Walking Work of Art – Women Artists and Their Appearance

Posted by: Claire Komacek

The history of women artists’ relationship to what they put on their bodies and their appearance is rich and complex. Many women artists choose to create their own personal fashion aesthetic, often reflective of or complimentary to their visual artwork, that serves to communicate their personal beliefs, life experiences, and self-identification as an artist.

Arguably the most famous example of a woman artist with her own unique sense of style is fashion icon Frida Kahlo, who dressed daily in Tehuana dresses, ‘embroidered Huipil blouses,’1 leather corsets, chunky, ‘Pre-columbian’2 jewelry, and ‘clusters of flowers.’3 She wore her dark hair ‘rolled with brightly colored wool cords in a headdress known as tlacoyal,’4 and donned an unplucked unibrow and visible mustache, ‘grooming them with special tools and even penciling them darker.’5 Her fashion style is clearly visible in her many self-portrait paintings, both of which functioned as a means of self-expression and exploration of her identity through disability, ethnicity, and personal history.6

Kahlo used fashion specifically to ‘both mask and highlight aspects of her identity.’7 Kahlo’s ‘indigenous Mexican’8 attire was not only a display of her ‘conscious disregard of appropriate bourgeois behavior,’9 but most importantly an expression of pride in her Mexican heritage. The floor-length Tehuana dresses were also a way of hiding the ‘imperfections in her lower body’10 caused by childhood polio and the horrific bus accident from which she was not expected to survive.11 Kahlo’s corsets are reminiscent of the plaster body casts that she was confined to after the accident.12 The bright colors and extravagance of Kahlo’s attire was also used both to offset her physical limitations and to draw attention to herself and her artistic presence.13

Another woman artist, who frequently remarked on the importance of appearance, is Ukrainian-born American sculptor Louise Nevelson, who is well known for her ‘iconic, full-blown style’14 consisting of ‘skillfully mixed and matched ethnic clothing,’15 jewels, scarves, and furs in a vibrant collage of texture, pattern, and color. She always wore her signature multilayered ‘mink eyelashes’16 and typically covered her head with turbans, silk caps, or colorful headscarves. ‘The artist was in many ways her own greatest creation,’17 calling herself a ‘real collage’18 and believed that, ‘every time I put on clothes, I am creating a picture.’19 Aspects of Nevelson’s fashion echo her most famous works – the monumental wooden collage sculptures – through their shared sense of rich, layered texture and innovative hodgepodge. Nevelson’s style is also a clear reflection of her identity as an artist, as she believed that ‘you very carefully can identify a person by their appearance. It’s important. It’s not skin deep. It’s much deeper.’20

A more contemporary woman artist whose fashion sense is deeply connected to her art is Japanese multimedia artist Yayoi Kusama, dubbed the ‘Priestess of Polka Dots.’21 In her later years, after taking up residence at Seiwa Hospital, ‘well-known for its implementation of art therapy,’22 she adopted a signature bright red blunt cut wig and began to dress in boldly colored, loose-fitting polka-dot dresses. Throughout her life, Kusama experienced visual hallucinations of ‘repetitive and proliferating patterns of dots … which spread over her surroundings’23 and herself. These polka-dot hallucinations are what drove Kusama to pursue art in the first place, ‘in order to correct the disability which began in her childhood.’24 By habitually wearing polka-dots, Kusama displays her ‘identity, personality, and life-long psychiatric disorder.’25 ‘She wears dots on her body as a way to dematerialize her body,’26 expressive of her hallucinatory experience, as well as to ‘disconnect her body from the stereotypical sexualized interpretation of the female body,’27 as the polka-dot has both ‘the form of the sun, signifying the masculine … and the form of the moon, symbolizing the feminine.’28 The polka-dots of Kusama’s fashion style have a direct connection to much of her artwork which ritually utilizes the symbol, namely her large-scale dot paintings, polka-dot covered room installations, and numerous mid-1960s Happenings during which Kusama, ‘dressed in a fashion of her own concoction,’29 would paint polka-dots on participants’ nude bodies. Frequently photographed alongside her work, Kusama’s body, fashion, art have fused into one.

Women artists, being sensitively conscious of all things visual, continue to create themselves into a walking works of art through crafting their own personal fashion style. Walking down the halls of Moore College of Art & Design, you are sure to see many young women artists dressed in beautiful, unique attire – Indian Ghungroo anklets, mismatched socks, psychedelic colored hair, self-designed tattoos, DIY jewelry, and home sewn clothes. Many women artists, historically and contemporarily, have crafted their own distinctive style of everyday dress as both an extension of their artwork and as a means of creative self-expression, ‘blurring the lines between being an artist and an art piece.’30

Are you a woman artist whose everyday fashion reflects your work and identity as an artist?  Leave a comment and tell us about it!

1. Cochrane, Lauren, ‘Frida Kahlo: long may her fashion influence reign,’ The Guardian, published May 8th, 2015, accessed June 18th, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/may/08/frida-kahlo-long-may-her-fashion-influence-reign.
2. Lowe Sarah M., Frida Kahlo: Universe Series of Women Artists (New York: Universe Publishing, 1991), 51.
3. Cochrane, ‘Frida Kahlo.’
4. Lowe, Frida Kahlo, 51.
5. Mencimer, Stephanie, ‘The Trouble With Frida Kahlo,’ Washington Monthly, published June 2002, accessed June 18th, 2015, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0206.mencimer.html.
6. Cochrane, ‘Frida Kahlo.’
7. Cochrane, ‘Frida Kahlo.’
8. Lowe, Frida Kahlo, 51.
9. Lowe, Frida Kahlo, 51.
10. Cochrane, ‘Frida Kahlo.’
11. Mencimer, ‘The Trouble With Frida Kahlo.
12. Cochrane, ‘Frida Kahlo.’
13. Cochrane, ‘Frida Kahlo.
14. Camhi, Leslie, ‘Designed for Living,’ The New York Times, published April 15th, 2007, accessed June 18th, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/style/tmagazine/15tlouise.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0.
15. ‘Biography,’ Louise Nevelson Foundation, published 2010, accessed June 18th, 2015, http://www.louisenevelsonfoundation.org/biography.php.
16. ‘Biography,’ Louise Nevelson Foundation.’
17. Camhi, ‘Designed for Living.’
18. Parker, Deborah, ‘Louise Nevelson, pt. 1,’ A Hymn to Intellectual Beauty: Creative Minds and Fashion, published January 9th, 2013, accessed June 18th, 2015, http://creativemindsandfashion.com/2013/01/09/louise-nevelson-pt-1/.
19. ‘Quotes,’ Louise Nevelson Foundation, accessed June 19th, 2015, www.louisenevelsonfoundation.org/pdf/quotes.pdf/
20. Parker, ‘Louise Nevelson, pt. 1.’
21. Karia, Bhupendra, Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective (New York, Center for International Contemporary Arts, Inc, 1989), 29.
22. Bhupendra, Yayoi Kusama, 33.
23. Bhupendra, Yayoi Kusama, 13-14.
24. Bhupendra, Yayoi Kusama, 12.
25. Suhr, Trine, ‘Yayoi Kusama,’ Feminist Art Archive, accessed June 19th, 2015, http://courses.washington.edu/femart/final_project/wordpress/yayoi-kusama/.
26. Suhr, ‘Yayoi Kusama.
27. Suhr, ‘Yayoi Kusama.
28. Bhupendra, Yayoi Kusama, 29.
29. Bhupendra, Yayoi Kusama, 29.
30. Suhr, ‘Yayoi Kusama.’

1. Poniatowska, Elena, Frida Kahlo: The Camera Seduced (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992), 106.
2. Lipman, Jean, Nevelson’s World (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1983), frontispiece.
3. Frank, Priscella, ‘Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Dots Obsession’ Installation Continues Polka Dot Queen’s Reign,’ Huffington Post, published May 20th, 2013, accessed June 22nd, 2015,http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/20/yayoi-kusama-dots-obsession-norway_n_3306139.html.
4. Julio, ‘The Revolutionary Artist: Frida Kahlo,’ Feminist Art Archive, accessed July 29th, 2015, http://courses.washington.edu/femart/final_project/wordpress/frida-kahlo/.

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