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Wearable art, also known as Artwear or "art to wear", refers to individually designed pieces of (usually) handmade clothing or jewellery created as fine or expressive art. While the making of any article of clothing or other wearable object typically involves aesthetic considerations, the term wearable art implies that the work is intended to be accepted as a serious and unique artistic creation or statement. Pieces may be sold and/or exhibited. The modern idea of wearable art seems to have surfaced more than once in various forms. Marbeth Schon's book on modernist jewellery (see the section on jewellery below) refers to a "wearable art movement" spanning roughly the years 1930 to 1960. A 2003 The New York Times review of a book on knitting refers to "the 60s Art to Wear movement".
Most wearable art is made of fibrous materials and constitutes therefore a branch of the wider field of fiber art, which includes both wearable and non-wearable forms of art using fabric and other fiber products. Wearable art as an artistic domain can also include jewelry, or clothing made from non-fiber materials such as leather, plastic sheeting, metals, etc.
Artists creating wearable fiber art may use purchased finished fabrics or other materials, making them into unique garments, or may dye and paint virgin fabric. Countering the belief that art is something expensive, some clothing artists have started local companies to produce quality art work and clothing for a modest price. Wearable art is not restricted to jewellery but is also seen in graphic T-shirts and even pants.
As with any other art form, the talent and skills of artists in this field vary widely. Since the nature of the medium requires craft skills as well as artistic skills, an advanced artist may wish to study color theory, chemistry, sewing, clothing design, and computer software such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Classes in clothing design and marketing are offered at colleges such as the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
The New Zealand city of Nelson gained a reputation in the field of wearable art, with its World of Wearable Art Awards, held annually since 1987 and run by Suzie Moncrieff. In 2005, the show moved to Wellington to a larger venue, although a museum of garments remains in Nelson. In Australia, the Shearwater Wearable Arts or W.A.V.E. (Wearable Arts Vision In Education) has developed from a high school initiative to become a leading wearable arts event. It is held at Shearwater, The Mullumbimby Steiner School in Mullumbimby, New South Wales.
Some 20th-century modern artists and architects sought to elevate bodily ornamentation — that is, jewellery — to the level of fine art and original design, rather than mere decoration, craft production of traditional designs, or conventional settings for showing off expensive stones or precious metals. In Modernist Jewelry 1930-1960: The Wearable Art Movement (2004), author Marbeth Schon explores unique and innovative wearable art objects created by surrealists, cubists, abstract expressionists, and other modernist artists working in the middle decades of the 20th century.
Not all garments created as wearable art are made from traditional fibers or fabrics, and not all such artworks are meant for ordinary, practical use. Performance and conceptual artists have sometimes produced examples which are more provocative than useful. Trashion is another branch of extraordinary wearable art, for example, work by Marina DeBris. The Portland Oregon Trashion Collective, Junk to Funk, has been using creating outrageous art garments out of trash.
A well-known example is the Electric Dress, a ceremonial wedding kimono-like costume consisting mostly of variously colored electrified and painted light bulbs, enmeshed in a tangle of wires, created in 1956 by the Japanese Gutai artist Atsuko Tanaka. This extreme garment was something like a stage costume. Not really wearable in an everyday, practical sense, it functioned rather as part of a daring work of performance art (though the "performance" element consisted merely of the artist's wearing the piece while mingling with spectators in a gallery setting).
Canadian artist Andrea Vander Kooij created a group of pieces called Garments for Forced Intimacy (2006). According to an essay at Concordia University's Faculty of Fine Arts gallery website, these hand-knit articles of clothing are designed to be worn by two people simultaneously, and they, "as the name states, compel the wearers into uncharacteristic proximity."
As wearable computing technology develops, increasingly miniaturized and stylized equipment is starting to blend with wearable art esthetics. Low-power mobile computing allows light-emitting and color-changing flexible materials and high-tech fabrics to be used in complex and subtle ways. Some practitioners of the Steampunk movement have produced elaborate costumes and accessories which incorporate a pseudo-Victorian style with modern technology and materials.