We tend to think that the fashion and art symbiosis is a relatively new thing, birthed by the late ‘90s and early ‘00s collaborations between Marc Jacobs and artists like Stephen Sprouse, Takahashi Murakami, and Yayoi Kusama. In fact, the relationship (as well as the tension) between modern fashion and art is as old as modern fashion itself. Its arguable progenitor, Charles Frederick Worth, deemed himself an artist. He compared himself with the painter Eugene Delacroix and put on artistic airs (down to wearing a type of a beret favored by Parisian painters), setting the model for the generations of fashion designers that came after him. From Paul Poiret to Coco Chanel to Elsa Schiaparelli and beyond, designers either cultivated friendships with or collaborated with artists.
To be sure, the art world often did and still scoffs at fashion (as if today’s art world is anything but a crassly commercial, profit-driven mafia), but there have always been artists that took fashion seriously. One of them was Man Ray, a prominent modernist artist and photographer, who has contributed significantly to the Dada and the Surrealist movements. A son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel Radnitzky (Man Ray’s real name) was born in Philadelphia in 1890. His first exposure to fashion was through his parents. His father worked in a garment factory and ran a tailoring business out of their home on the side. His mother designed the clothes for the entire family. And though Man Ray longed to escape the small world of his parents, it clearly influenced his work, as witnessed by one of his first famous artworks, Gift (1921), a readymade comprised of an iron with metal tacks attached to its bottom.
In 1921 Man Ray moved to Paris to be at the center of modern art, and plunged headlong into it. Photography became his main medium, and with it came an interest in photographing fashion. During his tenure in Paris, Man Ray collaborated with who-is-who of Parisian couture – Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel, and took photos for Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, applying his ingenious photographic methods, such as solarization.
This multi-decade tenure is explored in depth in an exhibition Man Ray and Fashion, on view through mid-August at the MoMu in Antwerp, Belgium. An impressive collection of original Man Ray images is accompanied by an equally impressive collection of fashion, which ranges from ensembles by Man Ray’s contemporaries, such as Poiret and Schiaparelli, to contemporary Belgian designers like Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Olivier Theyskens, and non-Belgians such as Phoebe Philo’s Celine. None of these names, of course, come as a surprise – it feels like there is no designer with an intellectual bent who has not been influenced by Man Ray in some fashion. The exhibit provides numerous examples of Man Ray’s influence, but one struck me in particular – a famous 1928 photograph of the British heiress Nancy Cunard, whose chic dress is overshadowed by stacked bracelets that were definitely designed by Rick Owens.
So, if you find yourself in Antwerp, do visit the exhibit. And if you can’t make it out, there is an excellent catalogue that accompanies it.
Man Ray and Fashion at MoMu, Antwerp, on view until August 13th, 2023
Images by Stany Dederen, courtesy of the museum.