Contemporary Art · Costume and Fashion

Fashion For the Art Historian: the Designs of Gary Graham

Fashion designer Gary Graham’s store in Tribeca. Even in this photograph, there is such a wonderful air of nostalgia and history.

I was reading an article in this month’s The Magazine Antiques about a current exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Entitled “Folk Couture: Folk Art and Fashion”, the exhibition includes the work of thirteen fashion designers, each of whom was invited to create a piece of couture based on one or more works from the museum’s collections. Their inspirations ranged from early American textiles and folk-art representations of people in old-fashioned clothing to wooden animal statuettes and abstract religious objects. Information and photographs of the designers, their inspirations and processes, and the finished clothing can be found on the exhibition’s website. The exhibition opened yesterday and runs through late April.

This dress by South Korean designer Jean Yu was inspired by a wooden porcupine figurine from the American Folk Art Museum’s collection.
The porcupine.

I was particularly intrigued by one designer in the show, Gary Graham, when I learned from The Magazine Antique‘s article that he once designed a dress that was based on an altar at the Cloisters. The combination of costuming and medieval art has a very strong appeal to me, so I decided to check out more of Graham’s work. I found information about the outfit shown below, which was based on a thirteenth-century Spanish altarpiece, on Graham’s twitter. The outfit as a whole doesn’t particularly say “medieval”, though it has a definite historical feeling in both the drape and the color palette. Once you see it next to the altarpiece, the medieval design is clearly apparent in the fabric of the so-called “church skirt”.

A look from Gary Graham’s Fall 2013 collection, including the “Church Skirt” inspired by a thirteenth-century altarpiece from the Cloisters Museum.

Graham’s website characterizes his work as “rich with casual luxury and a sense of history”. Going through other photographs of his collections, I could easily see the references to art historical sources in style, color, and pattern, as the names like “tapestry dress”, “corset coat”, and “oil grass and wine crinoline skirt” clearly indicate. His website calls this “historical silhouette reinterpreted with modern drape and ease”. You can view some more of Gary Graham’s recent designs on his website and check out his historical inspirations on his tumblr.

A historically inspired look, including the “Corset Pleat Jacket” and “Black Crinoline Skirt”, from Gary Graham’s Fall 2013 collection.

I think that the concept of creating fashion based on historical and art objects is wonderful. For me, linking contemporary fashion and costume design with art history gives a significance and timelessness to clothing that has not yet stood the test of time. I am also interested in the process by which a designer interprets historical aesthetics, whether from fashion or from another art form, to suit the modern-day needs of their intended wearers. As a costume designer (one of my hobbies, if I haven’t mentioned this before), I enjoy finding works of art relevant to my character, show, dance, or theme to incorporate into my designs. It can be extremely challenging to balance this source material with the specifics required by the project while still making unique and interesting costumes, but that’s why it’s fun. The necessity of using both creative and academic skills also seems particularly well suited to my personality.

A historically-inspired outfit from Gary Graham’s Spring 2014 collection.

I like the idea of my clothing being able to show my interest in history, but the way I dress tends to lean more towards the utilitarian than high fashion. Who knows? Perhaps I could pull off this 1920s-esque look given the right occasion.

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