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Wearable art?

One question which often crops up in student learning logs and beyond is – where does art begin and function end? Yes, lines have converged in recent years so this is a valid discussion point. Clearly, if you’re designing a product for commercial purposes the aims throughout the design process are focussed on questions of fashion, the end user, what would they pay etc? For an art piece the considerations are different, although maybe not any easier. Is the piece for a collective exhibition, a theme? Do you feel in tune with it? If its purely down to you, what is it about, how to best show this, does it work as a piece in its own right, etc?
Sometimes (and increasingly) the boundaries converge. Look at the work of Alison Willoughby, known as the skirt girl, her work is made primarily for display and constructed to take account of this. However, many collectors actually wear the skirts as well – presumably hanging them up on the wall again between wearings?

Alison’s work first became known to me when I saw this skirt  of hers in an  exhibition at Bilston Craft Gallery in the Midlands whist at BIAD.  I was fascinated especially since I have made countless garments – to wear. I had thought of couturier fashion as Art, but here was a garment with a certain handmade look, hung as a wall piece.
Alison researched kilts for her MA in Textiles at the Royal College of Art – all her skirts are wraparound – they open out to totally flat pieces, no darts or shaping, fastening at the back with buckles. She uses any means available to her – printing, applique, quilting, slashing, recycled fabrics – to get the effect she wants.  She has designed functional pieces as well; bedding for Habitat, garments for other names and fabric lengths.
Her work came to my mind after  looking at the an assignment from  OCA student, Sallianne Green, a postal student from Ireland. She made a very impressive skirt for the section called A Piece of Your Own at the end of Assignment 3 in Textiles 1. Before anyone on Textiles 1 panics,  this project doesn’t require to finish a whole piece, but some students do complete items.
This piece is  meant to be worn, but for me it has that quality of Alison’s work about it too. It was developed from the Van Gogh painting Starry Night. Actually, Sallianne had reservations at the end of this piece, thinking it should have more decorative elements – but I feel that it already has a nice balance about it; two motifs on the front and one on the back. The crunchy, shot gold fabric appliques are in fact gathered fabric manipulation. The background is hand dyed and there are some very well sourced large gold sequins which are just enough to outset the blue background, both in terms of colour and contrasting feel – glitzy against the more utilitarian linen base. In this  skirt primarily made to wear, issues of comfort and wash-ability (and no bits sticking into you or catching on chairs!) have to be taken into account.
However, for me, the fact that this skirt is about something, it conveys feelings and thoughts (see some of the supporting design work below)  puts it slightly towards the art category as well. The Americans coined a good term for this- Wearable Art. So yes, the lines have converged. We are lucky enough to live in exciting times with many more options open to us as textile artists and designers – or maybe a bit of both?


Posted by author: Trisha Goodwin
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4 thoughts on “Wearable art?

  • How nice to see embellished clothing as art; those who find the construction of a garment daunting could use reycled clothing as a canvas. Give a new lease of life to a skirt you never wear – it’s green as well as creative!

  • Excellent to see art and fashion coming together, as a florist I have created many pieces (corsets, head pieces, dresses) some for function others purely for form and I love to see the 2 coming together. I love that art can be a part of every day life.

  • This is a fascinating post. I find the link made between the two works is a great way into appreciating the student piece and also the detail of how she has created her effects is satisfying to know. It enriches my appreciation of the work.

  • I’m afraid whichever way you cut it (pun intended), for me this work is constructed textile design. Wether it be for decoration or garment construction, for me it’s simply not art in the purest sense.
    It’s worth bearing in mind the idea that the autonomous art object almost always exists purely and with the sole function of being art, nothing else. Whilst this maxim may seem inflexible – indeed it is – it provides a good starting point around which you can have the debate. You could argue about the primary function of the object, whether it’s an art object which just happens to have a function, or explore issues arising from the use of readymades (Duchamp’s Madonna = Urinal), but you’ll inevitable come back to issues of the authors intent and the objects function.
    Such debates often arise in design departments in art schools. Curiously it doesn’t happen in FIne Art Department.
    Indicators such as the prescribed outline shape of the textile and the use of buckles, for me these predetermine the nature of the object. I am in little doubt as to the intention of the designer. Browsing her website clearly indicates that she is a textile designer who specialises in constructed textile garments and accessories. I have not yet seen a statement of intent regarding her works but if so, would take that as the starting point in any possible debate to be had with her.
    There is much of merit in the work, but as for art, for me, no. I could continue about how art must surely offer something of the human condition, must engage with concepts, ideas etc. as it touches us, but for now I think I’ve enough to support my position. I offer this within a debate devoid of absolute definitions, merely varying points of view.

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