Hi! Camela here. I am an artist and sewist based in Charleston, SC. Today I’m sharing artists who in addition to creating fabulous artwork, endeavor to clothe their bodies in equally beautiful ways. Artists have always been at the forefront of fashion. They transform materials and ideas into objects of beauty, show us truths we are often not ready for. In addition to reflecting us as a people, artists can be very particular about how they are perceived and this flows into clothing, surroundings and more. Who among us doesn’t conjure up colorful images of Frida Kahlo alongside her surreal paintings? Artists can be very specific about dress and shape change in their actions and personal style, which can create waves beyond fabrics and hemlines. Artists envision the world they want to live in, and manifest change starting with their clothing.
I first came across Andrea Zittel in an Art 21 documentary. Andrea Zittel’s “sculptures and installations transform everything necessary for life—such as eating, sleeping, bathing, and socializing—into artful experiments in living.” At the time I was in college and working at an alterations shop and really developing into my own style, and seeing the possibilities of sewing to create my own look. In the documentary, she describes the experience of having an office job that required separate office-acceptable garb to wear and appear “professional.” Instead of accepting this and adding soulless office wear to her small budget, she made her own garments that she wore daily to counter the notion that we should wear different clothing everyday, instead washing the seasonal garments every night to wear the next day. This in turn, freed her from the consumerism inherent with looking work-appropriate. While this is an extreme example of how artists can eschew societal norms, this rocked my world as an art student and burgeoning sewist. These garments are beautiful in addition to serving their purpose. From dresses crocheted with a single strand to garments created entirely out of rectangles to honor the full width of the fabric, these garments are both stylish and fill a specific need. So many norms are imposed upon us in dressing up, including gender roles, class and capitalism. Just encountering the notion that we can defy these norms really stuck with me. Defying trends and societal conventions with dress is a personal way to resist and question consumerism. She now lives in the Joshua Tree desert where she designs and creates every object in her home. I mean, so dreamy!
Another artist associated with the desert is the iconic Georgia O’Keeffe. Born towards the end of the 19th century, she was no doubt raised with Victorian values and customs which she renounced as an adult, in favor of Modernism. Her work spans painting, photography, and as this blog post will explore, her clothing. Sewists will be happy to note that in addition to being a talented and celebrated painter, she was also a talented seamstress. Her handiwork was so fine that friends of the artist remarked that her garments could be worn inside out because of their fine stitches and attention to detail. I have a great appreciation for this in a time of fast fashion, where sometimes even sewists feel pressure to create new garments so often with how quickly trends change, and with each passing season making one feel as though they need to reinvent themselves. By slowing down and taking care to sew by hand with delicate stitches, we can endow our wardrobes with intention and great care that emanate throughout other aspects of our lives.
Her partner of almost 20 years, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, captured her on film frequently throughout their time together, so we have a lot of images of her iconic style throughout her life.
In 2017 there was an exhibition of her clothing alongside her artwork at the Brooklyn Museum, exploring her style and particular viewpoint. You can listen to an episode of the now-defunct Thread Cult Podcast that features a conversation with the curator of the exhibition, Wanda M. Corn. She wore looser styles than were customary at the time, and from young adulthood, preferred monochromatic garments over colorful prints. She demonstrated that women could be as talented and professional as their male counterparts. She showed that women could create well into their older years, and live a life on their own terms, while cutting a strong silhouette and infusing modernism into every aspect of one’s life.
I am not alone in finding so much inspiration from this exhibition. Artist and sewist Sandra Cardew created a Sienna Maker Jacket using a motif from this exhibition in a stunning linen that was once a duvet cover. She added a log cabin quilt square-reminiscent motif from one of O’Keeffe’s own jackets, inspired by the Arts and Crafts style. This maker jacket is so stunning, and just yet another example of the ripple of inspiration that emanates from the quintessential artist. I am inspired by the idea of infusing a garment with the spirit of an inspiring artist, which you can remember each time you put it on! I have got to make one of these!
In my own work I am currently making what I am calling Art Coveralls, turning my own paintings into custom fabric that I cut and sew into jumpsuits. These works merge my two art practices that I considered very separate at one time. Sewing my own clothes has been important to me for a while for being able to opt out of fast fashion and honor the many hands that clothe us. Showing Georgia O’Keeffe’s clothing alongside her paintings really demonstrates to me that while many museums consider these separate, they illustrate her commitment to her aesthetic practice in all aspects of her life. While clothing and sewing is not typically considered fine art, I think attitudes towards this are shifting, with an embrace of not differentiating fine craft and fine art.
An artist who is majorly shifting the conversation about fibers and fine art is Bisa Butler. She creates gorgeous quilts featuring portraiture of Black people in painterly layered colors, but famously not employing any paint whatsoever. I was lucky enough to see her powerful, vibrant work in person at the Art21 Hotel in Cincinnati this summer in an incredible exhibition titled “Dress Up Speak Up” .
Amy shared this excellent interview with Butler that gives great insight into her work and life. In the interview I learned that she switched to creating art quilts from painting so that her children wouldn’t be around noxious fumes from paints or solvents. So the vibrant quilts resulted from a transition to fibers from paint in order to provide care to her children and family. Care work is another recurring theme in my work, as a lot of the tasks we need to show up in the world occur in the home as unpaid, or underpaid labor. This work is crucial to humans, yet is largely invisible. Coupling that work with being an artist can create difficult conditions for creative work. Butler has shown that it is possible and inspires countless other quilters and artists with her work. Additionally, fiber art and fine craft has continually been considered different from fine art in galleries and museums for many years. Her work was recently on display in the Art Institute of Chicago, proving that not only does fiber art and Black people depicted in the works belong in museums alongside traditional fine art, but the public wants to see it as well. Her work is powerful for many reasons and demonstrates that artists that sew are changing the game and opening the door wider for more artists to follow.
Artists foment change in their communities and beyond and continually stretch us to new futures full of possibility. They can do this one stitch at a time, not just in their work, but creating lives around their creative endeavors and daring to live differently. Artists envision the world they want to live in and then set off to create it in ways that ripple outward and spark different ways of thinking and being to our world. We as sewists share this power to imbue our garments with care and purpose. These stitches are intentions we can wear on our bodies daily to remind us to create lives that set our hearts on fire.