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A brief history of wearable art

  • From Vionnet to Rodarte, Lounge curates a century-spanning list of fashion designers whose creations have been influenced by art
  • Designers have historically sought inspiration, both conceptual and tactile, in art forms and works of artists

Photographs from Getty Images
Photographs from Getty Images

Can clothing be art?" It’s a self-evident question but one to which there’s no clear answer. A couture garment could well be a work of art. Despite arguments to the contrary, fashion has often made a strong case to be perceived as a wearable form of art. Take fashion and art collaborations for instance: from Elsa Schiaparelli’s collaboration with Surrealist masters in the 1930s and Louis Vuitton’s decades of design with artists like Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami to Longchamp’s 10th anniversary tie-up with Tracey Emin and Gucci’s outfits bearing the works of Insta-famous artist Unskilled Worker, creative alliances between designers and artists have borne results. Designers have historically sought inspiration, both conceptual and tactile, in art forms and works of artists. Designer John Galliano famously said that the joy of dressing is an art, but so is the craftsmanship and making of the dress. These are the designers, from the early 20th century to present day, whose aesthetics are founded on an appreciation of art.


One of French couture’s first big stars and inventor of the bias cut, Madeleine Vionnet’s designs testified to her lifelong passion for Greek art and antiquities. Quintessential elements of Greek sculpture and architecture were manifest in the couturier’s flowing fabrics, wispy trains and fluid silhouettes framing the wearer’s body. Vionnet retired in 1940, but when the couture house was relaunched in 2006, a Greek designer —Sophia Kokosalakim, who cited Vionnet as an influence—was appointed creative director.


Experimental and intimidating, pop art and kitsch is not for everyone. But for Gianni Versace, founder of the Italian luxury label Versace, translating these forms into high-fashion designs came easily. In 1991, he famously reinterpreted Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe print series in a colourful collection that continues to be worn and serves as archival inspiration for the label till date. 

Alexander McQueen 

Inspired by nature, romanticism and Gothic art, this British designer turned dressing up into an immersive experience. His iconic pieces—and there are many—include a dress made with ostrich feathers and microscopic slides in 2001 (see picture) and another with antlers from the Widows Of Culloden range (Autumn/Winter 2006). 


Nobody could make a dress as sensual as the Spanish “couturier’s couturier". Balenciaga’s use of sculpted shapes, ruffles and black lace in his designs was drawn from Spanish culture—bullfighting, flamenco—as much as art. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings played muse to a number of Balenciaga’s dresses (see picture) and his Infanta dress was inspired by the paintings of 16th-century artist Diego Velázquez. 

Comme des Garçons

Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo’s designs are an avant-garde mix of colour, texture and architectural details. Far from conventional, they offer a constant subversion of cultural and clothing norms. In 2017, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute dedicated its spring exhibition to Comme des Garçons, exploring Kawakubo’s experiments with “in-betweenness" and boundaries between binaries in her designs.


Rodarte is known for its floral motifs and edgy silhouettes. Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who co-founded the label in 2005, have always credited their sensibilities to art. One of their standout collections is Spring/Summer 2012, where the duo deconstructed Vincent Van Gogh’s works into dresses.

Anita Dongre

The Mumbai-based designer’s patterned and printed creations reflect a deep appreciation for the crafts of Rajasthan. Her new limited-edition collection pays homage to Pichwai art. Dongre conceived the 15-ensembles collection when she first saw Pichwai artist Lekhraj painting the City Palace’s walls in Rajasthan two years ago. 

Shivan & Narresh

The resortwear designers have been dabbling with art from their early years, particularly abstract art and expressionism. After recreating the works of Mark Rothko, Peter Shaffer and Wassily Kandinsky on designs, the duo have now turned to Indian art traditions—their Spring/Summer 2019 Koi series is inspired by Madhya Pradesh’s Gond art. 

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