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At the turn of the 20th century, high fashion was considered an art form — thanks to the likes of Parisian couturiers Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin, who translated artistic trends such as Orientalism into wearable designs. Today, whether fashion is an art form is debatable. In Sally Potter's mystery flick Rage, Dame Judi Dench declares that "fashion is not an art form. If it's anything at all, it's pornography to which millions of people are addicted." Considering more than 4 million viewers tuned in to last season's première of Lifetime's Project Runway, that's hard to argue.
So where does Phoenix fall in the "fashion as fine art" debate? We're one of the few cities in the nation whose major art museum has a dedicated fashion gallery. Smaller spaces such as Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art have hosted events to bring local designers and artists together, and Scorpius Dance Theatre invited fashion design into the performing arts via last season's Catwalk show. While designer Marc Jacobs has said that clothing cannot be considered art "because it is only valid if it is lived in and worn," some Phoenix arts venues treat an Armani dress with the same respect as a Warhol or a Gauguin.
Prompted by the success of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, Phoenix Art Museum opened its fashion gallery to the public in 1966. The collection is now a fashionista's dream: 5,000 pieces spanning eras from the 18th century to the present. PAM does well in connecting fashion with the artistic and architectural design movements of the period, furthering the argument that fashion is art. For example, an abstract painting from 1942 displayed in the fashion gallery's current "In the Mood" show mirrors the circular pattern on a filmy peach dress from the same era. Seeing the similarities between the two pieces, it would be difficult to dismiss one without rejecting the other.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the museum's couture collection is breaking out of the Ellman Fashion Gallery this season and into their other exhibition halls. While this "unofficial year of fashion" at PAM may seem to pander to a culture driven by Cosmopolitan and MTV's House of Style, the move is solely based on the prominence and size of two of the more recently donated private collections: Russian model Tatiana Sorokko's Paris-thrifted couture and an eclectic wardrobe worn by sportswoman Ann Bonfoey Taylor (no relation to the famed store proprietor). The latter was named by Art & Antiques magazine as one of the top 100 treasures received by an art museum in 2008, which lends Taylor's collection credence in the art world.
Besides being a cultural treasure, wearable art draws crowds of locals who might not otherwise step foot in an art museum. "I was at a luncheon and this woman said, 'Thank you for doing all of these fashion exhibits because it's the only way that I can get my daughter to go down to the art museum,'" says Phoenix Art Museum curator of fashion design Dennita Sewell. "Fashion has a real personal relationship to us; it's easily understood because we're all familiar with it." True enough. If your idea of upscale dress is a clean T-shirt and non-ripped jeans, you've still seen enough Scottsdale hipsters to relate to fashion trends.
That's part of why Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's "SMoCA Nights" after-hours fashion events were so successful. "SMoCA Nights" attracted younger crowds and gave the growing population of designers an opportunity to showcase their clothing lines in a city that isn't exactly a fashion capital. Of course, the liberally flowing drinks didn't hurt either. "A lot of up-and-coming designers can't afford to show at Fashion Week or have their very own solo fashion shows, so many of them turn to nightclubs to have a fashion show," local designer and past SMoCA exhibitor Angela Johnson says. "This lowers the perception of the quality of the designer's work. Having a show in a museum gives the line credibility."
It was a win-win for both creator and exhibitor. Local designers improved their standing and the museum gained a standing-room-only crowd. The quarterly "SMoCA Nights" have been on hold since 2009 due to budget concerns, though the museum will present a runway show of semi-finalists on October 8, during Scottsdale Fashion Week's 2010 Designer of the Year Award contest at its Fall Opening Celebration.
"Because part of SMoCA's core mission focuses on design and architecture, we've long tried to incorporate fashion (which is a segment of design) into our special events," says marketing and public relations manager Lesley Oliver. And that's where SMoCA's failing lies — in its unwillingness to pull fashion into the gallery, outside of these evening parties. Why does local architecture firm Atherton | Keener get the spotlight in a solo show for SMoCA's "Architecture + Art" series when fashion designers are relegated to one-time runways? It hardly seems fair.
Even The Met has questioned the value of fashion as art, so it's not surprising that SMoCA is hesitant to host gallery exhibitions spotlighting clothing designers. Yet Phoenix Art Museum has always been ahead of the curve, painting designers as artists long before Phoenix Fashion Week and the trendy poolside fashion shows at the W Scottsdale pushed designers into the spotlight. "We look at fashion with the same principles," Sewell says. "We look at its color, its form, its design. It's no different than having Tiffany or a furniture designer in the museum." Not every gallery or designer would agree. But unlike Marc Jacobs — who swears his clothes will never be shown in a gallery — at least Phoenix's major museums are willing to consider the possibility that fashion really is art.