Art attire

April 7, 2024

Visual artists prefer to present themselves immaculately wrapped whenever and wherever possible

Art attire


he difference between a writer, a film star, a singer, a dancer, an architect, a designer and a visual artist is not merely in the format of their creative output, or their popularity, or the amount paid for their work, but the way they dress. Leaving aside the gender or cost consideration in the choice of one’s style, one could trace some peculiarities in what these makers of images (using words, sounds, pictures, buildings) wear in public or at their workplaces. Actors, musicians and dancers, being performers on the stage or on the screen like attires that contribute to their characters, enhance their role and add to their presence/ attraction; since their bodies/ voices are not detached from their creative production.

On the other hand, some creative practitioners are confined to their solitary (or shared) spaces. Their work is seen and appreciated in their absence. An author spends most hours of the day in his/ her study surrounded by books, papers, cups of coffee, stock of cigarettes but basically alone. Some visual artists also prefer a lonely environment, though several also need studio assistants – like architects. In all these categories, what they put on is significant, depending primarily upon the requirement/ nature of their processes.

A writer can wear anything because he/ she is invisible beyond his/ her writing desk; but the situation of visual artists, designers and architects is different. Students enter schools of art and design in ordinary and routine dresses but soon acquire a different taste guided by their studio practice (a strong factor for their appearance). Architects and designers, mostly engaged with computers, are clad in neat, smart and presentable outfits compared to their contemporaries busy at drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture studios. A majority of painters and sculptors are unable to avoid daubs of paint on their nails, hands, shirts, trousers; and residues of mud, spattering of plaster on their faces, bodies, clothes and shoes.

Once outside of their workplaces – whether as a student or a professional – the visual artists, who could be the most unclean in their ateliers, transform themselves like their fellow architects, designers and showbiz personalities. A number of painters and sculptors enjoy successful and commendable side-careers as fashion models, or if not picked by the industry, dress like them. This shift from the studio to the public arena is remarkable and courageous, because it shatters a number of prejudices attached to the task/ craft of image makers, from the classical period to the modern times.

Writers or architects usually work in crisp and uncrumpled dresses, a wardrobe that won’t appear odd if they leave their study, tables or offices to go for a coffee with a friend, client or agent. Actually, the writers, in many instances, are seen in pristine attires, because their job involves no staining of the body, no handling of a tool that can smudge their fingers or damage their dress. Their tools are mainly pen, pencil, paper and computers.

The visual artists, who were/ are supposed to work in ‘dirty’ surroundings – have transformed their garbs while employing a digital medium, or outsourcing the execution of their works. Compared to actors, singers, dancers, who wear the same –or extravagant clothes at their workplaces and in public, or with writers and designers who do not change their attire from their desks to their business meetings, visual artists still engaged with conventional materials and techniques leave their atelier habit for their social life.

Art attire

Once outside of their orkplaces – whether as a student or a professional— the visual artists transform themselves like their fellow architects, designers and showbiz personalities.

I first noticed this trend while studying at the Royal College of Art, where every student arriving in a smart outfit, used to change into a working uniform, till the end of the day, to drape back into his/ her normal set. The exercise lent freedom and comfort to an artist immersed in the messy studio space. Can you imagine Shahid Sajjad wearing a formal shirt and trousers, and forging his bronze figurines, or Nausheen Saeed in an elegant shalwar kamees, casting her plaster or fiberglass sculptures? Or the German artist, Georg Baselitz handling huge oil paintings in a three-piece suit? The studio demands a separate set of working clothes.

Even if this kind of dressing is crucial in the practice of some visual artists, they prefer to present themselves immaculately wrapped whenever and wherever is possible. Actually, the behaviour can be traced back to a basic conflict between physical and intellectual labour; between the constructor of a tangible (heavy) object, and the producer of ideas/ emotion through rhythms, sounds, words. Although “the Greek word poet means ‘maker,’ and visual artists were rival makers – competing alarmingly well in the representation of reality and especially of the gods,” the poets always enjoyed a privileged status in the social hierarchy in contrast to the fabricators of image in a physical form. The distinction started with the Classical Greek period: painters and sculptors were considered no higher than the goldsmiths, blacksmiths and other artisans.

James Hall in his book The Artists’ Studio informs that the “Italian term studio – initially studietto and stadium – was first coined in 15th Century Padua. It was the artistic equivalent of a scholar’s study.” Yet for years, artists were perceived inferior due to their working with hands in their workshops (much like the word kammi kameen in Punjabi to denote manual labour; which also implies a taint of degradation). This is mainly a misnomer for someone who employs his/ her hands hardly needs to stir his/ her brain (for example a potter turning clay pots, or a weaver replicating a precise pattern). The classification is further divided, since painters had a bias against sculptors, as mentioned in “Leonardo [da Vinci]’s infamous contrast between the painter’s luxurious studio and the sculptor’s filthy workshop.”

Whether a historical misunderstanding or contemporary constraints, artists’ studios are places of varying flavours today. In most cases, these are as personal as their psyche or their wardrobes. Francis Bacon’s studio was a magnificent illustration of disarray, dis-management, disruption with papers, pictures, cartons, rags, paint cans, tubes, brushes, abandoned canvases, scattered around like the google-map of an artist’s mind. Yet this “humongous 3-D jigsaw comprising more than 7,000 bits and pieces” was transported and rearranged from London to “a museum in Dublin, where he was born.”

When we visit an artist’s studio, perhaps every item is significant, besides the work he/ she proudly shares. In a sense a visitor to an artist’s studio is not dissimilar to the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence. The lovelorn Kamal gleans each item touched, picked and consumed by Fusun, the girl he is in love with. To know an artist, more than seeing his/ her work, or dress, it is important to focus on the, otherwise, ignored pieces from his/ her studio – private and not for public consumption, yet keys to comprehend his/ her art, and ideas.

The writer is an art critic, curator and a professor at the School of Visual Arts and  Design, at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

Art attire