TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List | Defining Wearable Art

Defining Wearable Art

Author:  on 
July 14, 2013
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What exactly is wearable art?  I’ve had a problem with this because it seems like everyone who makes something that can be worn calls it wearable art.  Is a dyed scarf really wearable art?   Or is it a handmade scarf?  This is a problem within our whole community where you have seasoned masters creating functional works that get lumped into the same categories as newbies who have a long way to go before their work can be classified as “art”.

To me, wearable art should be set aside as something that you would not normally wear to the office or in everyday life.  It should be something that stops you in your tracks, makes you think, and might often actually be uncomfortable to wear.  The body becomes the canvas, the support, for the work.

One of my favorite examples is the work of Nicole Dextras.  She did a series of garments made from plants, dressed them on to models who went somewhere public, documented how the public reacted, and then propped them up in her back yard and photographed them as they decomposed.  Some of her pieces:





If we now call everything wearable that is handmade “art”, what would be a good word to call these things that are truly sensational?

I, for example, have made lots of bags.  I consider my dogfood bags to be art:

corn 1

This one is just a handmade bag:

pink v-bag

The difference to me is in the time it took to make them and in the function.  The paper bag is not all that functional.  You can use it for an art opening or special occasion, but it’s more about the “Wow!” factor than the function.  The pink bag is fun, pretty and uber functional.

I know the whole debate about “craft versus art” is tiresome and endless and we have this same problem in almost all of our textile categories.  The term “art quilts” has become so watered down that now some of the more acknowledged artists don’t want to be associated with that crowd and call their work “textiles” or something else.  But, we need these categories, words and definitions in order to both educate the public and to be able to be found in searches.  Language is always evolving as is our perception of art and the world around us.

What do you think?  Let’s get some thoughts flowing here…

Note: This is a topic post for the Wearable Art group.  Non-members are welcome to respond in this blog post version.


I've been working with the arts and craft world in many capacities since 1988. Handmade textiles have been my core focus since launching TAFA in 2010.

My hope is to contribute to the economic development potential the arts bring to the world, along with the intrinsic beauty shown in the work. May the world become a friendlier place for artists and nature!

Arrived in Kentucky after a childhood in Brazil, college in Minnesota and 20 years in Chicago. It's been a ride!


on Defining Wearable Art.
  1. debrah block krol

    i think part of what makes something wearable is the process and technique of what went into creating it–i agree with elena and dianne. since i studied paiting, i approach my work in whatever medium i am working in as making art.

  2. |

    Yes Elena’s remarks echo what I have seen a wearable art and “fashion in art”. I have seen much of both in the States and obviously even more in Europe and both have a place. And Dianne’s comments that people hang up her scarves when they are not wearing them show their appreciation of her art. Ditto with your bags Rachel. However if we need to sell I suppose we have to use the label wearable or “useful art ” to at least encourage the less imaginative to buy.

    And I agree Rachel that the word “craft” has been downgraded by nearly all except I believe a good craftsperson was/is still revered in Japan. There is still a chance to reverse this as so many people are becoming “craftspersons” in order to survive nowadays. Groups are springing up everywhere in Spain.
    I bought a tray made of tightly coiled woven newspapers and gloss painted in beautiful colours in a local market for only €8 and the young guy thanked me profusely for the purchase. Hope he sold many at that price!

  3. |

    I’m with Dianne on this one, in that functional doesn’t preclude something from being art. In fact, for me, the telling keyword in “wearable art” is the “wearable” part. I believe that wearable art can and should be part of everyday life. In fact, I would hesitate to call the work pictured (which I love, by the way) “wearable art”. True, it’s modeled on a human body but it’s not exactly wearable. For me, this belongs in a different category, something I would call “fashion in art”. In fact, I have a Pinterest board specifically for this art form – http://pinterest.com/elena_tpknits/fashion-in-art/

    • |

      Aha! That makes total sense to me, Elena! I think this is something that is problematic in all art categories and in the end, viewers and makers have to decide for themselves what kind of language they use to describe what they see and make. For example, a sculpture made by a kid in second grade is still a sculpture.

      One of the things that I think is really sad in the history of language is how the word “craft” has become downgraded,. almost something to be ashamed of. It used to refer to the practice of something: the craft of writing, the craft of music, of dentistry, of painting. I think the 1970’s kits popularized the word to mean that it is an easier form of art, that anyone can do it if they follow the instructions. Quite a distancing from the arts and crafts movement where form, function and history were explored and revitalized….

  4. Dianne Koppisch Hricko

    I love the botanicals, but don’t agree that being functional eliminates the possibility of the work being art. I may flatter myself, but I believe that many of the scarves that I make are indeed art. I know that folks hang them on the wall when they are not wearing them, which is flattering, but not their purpose. What makes them special to me is that the are meant to be worn and that they really change when they are. Since I make work that is also intended for the wall I know that I think differently about composing the pieces depending on their purpose. I will be interested in other folks opinions.

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