A new book, 'What Artists Wear', explores the secret language of clothes, and their power to educate and transform
By Catherine Hayward
What are you wearing right now? Why did you choose it? What does it say about you? These simple questions lie at the heart of a new book by writer and fashion critic Charlie Porter, What Artists Wear: a fascinating exploration of the clothing worn by the rebels, rule breakers and outliers of the artistic world, and what it means to live in it.
Like its subject matter, the book itself defies convention within the glossy realm of large format hardbacks; it’s a Penguin publication so it’s paperback, of course. Small, pocket size, accessible, affordable. "It’s super-approachable," says Porter. "And I hope it encourages younger readers to discover these artists. Clothing, and talking about clothing, is a way in."
According to Porter, the unspoken language of clothes – the intuitive, often mundane, everyday choices made by artists – can send messages that shine a spotlight on our cultural and social landscape. "For the last few decades, artists have been putting themselves at the centre of their work through video, photography and performance in a way that has never happened before," he says. "Therefore, the clothing they wear is right at the centre of the work too. They’re sending signals to the viewer."
So what are these signals? And how do we decipher them? Take this shot of Francis Bacon. Photographed in his South Kensington studio in 1974, he sits among the infamous chaos of his work space, evidence of paint splattered trousers lying on the rags in front of him. Yet his clothes are ‘fresh, sexy, fashionable, clean.’ Why? "Bacon was an artist of unremitting control and wanted to present himself as in charge" writes Porter. "When he finished work, he would change, head out to Soho, ready to be gregarious and glamorous."
This shot of Gilbert and George, the collaborative art duo, famous for their conventional, single breasted suits. When Porter spots them walking along an East End street one summer’s evening, he asks himself why, given that they’re sporting some very normal tailoring, they look so bizarre, out of context and ‘weird’? "What hold does tailoring, and it’s encoded meaning of male power, have on our psyche?" he asks.
And what about Jean-Michel Basquiat, another artist revered for his personal image? He mixed tailoring with thrift shop acquisitions, modelled for Comme des Garçons and was one of the very few artists who could afford expensive designer clobber yet would wear it to paint in, smoke in, party in – embracing the paint splatters and cigarette burns as part of the artistic process. "The language of what he wore – oversized, off-kilter, chaos in control – was formed long before his sudden fame," says Porter.
Porter’s curiosity for the subject is infectious. He riffs eloquently on the relevance of a startling image of the Bloomsbury Group’s Bright Young Thing, Duncan Grant, wearing a tracksuit, challenging "the assumptions of what certain men actually wear", the freshness and modernity of Richard Hamilton in denim waist overalls and white socks and the "stand against classification" by Richard Tuttle in his overlong, lightning bolt trousers. The imagery is certainly thought-provoking. "This book isn’t an attempt to deify what artists wear" he says. "And this isn’t a book about fashion either. I’m interested in the dirty, filthy, ordinary clothes that tell us so much about who’s wearing them."