Charlie Porter | What Artists Wear

Our clothing is an unspoken language that tells stories of our selves.

I am always interested in exploring artists environnement and work. I bought this book, What Artists Wear, thinking it could be a fun and new way of delving into the subject. “In What Artists Wear, style luminary Charlie Porter takes us on a journey through the iconic outfits worn by artists, in the studio, on stage, at work, at home and at play. From Yves Klein’s spotless tailoring to the kaleidoscopic costumes of Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman; from Andy Warhol’s signature denim to Charlotte Prodger’s casualwear, Porter’s roving eye picks out the magical, revealing details in the clothes he encounters, weaving together a new way of understanding artists, and of dressing ourselves.” Source

As Porter writes in his introduction :

Our clothing is an unspoken language that tells stories of our selves. What you are wearing right now is sending messages about who you are, what you think, and how you feel. This goes beyond the limitations of fashion: it is a daily, even hourly, signalling of our beliefs, emotions, intentions. Much of it is intuitive: we sharpen up to impress; cocoon ourselves when we’re feeling blue; make an effort on a date. But when we put on our clothes, we don’t fully acknowledge their loaded meaning. We just wear them.

Artists live a different way. The work of an artist is not office based. It breaks from the rhythm of 9 to 5, weekdays and weekends. It is a continual push for self-expression. Artists create their own circumstances, their studios becoming self-contained worlds. Their work can question, or it can reinforce, generally accepted ways of being. What artists wear can be a tool in their practice. Their clothing can tell of their desire for another mode of living or, some- times, their conscious subscription to the status quo. Artists are often revered for their style. I have friends who pin photographs of artists around their mirrors as inspiration -snapshots of Georgia O’Keeffe, Barbara Hepworth. Fashion houses regularly plunder these images, copying their outfits as part of the relentless fashion- season cycle. It seems logical that an artist should have an eye for clothing, connected with the visual creativity of their work. When we really look at images of artists, we realize it goes deeper than that. There is more to what artists wear than just an appreciable way with clothing.

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.” SourceAnd the book is loaded with pictures of artists in their studio, at show openings, during performances.

Why ponder about what artists wear? Charlie Porter writes in his book :

The question matters because, particularly in the past fifty years, the line between artwork and artist has evaporated. It is especially true for artists who wear clothing as part of performance, and for those who make clothing as part of their practice. This mode of working is incredibly new, in the context of the millennia of mark-making. Many artists turned to performance because they could find no place for themselves within art histories, galleries or critical discussion, often excluded because of gender and/or race. Through performance, they mapped their own territory, claiming a space within which to make very public, very personal, forms of art.

“Some clothes are utilitarian,” says Porter. “Some are sentimental. Some have to do with the community to which a person belongs, or wants to belong. Hopefully, my book speaks to these things. It’s not interested in best-dressed lists, or in so-called icons, even though many of the artists in it are famous.”Source

Why choose artists, though? Is this because he believes their aesthetic sensibilities are more finely tuned than our own? “No, it’s more that artists are better able in their lives to have a deeper understanding of clothing. Most people have to dress a certain way – or we feel that we do. In our working hours, we’re not in real communication with our clothing. We might even feel negatively about them: we might hate our jobs, we might feel constricted. Artists are a good case study because, alone in the studio, they’re freed of those outside forces.” The characters in his book – it is populated by the likes of Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol, as well as by less well-known names – are, he believes, liberated in a way that we’d all like to be, if only we had the opportunity (or the courage). Source

The book starts with Louise Bourgeois, goes on to Georgia O’Keeffe, Frieda Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Agnes Martin, and flutters through a panoply of artists up until today. Sometimes going deeper into the matter (as for Bourgeois or Basquiat) sometimes spending just one line on it. The book is eclectic, separated into categories (workwear, denim, paint on clothing, t-shirts, etc.) that are themselves interrupted by little segments on chosen artists.

I was absorbed at the start of the book, but the subject matter is somehow superficially explored and by the middle of it I was a bit bored. Porter raises very interesting questions but I felt like they were not fully answered, that it was more on a personal observation level than a serious case study. However What Artists Wear is definitely engaging for all the pictures it contains and it does give descriptions of artist’s ways of working and of their work of art, hence it can be a good way to discover artists for newbies. It also raises awareness on something we think banal -wearing clothes-, yet might not be as bland as we believe. It did bring me to question what I wear, in and out of my studio, and why.

Francis Bacon in his studio in 1969
Francis Bacon in his studio in 1974

I remember seeing pictures of Francis Bacon’s studio years ago and being repulsed by how messy it was. Porter shares pictures of Bacon taken in his studio in different times where he is always photographed spotless, wearing clean clothes. Porter remarks :

Not all artists are so open about revealing their painting garments. I’m obsessed with photos of Francis Bacon in his studio not covered in paint. He lived and worked in chaos: emotional, physical, psychological. If all around was turmoil, why did he not show it in what he wore?

Look at the fabric on his body: spotless. Now look at the curtains. Bacon used them to wipe his hands. Those hand marks go so high! What would the clothes he painted in have looked like? Why doesn’t he want us to see them?

Bacon was an artist of unremitting control. (…) Bacon wanted the chaos of his studio to be seen. But he also wanted to present himself as in charge. He did so in clothing that was fresh, sexy, fashionable, clean.

What Artists Wear is a fun book to own, to leave on a coffee table as a good talking piece when having cocktails with friends, or to shuffle through when in search of inspiration. But if you are looking for an in depth analysis, you might end up a little bit disappointed.


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