As you may have seen from the images and reports on the Internet, Guillaume Henry came up with a series of pretty dresses in his collection for Carven.
Some of them were characterised by elements reminiscent of ecclesiastical robes from the Middle Ages (after all the setting was supposed to be a church or a convent...) and made with tapestry-like fabrics.
At times they were also enriched with laser-cut motifs that hinted at the beauty of stained glass windows or featured prints of paintings and colours borrowed from the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance masters.
Striking silhouettes included heavy pannier mini-skirts, but, among the best designs, there were a few dresses and blouses featuring brightly colourful prints of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.
This is definitely not the first time that art successfully appears in fashion: one of the most recent collections in which art was used in all its glory was - as you may remember, though too many critics seem to have already forgotten - Alexander McQueen’s last collection.
The latter was a perfectly fashionable trip through art, inspired by the palette of the Flemish masters, and featuring Bosch’s chaotic overcrowded fantastic scenes with their grotesque creatures from the "Garden of Earthly Delights" triptych, plus decorative elements inspired by Grinling Gibbons’s wood carvings and prints of “The Virgin of the Annunciation” from Hugo van der Goes's Portinari Triptych.
It’s undeniable that prints incorporating works of art can be extremely beautiful and that choosing a painting or a sculpture by a long-dead artist also means that, most of the times, you don’t have to pay any kind of copyrights, yet there are some exceptions and there are also some rather unique situations.
The problem is that many artworks exhibited in museums are there to be enjoyed by the public, and therefore by each and everyone of us, but what happens when a specific work ends up on a designer’s piece? Think about this: we buy mugs, shirts, scarfs or notebooks with prints of paintings or sculptures from museum shops all the time and we know that our money goes to that museum. But when we buy a dress with prints of a specific painting preserved in a particular museum who gets the money? Just the designer?
Let’s look at another example: the first few looks at Dries Van Noten’s may have almost displayed a derivation from the architectural elements of De Chirico’s costumes for the Ballets Russes’s "Le Bal", but the main inspiration for the collection was actually revelead later on when models wearing garments with Oriental motifs walked down the runway.
Apparently Van Noten visited the Victoria & Albert Museum in London last October and had a look at the Chinese, Japanese and Korean costumes in its archives.
Visitors to the "Imperial Chinese Robes" exhibition may remember that the musem often showcases some of these pieces vertically and spread open to show the beautiful colours, embroidered motifs, materials and construction.Van Noten photographed them laid flat, reshaped them, then sectioned the images, cut them into pieces and remixed them, digitally printing them onto silk, crepe, and matelassé.
The traditional rainbow coloured stripes of a beautiful yellow robe from 1800-1911 - probably destined to the empress as bright yellow remained her prerogative - became a decorative motif for tops and coats for modern empresses; in some cases one section of the costume ended up on a skirt, while assorted bits and pieces multiplied on a shirt.
The final effect was graphically beautiful on relaxed trousers and silk dresses, though it became very desirable when images of embroidered silk damask robes with their imperial insignia and gold threads were applied to masculine tailored coats and jackets.
As a whole this "Dries Van V(and)A" collection was a successfully commercial and saleable one, but, here’s the conundrum: we don’t know the names of the people who made these robes, but they are property of the V&A, so my question is, who owns the copyright of these beautiful prints?
Is it the designer, because he took the pictures and then remixed them? But then again Coldcut and Fatboy Slim did some great tracks but didn’t own the samples they incorporated in their music and had to pay to use them. So my next question is, did the designer have to pay the V&A to take pictures and then use their images or was he allowed to use them for free for what is ultimately a commercial product (or is he granting that a part of the sales from the collection will go towards the preservation of a specific work of art? mind you, this last hypothesis is practically unlikely in the fashion industry...)?
In case the answer to my second question is a positive yes, well, Dries Van Noten created what is legally known as a "precedent": if he had access to the V&A archive, then we, as ordinary people, can all have access to the V&A archive, take pictures and then make our own clothes and accessories remixing other images, costumes, paintings, statues and everything else stored in the museum collection.
If, as ordinary people we are denied access, then why was Van Noten allowed to have access to these materials? Because he is a fashion designer and therefore capable of reusing the past better than us?
So, while the doubt remains, if you fancy copying – pardon, I mean "take inspiration/pay homage to" – further pieces showcased at the V&A, remember that the next exhibition involving fashion will be about Hollywood movies (Orientalist fans rejoyce: there will also be the costumes from Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, designed by James Acheson) and will start in October.
In the meantime, you can always try to gatecrash not only the V&A archive and collection, but any archive from any museum near you. And, if they try to stop you, well, remind them that, if Dries Van Noten can do it, we want to be able to do it as well.
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