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Art Meets Commerce in the Store Window

Fashion and art consummate their long relationship

By Victoria D. Sung, Crimson Staff Writer

A pair of Lichtensteins, in the form of sneakers, walked past me in Harvard Square. Just like that. No warning, no explanation, just “Whaam!” “Pow!” “Pop!” and there it was: art and fashion (and the philosophical ponderings of the intersection between the two) thrust upon me by a pair of kicks.

With the conference celebrating Andy Warhol’s legacy at the Sackler this past weekend and Barack Obama’s image superimposed on t-shirts and posters across campus, this idea of art, popular culture, and fashion—that art is fashion and fashion is art—kept popping into my head. That fashion is a form of artistic expression, and vice versa, seems inevitable in today’s consumer culture, but was this always the case? Would Louis XVI’s supporters have worn shirts sporting his powdered, wigged-out likeness? Or would the ancien régime’s detractors have expressed themselves with “Let them eat cake!” angrily scrawled across their shirts? The answer is “Non!”

Art and fashion have certainly always gone hand in hand, but it was the emergence of Pop Art in the 1950s and 60s that literally manifested this relationship in America. By the first half of the 20th century, Americans were already saturated in a visual culture—a culture that enticed consumption on every street corner and was epitomized, interestingly enough, by the urban department store window.

The department store window, as we know it today, was a modern innovation. While the makeshift window displays before the mid-1880s consisted of products casually strewn on top of boxes and crates, the department store windows of the 1920s experimented with novel techniques of color, glass, and light to amplify the allure of a product, ultimately trying to increase shoppers’ superfluous desires. Not only was this the first time that passers-by could look into stores without being chased away, but people were encouraged to look and even stare. (This was such a new-fangled notion that some department stores had to hire professional “window gazers” to help the trend catch on.)

Bu ilding on these earlier techniques of layout and design, department store windows of the 50s and 60s were the context in which art and fashion literally merged. Window dressers began to use actual works of art from emerging artists as the background to their displays. Fun fact: it was in show windows, not art museums, that artists such as Warhol and Jasper Johns first got the opportunity to present their works to a larger audience—alongside mannequins dressed in the latest styles, of course. For the average American, then, walking down the streets of New York was like walking through the MoMA.

Pop Art’s legacy is made manifest in that five-dollar Hanes t-shirt emblazoned with Bush’s face displayed alongside Goyas and Picassos (as it was two years ago in the Fogg’s exhibit, “DISSENT!”) or in representations of Obama’s face reproduced daily on color-blocked images. And on a more personal level, if a college student can enjoy Lichtenstein on the street, and, well, on his feet, this just goes to show that the merger of art and fashion has been consummated.

—Columnist Victoria D. Sung can be reached at vsung@fas.harvard.edu.

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