Fashion as fine art: Zandra Rhodes, Mario Testino & Diana Vreeland dress up Boston

Despite its academic, nerdy vibe, Boston can be a pretty fashionable place, probably because it’s also such a creative place. And even though the words “fashion” and “Boston” typically don’t go together in the same sentence, this fall the fashion world has come to visit Boston via two interesting exhibits and one film.

Photographer Mario Testino, editor/curator Diana Vreeland, and designer Zandra Rhodes transcend fashion. All three inspire and exemplify the self-made mantra of going your own way, doing your own thing, and making the most out of your life and your circumstances. Influenced by global cultures, their unique perspective and way of seeing our world have pushed us to see things differently, too—which is why we look at art in the first place.

MassArt is showing the Zandra Rhodes’ retrospective through December 1st. Zandra Rhodes: A Lifelong Love Affair with Textiles offers up a fashion kaleidoscope of 40 years of the designer’s textiles, sketches, and clothing and accessories.

Zandra Rhodes’ famous “73/44” dresses at MassArt (Boston Globe Magazine, Fabiola Menchelli)

Zhandra Rhodes got her start as a textile designer, drawing her inspiration from designs around the world to create her own unique, vibrant collections. She left London’s prestigious Royal College of Art when, according to the curator’s narrative, she “realized that both she and her textile designs had too strong a personality to fit into someone else’s fashions.”

Rhodes was convinced of three things: that her work should exist in dialogue with the works of fine art painters and sculptors, that there was more to life than designing fabrics for other people to cut from and, most dramatic of all, that she herself was a canvas on which her visual ideas could be tried out. She would become a walking, talking research and development department.

When her textile designs were deemed too wild by Brit manufacturers, she did her own thing anyway, choosing to maintain her originality rather than sell-out and tone it down.

wild child: colorful, unforgettable, Zandra Rhodes (Gene Nocon)

Let’s hop over from textiles and clothing to photography. Mario Testino’s In Your Face, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until February 3rd, is aptly named: giant photo after giant photo bombard you with lush images of the 1%—make that the .001%, when you account for all the supermodels and other celebs on display.

Testino, the MFA curators tell us in the show’s narrative, “bridges the world of fashion and fine art.”

There’s Gisele Bündchen dressed in a slinky liquid disco-ball of a dress, stepping out of a car and onto what looks like a lush carpet of gray pavement.

Giselle In-Your-Face-Mario-Testino

fashion foie-gras: Gisele steps out (Mario Testino, Museum of Fine Arts)

Testino explains his In Your Face philosophy (from the exhibit):

From Cuzco to Los Angeles or Budapest to Shanghai, my nomadic lifestyle exposes me to every kind of fashion and every point of view. It has helped me embrace many cultures, establish my way of seeing, and provide my viewers with an exciting visual journey…

…The way I work is intuitive, from composing and cropping an image—down to the size of the print and the color and style of the frame. I make certain prints very large to fill the viewer’s vision, the way a photograph can fill an entire magazine page.

Cusco, Peru for Vogue (Mario Testino, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The sheer size and scope of the fashion foie-gras In Your Face serves up is a bit exhausting. Even if you try to look away, the images are…in your face. There’s no room to digest what you’re seeing, but it is unforgettable.

Finally, there’s a movie playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre that’s an absolute must-see for anyone who loves fashion and has wondered who got us to look at fashion the way we now do—the real devil behind the-one-who-wore-Prada would be Diana Vreeland in the new documentary, The Eye Has to Travel, directed and produced by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who is married to Vreeland’s grandson Alexander.

Diana Vreeland’s (1903-1989) extraordinary aesthetic and fashion sense still influences our cultural and visual sensibilities. Take a look at Elle, Vogue or Vanity Fair today and you’ll see Vreeland’s imprint throughout.

Strong, witty, opinionated, spirited, smart, a creative visionary comfortable in their own skin: it doesn’t get more beautiful or sexy than that, at any age. Ms. Vreeland was the original working girl who made it okay for women to get out of the house and have a career and a life. Her first column for Harper’s Bazaar, “Why Don’t You…” is the precursor for today’s tweets; her famous staff memos the world’s first fashion blog.

A workaholic who transformed fashion magazine publishing, Vreeland spent 25 years making $18,000 a year as the fashion editor for Harper’s BazaarShe quit after the publisher finally gave her a raise—of $1,000.

Vreeland went on to become the editor-in-chief of Vogue, and after that, reinvented herself as the director for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, where she elevated fashion into an art form, changing the way clothing and accessories are displayed in museums.

“There’s only one very good life and that’s the life you know you want and you make it yourself.” – Diana Vreeland (photo, quote from

Here’s The Eye Has to Travel trailer, from Sawyer Studios on Vimeo:

So why does fashion matter? Fashion (like art) is our cultural mirror. It reflects what we’re feeling and thinking at a particular point in time. Like a photograph, fashion captures how we’re living and who we’re aspiring to be.

Sometimes we may not understand why we wear what we do when we do. The exact meaning behind certain fashion trends is often a mystery until we have a bit of time and perspective to see the clothes we wear more clearly: 1980s shoulder pads made working women feel powerful; skirt hems have historically gone up and down with the stock market; baggy jeans symbolize belt-less prisoners’ gangsta style.

On the other hand, style is style, and unlike a trend, classic style is timeless. Look at Diana Vreeland in the photo above. That photo could have been taken today: her style is unique and classic—it’s not trendy. Trends come and go (and come back again, if you’re old enough to remember them the first time around, in which case you shouldn’t wear them again!). But true style never goes out of fashion. Nor do the people who have it.