Fashion as Fine Art: What’s Fueling Demand for Couture at Auction?

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A magnificent blush-colored tulle gown designed by Christian Dior
Installation view of “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” on view at the V&A, London through September 1, 2019.Estimated Reading Time

As a pioneer of the industry, Christian Dior was one of the first in the fashion business to engineer lucrative license agreements for accessories and cosmetics such as stockings, lipstick, and perfume. These items cemented the designer as a household name across Europe and are on view — along with a plethora of haute couture — in “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London through September 1, 2019.

Spanning eleven rooms in the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery, it is the largest exhibition on the fashion house ever held in the United Kingdom and the biggest fashion exhibition at the V&A since “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” in 2015. After just six weeks on view, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” had been seen by over 120,000 visitors.

Naturally, the popularity of Dior himself is a major factor in the overwhelming success of the show, but the success of the exhibition is by no means an anomaly. In fact, it’s only the latest in a string of wildly successful fashion exhibitions. “The V&A has a history of staging revelatory fashion exhibitions, and there is always a hugely engaged audience for these,” states Tristram Hunt, V&A Director. Indeed, the success of the category at the V&A — and other institutions worldwide — has cemented it as a staple of museum exhibition schedules.

So what’s behind fashion’s growing appeal as fine art? Here, our editors take a look at the recent rise in interest and demand for fashion — both in museum galleries and on the auction block.

Fashion in Museum Exhibitions

Beyond the recent acclaim of the Dior show, there have been many other standout performances by fashion exhibitions at the V&A, including “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up,” the museum’s most popular exhibition in 2018, and “Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion.” In 2015, the museum hosted the London leg of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” the first retrospective of the designer’s work presented in Europe. It quickly became the V&A’s most-visited exhibition. Over the course of its 21-week run, it was seen by a staggering 493,043 people.

97 aluminum coils fitted exactly to model Laura Morgan's dimensions; formed in front and back sections, held together by 11 brackets from neck to hem
Coiled corset, Shaun Leane, sold for $807,000 via Sotheby’s(December 2017).

Similarly, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” landed on the list of the top ten most visited exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The McQueen show attracted 661,509 visitors in New York, foretelling future curatorial successes from the museum’s Costume Institute. It remained in the museum’s top ten most popular shows until February 2018, when it was surpassed by “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.”

Further demonstrating the public’s thirst for fashion as fine art: Thirty percent of the Met’s top ten most-visited exhibitions are devoted to fashion. They include:

  • “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology;”
  • “China: Through the Looking Glass;” and
  • “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

There was such demand for “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” that it was extended for three weeks beyond its initial closing date. It eventually shuttered on September 5, 2016. The exhibition attracted 752,995 visitors during its run.

The year prior, “China: Through the Looking Glass” garnered a total of 815,992 visitors, and remained the most popular Costume Institute show until 2018, when a total of 1,659,647 visitors attended “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” during its five-month run in 2018.

Not only did “Heavenly Bodies” surpass the popularity of the Costume Institute’s previous fashion exhibitions, but it also unseated the 1979 tour-de-force “Treasures of Tutankhamun” to become the most-visited exhibition in the Met’s history. The exhibition of relics from the eponymous Egyptian pharaoh attracted 1,360,957 visitors during its four-month run. It also surpassed the success of the Met’s brief display of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa in 1963, which was seen by over 1 million visitors in just three and a half weeks. What these numbers truly demonstrate is the ability of fashion exhibitions to compete with some of the world’s most sought-after attractions and biggest household names in art history.

Worldwide Success

The rise in fashion exhibitions extends well beyond New York and London. Other acclaimed fashion exhibitions in the last five years include:

Couture at Auction

Increasing focus on fashion as fine art is not isolated to institutions. In fact, more fashion and couture has been offered at auction in the past five years than ever. According to data from the Invaluable Price Archive, the number of designer clothing lots offered increased 160% between 2014 and 2018. During the same time period, the total hammer per lot increased by over 240%.

A black silk velvet dress with matching jacket by Elsa Schiaparelli (left) and a red tartan plaid dress with tulle underlay by Alexander McQueen (right)
Left: A fine and rare Elsa Schiaparelli couture ‘Hall of Mirrors’ jacket and matching dress, sold for £50,000. Right: Alexander McQueen tartan wool dress, ‘Widows of Culloden’ collection, sold for £26,000. Both via Kerry Taylor Auctions (December 2018).

In today’s market, designers like Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and McQueen are highly sought-after at auction. In December 2018, fashion auction house Kerry Taylor Auctions sold a rare piece of Schiaparelli couture from the Zodiac collection (Autumn-Winter 1938-1939) for £50,000. In the same sale, an Alexander McQueen tartan wool dress from the Widows of Culloden collection (Autumn-Winter 2006-7) sold for £26,000. An identical version of the McQueen dress was featured in “Savage Beauty” at the Met.

hristian Dior haute couture, circa 1950. Sold for €10,660 via Cornette de Saint Cyr (September 2018).

In September of 2018, a 1950s Christian Dior haute couture dress sold at auction for €10,660; almost four times its pre-sale estimate.

Supply and Demand

From the runway to gallery walls to the auction floor, the discipline of fashion as a medium of fine art has transcended arenas to contend with art history’s most acclaimed artists and makers. Recent auction results suggest that demand for couture is increasing in the secondary market as institutions accelerate the volume and scale of exhibitions devoted to fashion and textiles.

If the success of “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” is any indication, there is no slowing of this trend: all advance tickets to the show were sold out just three weeks after the exhibition opened, prompting the V&A to extend the show’s run by seven weeks. The show is scheduled to close on September 1, 2019.