Wearable art doesn't mean clothing touched in some distant way by a designer's hand, or which merely happens to be quite beautiful.
It is a fabric composition that is as striking on the wall as on the body. Stella Blum, curator of costume for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, defines it this way: clothing "that has all the elements of good form, color, design and linear qualities, that holds up on its own as something beautiful."
Although it has been around for decades, there is a sudden surge of interest in wearable art: an exhibition by Raisin Hopes at the Wolfe Street Gallery; shows at A.D. Smull Gallery and Art Barn Gallery in the Park; and talk of a wearable art show at the Renwick Gallery.
It comes with the pendulum-swing of taste away from the machine-made, mass-produced look -- slick and sleek, glass and chrome -- to a renewed respect for the ornate and baroque. It's a fresh pursuit of maximalism in place of minimalism: Less is not necessarily more.
Julie Schafler, whose New York showcase of wearable art called Julie's Artisans' Gallery has focused attention on some of the best creations in the country, calls wearable art a rejection of "things that are cheap, anonymous, franchised, expensive but of no value."
In her lecture and fashion demonstration yesterday at the Baltimore Civic Center -- a highlight of the craft show that continues through Sunday (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) she showed 45 pieces, including several by Washington-area artists Thom Feild, Ben Compton and Susan Middleman.
Schafler, 31, traces the origins of the new enthusiasm for wearable art to the 1960s' crafts boom, "not necesarily from those same people, but symptomatic of the time." The artisans, however, are "usually people with formal training in the arts looking for a new way of expression" she says. "They never compromise the creative process."
Among the remarkable pieces shown in Baltimore was a mixed-media coat by Dina Schwartz, 31, Israeliborn and trained by her mother, a dressmaker. Schwartz studied painting and drawing at Pratt Institute and started to crochet when she was pregnant as something she could do in bed. First came hats, then a series of kimonos. Her "sculptural piece" in the show was decorated with stuffed crocheted tubular pieces like roots.
Schafler's own crocheted coat, made for her by her friend Sharron Hedge (a former welder) was "built" on Schafler over a year's time. Schafler had commmissioned the artist to do a coat "because it is the outside garment, the most major piece I could conceive of for the body." The design was generated, Schafler says, by a combination of what the artist feels about me and what I feel about myself." When she's not wearing it, it hangs on a wall in her apartment.
And more people are wearing these clothes -- among them Joan Mondale, whose pieced vest by wearable artist Joanne Lopez of California is a frequent part of her wardrobe. And yesterday at a tea for the artists at the Corcoran Biennial, Mondale was wearing a "Partridge-on-a-Pear-Tree" pin, made of cookie dough by Richard Dulany, on her lapel.
"I like to," she said. "First of all it's a one-of-a-kind. Secondly, it's not part of the throw-away culture. Also it is a conservative investment, and I like supporting small, sometimes tiny, businesses. It's nice to think about the artists working at their sewing machines all night."
Schafler was never the Shetland sweater-pleated skirt type at Mount Holyoke where she majored in art. With a masters from the Institute of Fine Art, she found her interest in wearable art meshed her love for fashion and fine art. In 1972 she collected the best pieces to show and sell from her home, and a year later opened a gallery on Madison Avenue.
"Just because something is handmade and unique doesn't necessarily make it good wearable art," says Schafler, who thinks the separating point "is simply a gut reaction."
Schafler has stimulated a market for wearable art, but it is still quite small. While there are customers for small pieces such as vests, bags, jewelry ("You don't have to start with a major investment," she says,) there are those who simply can't separate the art from the utility. "Just because something is knit and is wool, that doesn't make it a sweater," she says sternly.
Cate Fitt, a Washingtonian who has exhibited at Schaffer's gallery, says that the $500-and-up price tag she puts on her hand-painted and hand-quilted coats and jackets -- that take over 100 hours to create from white silk -- barely covers her costs.
Fitt, who teaches quilt-making at the Valentine museum in Richmond and textiles at Virginia Commonwealth University, likes to incorporate familiar objects in her works -- scissors, safety pins or the like "to show these objects with dignity."
After the National Cathedral School and Sarah Lawrence College, Fitt studied ceramics in England. But "it was the women's movement that made me realize that I could use sewing as an artist -- that I didn't have to be a painter to be an artist," she says. "It gave me a respect for what women had done in the past. Why isn't needlework just as valid a form of self-expression as painting or anything else?"
Among the local wearers of Fitt's creations are Peggy Cooper, currently working on a a project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Lois Rice Fitt, her stepmother and the vice president of the College Entrance Examination Board.
"I've got myself in a double bind," says Fitt, who had to borrow back some items to show off a small collection. "I have to sell each piece as I make it in order to sat."
But she has an idea to relieve the pressure: a collection of "limited editions," perhaps 10 copies of one idea, "like paintings and limited editions of prints," she explains.
To those who call these head-turning styles "costume," Julie Schafler insists that store-bought designer clothes are the real costumes: "They are body coverings that one hides behind, rather than something that shows off your inner feelings." And as for magazines that promote a particular style she says, "It's pushing women into masks and uniforms. It's anti-art." Wearable art, she says, is beyond fashion.
Schafler says that few artists wear their own creations. "One artists told me that after spending nine months to create something, it was like giving birth. You wouldn't expect me to wear my baby, would you?"