The artist’s new clothes

May 01, 2022

A look at how artists think about personal attire and dress

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id ulFitr is traditionally associated with new clothes. Children as well as grownups get brand-new garments on this auspiciousoccasion. Kids in particular wait the entire year for this festive day so they can wear bright and colourful dresses, and enjoy.

But artists? Probably in our midst they are indistinguishable from others when it comes to Eid celebrations. However, for the rest of 363 days, they make a point to appear different – distinct – not only in their artwork, but in their attires, too. At their studios, jobs, exhibitions and parties, artists relate their dresses to their ideas, formal concerns and approaches towards art and life. One can guess a creative person’s preference in art through what he/she chooses in terms of colour, texture, material and cut. Our dress, according to Charlie Porter, the London-based writer and curator, “is a daily, even hourly, signalling of our beliefs, emotions, intentions”. And I recall seeing David Hockney, the celebrated British artist on the 1991 Convocation of Royal College of Art. The painter was clad in a turquoise jacket, pale grey shirt, deep red tie, bright blue trousers, orange socks and dark green sneakers. Colours which travelled from his canvas to his body.

In our surroundings, we find diverse attitudes towards fashion among visual artists. Some bypass it, others try to follow it, several are inventing it and a few become the embodiment of fashion in their looks. If one researches artists of earlier generations –prior to the internet(which Julian Barnes compares “to the railways. A beguiling convenience with no intrinsic moral value or effect”), social networking platforms, and the 24 hours’ telly from around the world – one realises that artists of the sixties, seventies and eighties had limited choices. Most of them conformed to the conventional dress codes, like Sadequain who defied the accepted mode of image making, even the normal pattern of living: without an address, family, investment. He wore formal sherwani and pyjama in his public appearances.

The same was the case with Iqbal Geoffrey, an artist who challenged establishments of art in the US, UK, Europe and Pakistan. He filed human rights cases, fought for political prisoners and extradited citizens, argued against racial discrimination, questioned the hegemony of mainstream Western art; yet during the day he was in his lawyer’s habit (black suit and tie) and in regular Western attire whenever invited to an exhibition/talk. One also remembers Zubeida Agha and Anna Molka Ahmed, two revolutionary figures of Pakistani art; the first commemorated for introducing the language of abstract art, and the latter for establishing the Department of Fine Arts at the University of the Punjab in 1940. Yet, in their photographs, both are in the common printed shalwar and kurta, or in a sari – not unusual for a woman their age.

Shakir Ali, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Ali Imam and Moyene Najmi, artists who changed the course of Pakistani art with their modernisms, usually were seen in suits and ties; although Parvez, agitated in the street of London once hung his torn canvases around his neck, but one could imagine he was still in his well-tailored suit. Ali Imam, a known communist, was arrested in 1949 for his political beliefs/speeches, yet until his last days, he liked formal/conventional – and elegant attire. I am reminded of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Pablo Neruda, two bards extraordinaire who brought attention to the struggle of the proletariat in their verses, instead of donning working class garb, they mostly wore suits (linen by the Chilean Nobel laureate).

Rashid Rana in his Identical Views II, 2004, delineates the linear chronicle of a person (the artist) shedding one type of clothes for another. The work alludes to how an artist’s dress – despite his/her output is significant in order to comprehend his/her position/ concepts.

Perhaps, the examples of these revolutionaries reaffirm a peculiar fact: that what you wear does not matter, but what you create does. A creative individual, regardless of his/her dress sense, will leave this world, and same would happen to his/her wardrobe, but what is produced will survive.

You could have crossed Neruda, Brecht, Faiz, Adonis or Picasso, Duchamp on the streets of Chile, Berlin, Beirut, Lahore, Paris or New York, failing to notice the genius. The question of an artist’s getup comes up when a creative person is recognised as the maker of what mesmerises a large number of people, because otherwise (and historically) a human being is considered a vehicle/messenger that communicates between the goddess of creativity (saraswati/charis) and ordinary mortals. But, who is interested in what a messenger wears?

With the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, it is no longer art that matters, but the artist. Not even the connection with a gallery or a nation. In 1968, Andy Warhol predicted, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” but today most of the artists are celebrities 24/7. You open your social media page and witness a great achievement by a sculptor, the latest canvas by a painter, some new museum for a performance artist. So, fame is ticking around the clock.

Ali Imam.

Along with the achievements in the studio, it is the conquest in the realm of the image that haunts several artists now. Artists in some instances have turned into curators. They curate themselves. Taking great — the greatest — care about how they appear, almost like models (a few of them are moonshining as fashion models too. A commendable step to break the boundaries between disciplines). Some of them are famous for their floral shirts and bright trousers, or the top designers’ outfits; others for their traditional dress, including saris, block-printed kurtas; or for workmen’s outfits (T-shirts, trousers, shorts; mostly the studio apparel – much like the medieval painters’ smocks). Actually, the shift from what an artist makes to what he/she fits into is linked to the cult of personality – enforced and enhanced by the demands of a successful professional, a star. In consumer culture, visual artists are (and aspire to be) treated like the figures of show business; thus, in many instances their attire dominates what they offer.

In certain instances, the outfit of an artist is crucial and everlasting rather than what he/she fabricates in the studio. We identify an artist with his/her elegance, trendiness and chicness, often not bothering about the work; though an artist’s choice of clothes can be a work of art, dealing with ideas of otherness, vernacularism, indigenousness and foreign influences. Rashid Rana in his Identical Views II, 2004, delineates the linear chronicle of a person (the artist) shedding one type of clothes for another. The work alludes to how an artist’s dress – despite his/her output is significant in order to comprehend his/her position/concepts. It focuses on formal, political and contextual interpretations related to what an artist wears – which cannot be delinked to what he/she thinks.

Ali Imam.

Consider Gilbert and George, the British artist duo, who despite being two individuals work as one artist. They were asked by Stephen Sackur, the host of BBC’s Hard Talkon why they are always in tweed suits and ties; a conservative gear. On that George said, “we come from the working-class background, where you wear formal dress on important occasions, i.e., going to church, job interview, wedding, funeral etc. We wear suits every day, because we believe that every day of our life is an important occasion.”

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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