Future/Past: 90’s Nostalgia on the Runway and in Culture

February, 2013, New York City. The party is in the very dark and very low-ceilinged basement of a huge store in Soho. The darkness is compounded by walls covered in black graffiti, amidst which aloof skaters with Dash Snow braids under factory-fresh Supreme skate caps chain smoke. A girl wearing a yellow, smiley face bra (one large smiley face per breast), printed leggings, and platforms also had long braids, and glows from the darkness; the accessory of choice for her, and many others at the party, is the mini-backpack. The mini-backpack! Back from the dead! The nostalgic vibe of the environment welcomes me to a throwback fantasy of the 90’s teenage life that I once lived, squeezing past warm bodies in a sea of outrageous, grungy, club kid outfits.

Illustration: Ron Egatz

Illustration: Ron Egatz

It’s now spring 2013, and we have come full circle to return not just to the identity-embracing fashions of the 1990’s, but also to the attitudes and culture that helped create these fashions in the first place. Rave parties in basements? Check. Girls with enough confidence in their bodies that they wear literally what-ever they want in the streets of New York City, even if that’s a belly-shirt, a fanny pack, and black lipstick? Check. (Oh, and smoking inside? Check. Could have done without that one.) Even beyond the 90’s body ideals of waif-chic an Amazon-chic, here was a decade for the assertion of the individual and her body. And her cultural heritage. 90’s identity politics informed not just a decade of contemporary art, but also of fashion and body politics that made for incredible interesting and diverse fashion.

If you were alive in the 90’s, or if you know how to navigate a Google search, you will recall 90’s fashion in the above categories also had some of the most unfortunate textural characteristics of almost any decade: layers of lace and stretch velvet, oversized, floppy layers which sometimes included floral overalls; unflattering stretch synthetics with cheap prints; and one of my personal irritants, the mini-backpack as seen at the aforementioned Dis Magazine party. Yet, designers have been taking these seemingly unredeemable details of fashion history and reworking them into some of 2013 most esoteric and avant-garde pieces.

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Fashion Intersects with Art: Marina Abromovic

As any art world insider will tell you, fashion and art are cozier bedfellows than ever. In some regards, this union is counterintuitive, bringing to mind bohemians in their studios covered in paint, plaster, and shreds of particle board. But wait! How the artist wears her work suit of distressed fabrics just so! How it just hangs off the body, how it has an elegance…. And so, it is often true: artists have certainly have a way with style. (Think of Lee Miller, Frida Khalo, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and so on.)

Especially in 2013, art’s biggest stars are bonafide celebrities, making the pairing between the fashion and fine art worlds stronger (and more profitable) than ever. In an ongoing series, we’re going to take a look at connections between the art world and fashion. That may be a literal collaboration between a label and an artist, such as Cory Archangel’s recent designs for Japanese firm A. Four Labs, a collaboration with artist Ryan Gander; it may be an historical look at an artist’s style, or at a brand appearing at a recent art fair.

To inaugurate the series, we’re looking at venerable performance artist Marina Abromovic. Originally from the former People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (now Serbia), the 66 year old has been exploring the boundaries of body and mind in her performance-based work for roughly four decades.  Especially after her seminal exhibition at the MOMA in 2010, The Artist Is Present, Abromovic legitimized and drew attention to both performance art as a medium and, well, to herself—as an irrefutable art celebrity.

In this video by Art 21, Abromovic describes the previous standard for a woman’s appearance in performance art during the 1970’s: one which eschewed women wearing lipstick or anything traditionally feminine, in favor of the masculine and therefore more “serious” look of the plain and austere. (Art history may be on her side with this one: her de-sexualization of herself may have been necessary at the time. It is also important to note that she has refuted that she is a feminist or feminist artist. She is decidedly neither.) In an era of post-feminism wherein unabashed, flamboyant feminine beauty is acceptable, she now “embraces” fashion. Her costume choices for her recent performances include regal, high-necked long dresses of solid colors, flowing around her and onto the floor, as with The Artist Is Present. 

The closing party of her MOMA exhibition was hosted by Givenchy, and she is currently on Givenchy’s Spring 2013 ad campaign, along with other friends of Givenchy’s creative director, Riccardo Tisci (along with Kate Moss and Mariacarla Boscono). The campaign features her in a minimal black suit jacket and white collar. She also has graced the covers of V Magazine and Elle Magazine, dressed in couture and red lipstick.

It’s amazing to see our youth-obsessed culture find a matriarch of performance with power and narcissism so deep that her age actually becomes a jewel in her crown rather than a handicap. To see her forge a relationship with the fashion world after sixty is incredible, a testament to her legacy as a cultural icon. Once again, we see even the least traditionally commercial of art forms, performance art, has found a way to become bedfellows with an industry synonymous with profit and economy.