kind of time? Once you’ve adjusted your search terms to include ‘women’, the same names usually crop up including our girl Frids (I’m feeling a casualness towards these female artists as I delve further, I’m kind of sorry for it, and kind of not at all), Yayoi Kusama (Yay K), Louise Bourgeois (Louie B) and Georgia O’Keeffe (Geo Keeffers). All great and significant artists, just not the right gender for the boys club of western art history. While the representation of female artists and their place in the art history timeline is still very much a work in progress, their style is not. 

Looking at one of the female artists on that list, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is as extravagant in her sense of style as she is in her art. She actively works with fashion designers for some sweet co-labs, and her personal aesthetic usually mimics her art. It is therefore unsurprising to locate what she wears on somewhat level terms with the work she creates. But this is not true of every artist, and certainly not of every female artist. 

Have you ever walked into a Picasso exhibition and seen one of his breton striped shirts on display? Doubt it. The breton was a staple of Picasso’s wardrobe but we don’t feel the need to dissect what this might add to our reading of his work. Another artist with a distinct style is American artist Jean Michel Basquiat. He is frequently cited as a style icon of the art world, if not THE style icon of the art world. One of the most famous images of the artist shows him wearing an Armani suit (which he apparently wore to paint, which is when you know you’ve made it) with bare feet in his studio. He walked in a Comme des Garcon show in 1987, and his style radiates an aloof timelessness that wouldn’t feel out of place today. The Barbican in London have just opened ‘Boom for Real’, the first large-scale exhibition of Basquiat’s art in the UK featuring over 100 works. Any of his clothes included? Nope. Does this mean, despite the weight that we assign his sense of style and fashion in articles, we see it as too frivolous to display a man’s clothes alongside his art? As someone who believes in the strong connection between art and fashion I’m not against displaying clothing alongside an artist’s work, but it appears that we are taking a gendered approach. 

Georgia O’Keeffe has been doing well with exhibitions recently. Last year Tate Modern held a major retrospective of her work, and this year ‘Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern’ opened in the Brooklyn Museum. While the Tate show focused solely on her paintings, ‘Living Modern’ presents paintings, photographs, and O’Keeffe’s wardrobe. O’Keeffe’s style was sharp, often androgynous, and essentially communicated that she was a goddam artist doing her goddam job in practical but exquisitely tailored clothing (I have no idea where the goddams came from, it just felt right). Speaking of her limited colour palate, O’Keeffe said she stuck to black because if she was picking out what colour to wear, she would have less time for painting - see what I mean about the goddams? She developed a dress-code for herself consisting mainly of black, favouring touches of white but only near her face, and ornamental details had to place in her wardrobe. O’Keeffe’s style fits into the context of the life which she created for herself, in both in personal and professional terms. 

Georgia O’Keeffe 1918 taken by Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe 1918 taken by Alfred Stieglitz

The example of two O’Keeffe exhibitions within two years of each other is kind of the dream combination - Tate looking solely to the art, with the Brooklyn Museum taking an approach which considers the ‘modern’ life which the artist created through her work, her lifestyle, and of course, through what she wore. O’Keeffe was very conscious of the disparity between male and female artists noting ‘Men put me down as the best woman painter…I think I’m one of the best painters.’ While women are finally being given large-scale exhibitions, the gender balance in terms of what we choose to display is way off. By devising shows where only female artists’ work is shown through the lens of fashion, we are still relegating the likes of O’Keeffe to the best ‘woman painter category’ rather than the ‘best painter category’. 

Fashion and style are not superficial, and at times they do have a place in the context of an artist’s life. The concern arises when female artists, particularly the ones who are some of the most popular in public consciousness, are given large-scale shows which take their style, rather than their art, as the central focus. A real effort to promote and represent women in the art historical cannon is underway, but it’s a long, slow slog, and right now it feels more important to look at the work without honing in on, ‘but what was she wearing?’.

I’m looking forward to the Frida Khalo exhibition; not looking forward to any flower crown resurgence. It’s just a shame that I can’t walk into the Basquiat show and see that paint-splattered Armani suit or his on-point over-sized tailoring, because his style feels so relevant to the context of the time he worked. But I guess that would be too frivolous. He’s a great painter after all, not a great male painter.