BY Chloë Ashby in Books , Opinion | 01 JUN 21

The Art of Dressing: How Sartorial Choices Shape the Artist

In What Artists Wear, Charlie Porter examines figures from Georgia O’Keeffe to Gilbert & George to reflect on the importance of clothing to artistic practice and identity

BY Chloë Ashby in Books , Opinion | 01 JUN 21

Despite insisting that her magnified flower paintings (c.1924–50s) were not expressions of female sexuality, Georgia O’Keeffe endured Freudian readings of her work by male critics throughout her career. Foremost amongst these was her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who, after introducing her art at 291, wrote in the October 1916 issue of Camera Work that her charcoal drawings were ‘of intense interest from a psycho-analytical point of view’ and that the gallery had ‘never before seen a woman express herself so frankly on paper’. O’Keeffe’s often-quoted response to the interpretation of anatomy in her later paintings’ fleshly folds and gentle curves comes from an interview in 1970: ‘When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.’ In her wardrobe she succeeded in rejecting the trappings of femininity, adhering from a young age to a sharp, androgynous style of minimalist clothing that cast a striking silhouette against her colourful canvases: plain kimonos, white shirts and, from the 1940s onwards when she visited major cities, bespoke black suits from men’s tailors.

Sepia portrait of woman
Alfred Steiglitz, portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921. Gift of Georgia O'Keeffe, through the generosity of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation and Jennifer and Joseph Duke, 1997. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Wikimedia Commons

The last suit O’Keeffe bought appears on the cover of What Artists Wear (2021), an insightful account of the clothes sported by modern and contemporary artists, both in and out of the studio, by curator and fashion critic Charlie Porter. The book features more than 300 photographs, paintings and film stills. Porter embarks on studio visits with living artists and speaks to relatives and stylists of the deceased. Whether offering visual analysis or social observation, he writes with clarity and wit. He describes the ‘brothel creepers’ worn by Sarah Lucas in her celebrated Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996) as ‘sturdy-shaped footwear that’s actually light, with a crêpe sole. The design is of military origin, then adopted by men who felt alpha while they crept around.’ The two fried eggs on the artist’s chest burst masculinity’s bubble.

Clothes – such as the suit, which evolved from 17th- and 18th-century male riding and military outfits – are there for artists to ‘use, exploit or challenge’. As a teenager, Frida Kahlo wore suits with defiance. A family portrait shows the stern-faced artist in a three-piece, hair scraped back, centre parting razor-sharp. When she married fellow artist Diego Rivera, she traded it for traditional Tehuana dresses; the month after they divorced, she chopped off her hair and painted a powerful self-portrait of herself in another suit (possibly his) with her legs spread. Male artists have worn clothes as a means of subversion, too: Gilbert & George, for instance, with their not-quite-matching heavy tweed suits (the different number of pockets confirm their self-definition: ‘two people but one artist’). ‘We realised that a lot of artists dressed in an eccentric way or had eccentric style to show that they were artists,’ George tells Porter. ‘We wanted to be normal, normal weird…’ Gilbert finishes the sentence: ‘… so normal that we became strange!’ They’ve posed in their suits – made by immigrant tailors in Spitalfields, east London, rather than establishment tailors on Savile Row – among images of rent boys. As Porter writes, ‘The pair of them delight in contradiction.’

Image of Gilbert & George in suits
Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture, 1992. © Gilbert & George. Courtesy: White Cube 

Some artists’ sartorial choices are more practical. Barbara Hepworth preferred to carve her monumental forms outside and so required functional workwear – from heavy smocks to zip-up jackets – to keep clean and warm. ‘It is important to remember the physicality of an artist’s labour,’ writes Porter, also referencing Derek Jarman, who tended to his garden in Dungeness in baggy cords with worn-out knees and a solid pair of shoes.

While in many ways a group biography, What Artists Wear is flecked with Porter’s personal anecdotes – from the Venice Biennale, the British Library, even a local bus. A chapter dedicated to paint on clothing opens with a confession from the author: ‘I’m a mess. The cream sweater I’m wearing right now has so many stains […] My sneakers are covered in dirt from walking the dog. This is normal for me.’ Just like it’s normal for certain artists to wear paint-spattered clothes, part of their ‘toolbox, used day in, day out, a living history of their practice’. There are the crusty shoes of Lee Krasner (the loafers of her husband, Jackson Pollock, are astonishingly spotless) and the filthy felt Birkenstock clogs belonging to Chantal Joffe.

An artist’s work leaks onto their clothes, and clothes into their work. During his first residency at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Richard Tuttle cut and silkscreened a pair of long black and white trousers with lightning-bolt stripes, then wore them for a photograph, Pants (1979). Cindy Sherman has made a career out of snapping herself in the guise of aristocrats, housewives, clowns; together with hair and make-up, clothes allow her to assume alter egos and provide clues to the personality of each. ‘I feel that’s true for everyone, not just in my work,’ she tells Porter.

Topless man in fabric trousers, monochrome photograph
Richard Tuttle, in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Pants, 1979. Photograph: Will Brown/Collection of the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

It’s also true for David Hockney, who arrived in London to study art in 1959, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence. He was out, and his gaudy outfits were an unapologetic sign of that. ‘Hockney set a new template for the expression of queerness through clothing,’ writes Porter. ‘It was about freedom.’ When Anthea Hamilton was installing The Squash (2018) in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, she wore the same paisley dress almost daily. Why? ‘There’s a pressure for artists to have the right look, which is tied to all types of status, cool, youth and definitely wealth. I’m looking for things that get around those (what I view as) constrictions.’

Barbara Hepworth in work jumpsuit standing next to a tree
Barbara Hepworth, 1957. Photograph: Paul Popper/Getty Images. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

What artists wear is a testament to their work and focus. With their wardrobe, they can choose either to comply with or to chip away at the status quo. Clothing is a language like any other. It tells stories about who we are, what we do and what we believe. ‘What is real is said to lie beyond the materiality of the world itself,’ says British artist Prem Sahib. ‘But in order to express this, we use the material world. Clothing speaks of everything beyond it.’

Main image: Nancy Holt at "Sun Tunnels" after the work's completion, Lucin, Utah, 1976. Photograph: Ardele Lister © Holt/Smithson Foundation / DACS, London and VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York 2021. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

Thumbnail: Barbara Hepworth, 1957. Photograph: Paul Popper/Getty Images. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

Chloë Ashby is an author and arts critic who has written for publications such as The Times, TLS, Guardian, Spectator and frieze. Her debut novel, Wet Paint, was published in April 2022, and her second novel, Second Self, is due in July 2023.