Stretching the Definition of Art

THERE'S no shortage of suggestions for creative ways to wear a scarf: Salespeople eagerly demonstrate its versatility; pamphlets diagram techniques for tying, twisting, and draping it; some night schools even offer a course in "creating a look with scarves." But who would think to suggest uses for a scarf when it's not being worn?

Textile designer Peggy Russell, for one. The former painting student tags her "Iro (meaning color in Japanese) Designs" - scarves, bags, and accessories - with a card that not only details washing instructions, but also encourages buyers to showcase their new purchase as an objet d'art.

Ms. Russell's playfully patterned and vibrantly colored silks and chiffons were among the wearable art pieces that recently dazzled a crowd of nearly 200 at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, a contemporary art center here.

The fashion show, which was dubbed "Art in Style" and produced by Alvena Williams of Style That Works, a fashion consulting company in Cambridge, Mass., featured over 70 garments and accessories. These were crafted by eight New England-based artists who use weaving, knitting, painting, silk-screening, quilting, embroidery, and other media.

Typically classified as a craft, wearable art is gradually gaining acceptance within the fine-arts community. Testimony to this trend, Russell said in a telephone interview the day following the show, is the fact that the DeCordova Museum would host such an event. "What was very gratifying about last night is that museums are acknowledging design and fashion now with as much regard as fine art," she says.

In recent years, designers of wearable art have turned heads among avant-garde fashion retailers as well as fine-art connoisseurs. Russell, whose scarves are displayed at Barneys New York as well as in several Boston-based boutiques, says that "Craft is experiencing a renaissance ... the white-wall gallery approach to art is becoming extinct."

Robin Bergman, whose comfortable, sophisticated knits were modeled in the DeCordova show, concurs. "It's been hard to get recognition as a textile designer, but times are changing ... I used to hear the comment, 'I could do that, or my grandmother does that,' a lot more."

However, Julie Schafler Dale, owner of Julie: Artisans' Gallery, which opened its Madison Avenue doors in 1973, is hesitant to declare victory in what she describes as "an uphill battle" for the acceptance of handcrafted clothing as an art form.

Ms. Schafler Dale, author of "Art to Wear" (Abbeville Press, New York, 1986, $95), has followed the art-to-wear movement since its meek beginning in the 1960s ("...not to be confused with the hippie handicrafts of that era," she writes), to its heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s when artists experimented with unorthodox materials, until today when economics has forced artists to appeal more to mainstream consumers.

"In recent years, newcomers [to the field of wearable art] became much more conscious of survival, more concerned with paying the rent," Schafler Dale explained in a telephone interview. "They are finding ways of doing more functional, less expensive, and approachable pieces, but hopefully not compromising to the point that pieces no longer have originality."

Nan Rogers, whose subtly toned, predominantly geometric handwoven apparel was featured in the DeCordova show, says the recession has actually been a boon. "The greatest benefit is that people are much more calculated in terms of where to spend their dollar, and rather than go to a department store they'll support an artist," says Ms. Rogers, who is also president of Artful Attire, an organization that supports networking among artists of handcrafted wearables.

Another attraction to wearable art is its functionality. A Peggy Russell scarf, a Robin Bergman sweater, or a Nan Rogers jacket, for instance, might be considered a more justifiable purchase than a painting or sculpture that serves a decorative purpose. "You can easily legitimize a purchase if you can wear it to an opening, a wedding, or another special occasion...," says Russell.

Another positive outgrowth of the recession has been the healthy competition it encourages. But the makers of art-to-wear are no less affected by the proverbial dilemma to stay afloat financially while pursuing their creative passion.

Bergman knit during her lunch hour while working as a textile conservator at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She launched her own business eight years ago, and now employs four part-time assistants, although she still puts in "more hours than I want to calculate." Of her financial status, she says "I'm finally beginning to hold my own."

Even Russell, whose calendar is filling up with both apparel and interior projects, held a part-time job with the Massachusetts State Arts Council until last June. She insists, however, that for herself and for other artists, the determination to fulfill a creative calling is unwavering. "One thing about artists is that no matter how bad it gets, they still do it."

For Bergman, who draws her inspiration from ethnic, antique, and costume designs, her profession ties her to ancient traditions and the anonymous history of women artists. "I feel connected with a long tradition of women artists who were often taken for granted," she says.

For these artists, perhaps the most compelling reason for creating wearable art is to communicate something about themselves. Julie Schafler Dale calls it an "intensely personal" medium that "tells the artist's story."

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