The question as to whether fashion is art or there is art in fashion has long been disputed. If so, how would one define the art of fashion? Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy, presented by The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (SFMOMA), is a companion volume to the Beijing-based couturier’s 2022 exhibition showcasing her fine talent in fashion. Held at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the exhibition of couture costumes is a blockbuster on fashion in an art museum that casts an interesting light on why fashion aesthetics is a good reason to be considered for an exhibition in museums.
So does fashion have a place in an art museum? Victoria and Albert Museum for one houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of dress in the world that spans five centuries. The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art also has an impressive collection representing seven centuries of fashionable dress and accessories from the 15th century to the present. From the outset, clothing and fashion could be appreciated as a source of valuable information on cultural traditions and practices of various periods and society.
Currently displayed at the permanent collection galleries in SFMOMA (16 April-5 September 2022), Guo Pei’s meticulously constructed gowns intriguingly juxtapose with the ornate frames and richness of the classical paintings, underlining the alluring power of ornament in art. While rich embellishment might be hackneyed as superfluous, peripheral or excessive, Guo Pei’s whimsical creations dramatically connect the paintings, drawings and ceramic objects from the 17th century, a period in which exotic East Asian designs enchanted Europeans in a decorative style known as chinoiserie. The sheerness of Peter Paul Rubens’s fabric pleats of collars and sleeves oddly yet arrestingly complements the gossamer folds of two chartreuse dresses from Guo’s 2007 collection, An Amazing Journey in a Childhood Dream. The exhibits are creatively curated; the costumes intriguingly placed, the exhibit labels interesting, even thought-provoking. It is really up to individual discretion to consider if this exhibit is any different from traditional art exhibits of paintings or sculptures.
Guo Pei: Couture Fantasy features more than 250 color illustrations highlighting 82 of the designer’s most outstanding creations, backstage photographs as well as a facsimile sketchbook that allows insight into her design process. There are essays that illuminate Guo’s aesthetic philosophy in her creative process and on her elaborate designs by scholars and curators including Jill D’Alessandrao, Sally Yu Leung, Anna Grasskamp and Juanjuan Wu. There is an interview with Guo Pei and a chronology exploring the trajectory of her career and providing a deeper understanding of her designs. Guo has emphasized the influence of her Chinese heritage,
The culture of China is just like the blood that runs through my veins, it’s my life. China has more than 5000 years of history, even longer culturally-speaking.
Jill D’Alessandro duly points out,
Accordingly, Chinese design elements permeated Guo’s collections created between 2005 and 2015. The references were often overt, reliant on pervasive iconography easily recognizable to a Chinese audience, such as the blue-and-white, porcelain-inspired dress in the 1002 Nights collection …; scenes of pagodas emblazoned onto the surface of a dress… and the classical Chinese symbolism — dragons, phoenixes, peonies, and double happiness — explicitly used in the Legend of the Dragon collection …
Sally Yu Leung writes that “some of the most representative traditional Chinese symbols and elements” are featured in Guo’s works and by doing so, it “reveals the cultural connotations and hidden meanings in the garments, allowing for a deeper appreciation.” Guo Pei’s emphasis on seeking inspiration from her Chinese cultural heritage tacitly points to the prospects of fashion as an art form capable of instilling values in designers and translating experiences across generations, a ground worthy to be explored by museums.
In the article “The Quiet Power of ‘Designed in China’”, Juanjuan Wu refers to the need to put Guo’s works in the current context of Chinese standing and socio-cultural history, advancing the idea of the exhibition as presenting her elaborate costumes as living art. Wu writes,
Accompanying China’s recent transformation into a global economic powerhouse, Chineseness in Western fashion has gradually moved closer and closer to China. In the process, the layers of interpretation have been peeled back to reach a core of authenticity.
Completed in 2005, her work Da Jing (Magnificent Gold), fully embroidered with gold thread, took two years to complete and cost $1 million to create. The long panels of the gown, which resembles an inverted lotus seedpod, are creatively embroidered with designs of the lotus and trailing plants, symbols of everlasting exuberance. In Chinese culture, the lotus flower is a symbol of nobility and purity since the flower yields radiant petals, even as it springs from the mire. The lotus is one of Buddhism’s most recognizable symbols of enlightenment—Buddhist deities are often portrayed sitting on lotus thrones, a metaphor of their release from worldly cares. The seedpod of the lotus is evident when the flower begins to bloom, thus the combination of the lotus and the seedpod symbolizes fruitfulness, abundance, and having numerous offspring.
The lotus is a motif frequently employed by Guo Pei. The Bao Xiang Hua is a decorative element of a flower with leaf flourish and scrolls used in Chinese art that first appeared in the Wei dynasty (220-265 CE) when Buddhism was spreading. The element is also used on the quirky blue-and-white porcelain-inspired dress of her 2010 collection 1002 Nights. The Bao Xiang Hua is a combination of a lotus, a peony, and a chrysanthemum which symbolize nobility, holiness and solemnity. On her deep interest in exploring Chinese cultural motifs in her creations, she says,
I believe that design can never be too far away from the past; designers should learn about the past to inform their own designs and become a part of history themselves.
The designer’s outlook asserts that fashion is not merely a manner of dressing; it is a social expression of an age as well as a way of life that reflects our cultural heritage. Fashion has its roots in the past and bears the seeds of the future.
Lavish embroidery is also recognized as a key signature of Guo’s brand, the medium through which, she says, expresses herself best. Over the course of twenty years, Guo and her team developed their own interpretation of traditional embroidery stitches. According to associate professor of fashion design Wang Yi,
Guo is trying to reinvent Imperial style. But there is a gap of a century in Chinese history, and her patterns, colors and techniques have all been improvised in a vacuum.
Born in 1967 and raised during the Cultural Revolution, the period had an immense impact on her. Women sewed plain homemade clothes for their family, which Guo Pei learnt by helping her mother. The desire for more creativity begets Guo to seek inspiration from her maternal grandmother’s colourful descriptions of stylish Manchu tight-fitting garments worn during the twilight of China’s imperial Qing dynasty, a sharp contrast to the dowdy garments worn during the Maoist period.
Guo’s grandmother was an adept needle-worker who excelled in embroidery, which for centuries was a measure of a traditional Chinese woman’s worth. The profound influence of her grandmother prepared Guo for unconventional artisanship in her career as a couturier. Guo is also recognised for theatrical runway presentations and experimental dressmaking techniques that emanate a sartorial fantasy of various influences from China’s imperial past to European court life and architecture. “Fantasy” Guo says,
is the height of your spirit. It is the most important part of life because it fuels its meaning … If you have fantasy or an imaginative outlook, you will grow and inspire other people.
Guo’s elaborate and iconic designs constitute works of art that explore Chinese aesthetics in relation to Western fashion. In 1997, she established her own design house, Rose Studio, a couture house which creates lavish gowns for Chinese celebrities and upmarket private clients. Her newly wealthy clients clamoured for the next new thing, pushing Guo to the limits of her creativity. In the early 2000s, Guo and her husband Cao Baojie took frequent trips to Europe where they visited museums to see Chinese embroidery and European haute couture. Through this exposure to European art and architecture, Guo began to develop her signature artistic style: richly embellished designs that unite Eastern and Western influences.
In 2016, Guo became only the second designer born and educated in China to become a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Today, she is one of the most recognized names in Chinese fashion, with her designs worn by such A-list Chinese stars as Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi. For Guo as a couturier, each collection starts with a philosophical idea—a spark of inspiration—drawn from a wide range of sources from her personal life and travels as well as art and architecture, literature, and nature. Layers of meaning and imagery form a bricolage of opulent surfaces imposed upon sculptural silhouettes. Her theatrical works deviate from traditional dressmaking to occupy a liminal space between fashion, theatre, performance and sculpture. She says,
The traditional craftsmanship in my work provides a connection with history. It gives the work a much deeper legacy – a sense of inheritance of times past, and in carrying it forward.
Guo endows her dresses and clothes with an unbridled devotion to details and cultural richness as well as complexity to change people’s thinking of what fashion could be—just as art museums curate fashion exhibitions to engage the potential to challenge conventional thinking of what constitutes art.
Phyllis Teo is an art historian and writer currently based in Singapore. She is the author of Rewriting Modernism: Three Women Artists in Twentieth-Century China (Leiden University Press, 2016).