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Helicon x utopia 

The disappearing figure

An insight into the flourishing relationship between art and womenswear throughout history 

By Anna Lambert and Sophie Brassey


This trend continued well into the Modern age. Evidence of this is seen in paintings from this era: Goya, The Nude Maja (ca. 1797-1800) shows a naked body reclined on a bed. The painted nude is key evidence of these stylised bodies; despite the absence of clothing, her body still bears the contortion of the corset. She lays awkward and stiff, as if restricted by an invisible gown. Anne Holder notes the mammoth influence that clothing had on the female figure, and vice versa: “an image of the nude body that is absolutely free of any counterimage of clothing is virtually impossible. Thus, all nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the ghosts of absence clothes”. Goya’s Nude Maja poses as a reminder of how women were not only restrained in clothing, but in society. 

Throughout the history of fashion the female figure acts as a motor, driving forward experimentation with different silhouettes. We can look at the development of the 1920s drop-waist and boxy silhouette. Flapper’s became iconic, and with both exercising and smoking simultaneously coming into trend, slim figures were the desired physique. Consequently, the well-known flapper-esque dress silhouette was popularised, allowing free movement and creating the appearance of a slimmer frame. 


Art and fashion go hand in hand. . .

Streetwear boasts graphic hoodies and tshirts, runways oversee countless collaborations between artists and designers, and haute-couture collections produce sculpture-like gowns. While these two creative outlets seem integral to each other, this is a fairly new development. We can look back to a time where art and fashion were not interconnected in any respect; fashion (in particular, womenswear) served its purpose in shaping the female form to a desired silhouette. Art, on the other hand, stood away from the human form - it was something to admire off of the body. 

The development of womenswear runs parallel to evolving societal expectations of the female body. During the Renaissance, where our study begins, beauty standards consisted of rounder bodies. Much like the praised ‘Kardashian’ physique, a desired womens figure had a slim waist with large hips. Clothing played a key role in enforcing these beauty standards - the princess corset cinched in the waist, with bustles padding around the hips like a vintage BBL. The figure and clothing were so closely knitted, that the ‘natural’ female body became lost to these ancient forms of physical manipulation. 

From this, we can jump forward to Dior’s ‘Bar Suit’. First debuting in 1947, this classic design harked back to the traditional hourglass shape: characterised by its rounded shoulders, and flowing skirt, the infamous Bar Suit allowed for more movement and freedom. Clothing was no longer only about appearance, but also functionality; in the words of Coco Chanel: “nothing is more beautiful than freedom of the body”. Where fashion previously shaped the body, now the body shapes fashion. 

Once designers became less figure-focussed, there was more room for art to take centre stage. Only ten years prior to the Bar Suit, one of the first (and arguably one of the most iconic) artist and designer 

collaborations was released; Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dhali’s dress. The sheer, A-line gown with 

Dahli’s lobster painting printed on was particularly provocative for the time; not only was the lobster a 

symbol of sex in Dhali’s work, but the introduction of surrealism into fashion was mysterious, bold, and 



Schiaparelli was integral to the introduction of surrealist art into fashion; she famously tested the boundaries with her unusual accessories, such as the shoe hat, and gloves with hands imprinted on them. Here, she takes an avant-garde approach to design. By developing the creative ideas behind her products, Schiapparelli underwent a creative process that was only really used when creating forms of art, rather than clothing. From here, the connection between fashion and art truly started to flourish. 

As art moved to the forefront of the high-fashion scene, designers became more experimental with shape. Christobel Balanciaga’s ‘sack dress’ opened up the space between the female body and the 

garment; its purpose was not to flatter, cinch, or tweak. Ahead of his time, Balenciaga created the dress so that a woman's body could move as an abstract entity within her clothes - her body wasn’t 

intruded on by her clothing, or vice versa. Once designers were no longer enslaved to the female form, dress-making was free to become a form of sculpture. With this came experimentation with streetwear; the difference between ‘evening wear’ and casual clothes grew, meaning every-day clothing could be used as its own form of creative expression. 

In the wake of Mary Quant's bold mini skirt, 60s fashion adopted bright colours and a-line silhouettes; self-expression was encouraged. Much of the London Boutique fashion was inspired by the Op Art movement - this artwork experimented with how colour and pattern can ‘trick’ the eye. Patterns, prints and graphic designs were popularised in everyday wear. Casual clothing had become visually stimulating, as artistic influence made its way out of haute-couture into ready-to-wear. 


By the end of the century the hourglass silhouette, while still a staple, wasn’t essential on haute-couture runways. Collections were increasingly avant-garde, and high fashion became a space of 

experimentation. Rei Kawakubo’s SS97 collection for Comme Des Garcon flipped the traditional approach to dressmaking on its head: the ‘Body meets dress, dress meets body’ collection created uncomfortable and unflattering silhouettes. Where once the clothes were enslaved to make the figure look a certain way, it is released of its duties, growing untamed away from the wearer. Kawakubo described it as such: “the body was distorted and shaped by the clothes themselves, rather than the clothes being enslaved to the body”. The baby blue and pink tweed fabric recollects the woman as a domestic figure in traditional households. Kawakubo alludes to the concept of a ‘modern woman’, and how she is no longer required to fit the clothes of the conventional housewife literally or metaphorically. 

In 2022, fashion has never been more experimental. Designers such as Iris Van Herpen do not make clothes to contort the models, but rather use her models as moving tools to showcase her artwork. The female figure, and her role in fashion, directly influenced the relationship between fashion and art. We have seen that once designers were not required to make the female form look a certain way, they were able to express more creative freedom. In collections this year we’ve seen artist and designers come together in every way possible; Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton have announced their collection together, Streetwear brands are constantly working with the likes of KAWS and Keith Herring, and Kid Super had his artwork printed directly onto his collection. Not only are fashion and art now intrinsically intertwined, but fashion is considered an art in and of itself.

By Sophie Brassey and Anna lambert

As our visual response to Helicon's article, the Utopia team have attempted to capture the relationship between art and womenswear through this series of images. Through contortion, movement, and the restriction of the body we address the theme of femininity in fashion and its role within the contemporary art world.

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