Art Fabricated

By Nancy Ridgeway
October 9, 2013

Top fashion designers are bringing medieval art to the catwalk, thanks to advances in technology that allow digital images to be printed on fabric. The new trend has opened an avenue of research for art history professor Sarah Glover, who is studying the cultural use of images once found only in museums.

British-based Basso & Brooke introduced one of the first couture lines using this technology in 2004, and the trend propelled to the forefront of fashion world conversation in spring 2010, when the last line produced by the late designer Alexander McQueen was released. His styles featured a digital print inspired by the work of late medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch. Still popular, digital imagery is making its way into less expensive “fast fashion.”

“You can spot it easily,” Glover said of the artistic wear. “It’s not just photographic reproduction on textile; a kind of surface patterning is involved.”

The new look intrigued Glover because it seamlessly meshes her background in medieval art with her interest in fashion. “I am trained as a medievalist and am interested in why these images are being used like this.”

She finds it interesting that in today’s computer world, many of her students are seeing works by the Old Masters first as flat digital images on their computer screens, rather than the actual paintings and sculptures in a museum. Now those flat digital images are being transferred to fabrics that take on different 3-D looks when worn.

Glover recently returned from Oxford, England, where she presented her research at the Fifth Global Conference on Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues. “It was good for me because I wanted to see how people from other disciplines are approaching fashion. I met people with backgrounds in sociology, marketing, art, studio art practices philosophy, history, literature and more.”

Her presentation focused on art images found on leggings and garments made by Black Milk, a Brisbane, Australia-based company that sells only online and whose target market is women in their late teens and early 20s.

“I was interested in their use of medieval, northern Renaissance and pop art images and how they are bringing museum art into their clothing,” Glover said.

Her presentation looked at Black Milk’s use of images, copyright issues, and “the very perfect fit of selling digital images in a medium that’s purely digital. The company sells online, which is where customers converse about the products. When you buy Black Milk, you are buying into a community. Customers have meet-ups and can become members of regional groups. They get together and talk about their purchases and take pictures of themselves wearing the clothing. When you reach 100 Black Milk items, you get a dress,” she said.

“In terms of my research, there’s a narrow window to study this, because digital print fabric is a trend that will be shifting,” she said.

The conference at Oxford occurred during fashion week in London and New York. “A line called Suno presented their recent collection, including some of their digital print textiles. Dolce & Gabanna included a collection of Byzantine in their current fall and winter collection.”

However, suno, known for its busy digitized prints, recently introduced one solid white garment, a rejection of the cluttered.

Glover, who was on sabbatical in New Zealand during the spring 2013 semester, continues to research why art is coming to fashion. “This has a parallel to what happened in modern art when screen printing became popular. One reason this interests me so much is that I wonder how my students might encounter an image on the street.”