“Off the Wall: American Art to Wear” recalls the rebellion led by women against social conformity and the elitist artistic establishment.
In the 1960s, the American wearable art movement reflected a true counterculture
In the early 1970s, an art history student named Julie Schafler Dale admitted she didn’t want to be an academician. She wanted a more practical artistic career, which would allow her to engage in the living arts of her generation; she wanted to focus on something new, young and exciting. Dale, who had a long-standing interest in the art of body adornment, asked the American Craft Council a crucial question: Were there any artists who used clothing to express themselves? They gave her access to slide files and catalogs of work by artists across the country who painted and sculpted with fabrics and fibers and used the body as armature.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Dale recalled. Although the pieces were wearable, it was not fashionable. It was wearable art, an entirely new form pioneered by a generation coming of age in the 60s and 70s. “It was made by people who had something to say, who cared about the world who around them and trying to make a difference,” says Dale. “The idea was to take art out of walls and museums and integrate it into our daily lives”.
Immediately after his discovery of this “one-of-a-kind, national body of handmade clothing,” Dale experienced his next step. She opened Julie: Artisans’ Gallery in 1973, at the corner of 62nd Street and Madison Avenue. Now a beacon of corporate chains, fast fashion and luxury brands, it’s hard to imagine Madison Avenue was once an epicenter of art, fashion and culture. Knowing that there was no existing market for these works, Dale chose a location with as much visibility as possible, to let the market define itself.
Dale says the work featured in the Artisans Gallery was “kaleidoscopic in its visual range”. Each piece has been made with painstaking processes, over the course of months or years. Dip-dyed silk and crocheted kimonos hung on the walls alongside custom capes, sculptural coats and ornate masks. Here, the clothes were canvases and the works could be animated by the body. “Every day was like Christmas. People I’d never seen before came in with black trash bags and took out these amazing things,” says Dale. not the one that will sell tomorrow. The priority has been completely reversed.
Its 13-by-30-foot space was the premier destination for wearable art for nearly 40 years, establishing Dale as a trusted collector, cherished patron, and the figurehead of a movement. Despite a hugely influential run, Dale was unable to continue operating the gallery after his lease expired in 2013.”
But this fall, the many faces and colors that characterized the Artisans’ Gallery came together again at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for the opening of a monumental exhibition that spanned more than 12 years. Off the Wall: American Art to Wear features over 100 wearable works of art from over 60 different artists, many of which have been donated by Dale. “It was a very unusual and moving opening. There we were all together again, reunited with each other and many artists found pieces they had made 40 years ago. It was like a A show of this magnitude feels like a watershed moment for the understated American art movement, which has been chronically overlooked and underestimated by historians and critics alike.
“People just don’t understand it,” says Philadelphia museum curator Dilys E Blum. “It was always seen as clothing and shrouded in fashion, but that wasn’t the intention. It’s very much about the era and how the artists perceived themselves, the environment and the politics of the world they lived in,” says Blum. In the world of wearable art, “fashion” is its own kind of f-bomb. While the question of whether fashion is art has long plagued the high fashion world and fans of brands like Comme des Garçons and Alexander McQueen, in the wearable art movement, there is no wobble. It is art, which happens to be portable.
Blum worked with Dale to create an exhibit that contextualizes artwork in the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. Visitors are guided not by a timeline, but by a series of songs that define an era. The art is grouped into themes based on tracks like “These Times They Are A Changin” by Bob Dylan, “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, and “In a Land Called Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire. In a projected montage, footage from 1967’s San Francisco Summer of Love flashes between protests and allusions to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam War is truly the elephant in the room, which adds weight to the use of the corporeal body as a vehicle of expression at a time when issues of survival and mortality were center stage.
College campuses were instrumental in nurturing the youth and subculture of the 60s and the atmosphere at the Pratt Institute was no exception. In 1968, five of his students – Janet Lipkin, Marika Contompsis, Jean Cacicedo, Sharon Hedges and Dina Knapp – learned freeform crochet and reveled in its potential. Cacicedo is quoted in the exhibition book On the wall“Pratt was the mecca of exploration. The counterculture of the time was embedded in our philosophy, our attitudes, our clothing, and our enthusiasm to be different in our artistic creation. Lipkin also explains, “We were in prime time: 1968-1970. That’s when it all exploded. Discovering yourself was the most important thing in the universe and we were in art school, so anything unusual or new or inventive was supported. The so-called “Pratt 5” has become one of the movement’s most recognized names, and as Dale gallery regulars, their work is well represented in the exhibition.
In the white, masculine, highly conceptual and elitist art world of the 70s, the use of “domestic” craftsmanship was its own kind of rebellion. Artists, mostly women, who made wearable art dared to revive the importance of manual labor and ancient techniques, and blurred the lines between “high” and “low” culture. Dale writes in the exhibition book that these baby boomer artists were “free from their upwardly mobile parents’ desire for security and things and from the pressure to conform to traditionally structured society”. Museum visitors are reminded that the psychedelic, rainbow palette and other elements of hippie iconography (butterflies, tribalism, organic shapes) that run through the exhibit were very intentional rejections of cultural sterility, restrictions and contradictions of the Eisenhower era. “Self-expression was a driving force, the catalyst for breaking new ground, fueled by a sense of empowerment and the realization that individual stories were unique, relevant and worth telling,” says Dale.
The pieces on display vary widely, from a jacket encrusted with 25,000 gold safety pins by Mark A. Mahall to the feathered “Griffin Mask” by Bill Cunningham. Although there is no uniform aesthetic, there are recurring themes, such as environmental concerns and sustainability, new age spiritualism, and homages to ethnographic or indigenous works. It is clear that each work is a kind of diary of a moment in the artist’s life, and that each object is an extension of the individual. “Each of these pieces has a personal story, and as you dive into them you realize how intimate they were and how cathartic the journeys were in terms of creativity. They are pieces of a lifetime,” says Dale.
The exhibition does an excellent job of reconstructing the vibrant atmosphere of Dale’s Madison Avenue gallery. And asking what wearable art is leaves visitors with a different question: why doesn’t anyone know? Wearable art is the culmination of things not traditionally taken seriously by the art world: it is craft-based, female-led, and rooted in counterculture and non-traditional aesthetics. western. The Art to Wear movement refused to align with and in many ways actively rejected the successful and trending (read: commercial) works of its time. Maintaining integrity can often mean sacrificing visibility. Fortunately, On the wall is carving out the practice’s deserved place in history.
“Off the Wall: American Art to Wear” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum through May 17.