Fearless Female Artists with Style

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Yayoi Kusama Fashion, New York, 1970
Yayoi Kusama Fashion, New York, 1970© Yayoi Kusama Studios Inc

We examine the female artists who broke the mould with their directional fashion sense

The well-heeled women of international art fairs like Frieze or Venice Biennale prove that the art scene has it on point when it comes to creating iconoclastic looks, and they have recently become as important to the fashion calendar as the major fashion weeks around the world. But the buyers are not alone; many female artists have also established themselves as admirable fashion icons and with Frida Kahlo’s current exhibition at Michael Hoppen in London, Yoko Ono’s one woman show at MoMA in New York, and Cindy Sherman’s exhibition at Sammlung Goetz in Munich, there’s no better time to look back over their sartorial decisions. Here, we examine ten iconic female artists with looks all of their own.

Yayoi Kusama
Mirroring her art, polka dots are Kusama's wardrobe pièce de résistance. When she began her career in the 1960s, she often staged performance art pieces wearing nothing more than large polka dot stickers. In the 60s, she also started her own fashion line, which was sold at Bloomingdale’s in New York – think evening dresses with holes cut in the breast and rear areas. She has created a look as powerful and recognisable as her artwork itself, now, in her old age, sporting a neon red wig in addition to her polka dot tops and dresses. “It suits very well the fashion that I create and wear and is an extension of this,” she told New York Magazine in 2012. Her work within the fashion industry also holds her in high regard; her 2012 collaboration with Louis Vuitton is legendary and largely regarded as the most successful artist-meets-luxury brand collaboration ever, while for Selfridge’s in London, the collaboration represented the largest ever brand takeover, with all 24 glass windows decked out Kusama-style.

Yoko Ono 
During her days with John Lennon, Yoko Ono sported knee-high boots, miniskirts, big sunglasses and floppy hats with her long, black centre-parted mane – a product of her immersion with the beatniks, poets and artists of the late 1950s. She wed Lennon wearing a crepe mini with a sweater, knee-high socks and tennis shoes. Black menswear-inspired pieces, blazers and hats have always been a part of her look too, while her work as a performance artist has at times involved fashion (think Cut Piece, where audience members approached a vulnerable Ono to cut off pieces of her clothing). Now, at 82 years old, she’s most identified with her iconic Derby hat and sunglasses along with some form of oversized blazer, her style as recognisable as her artwork.

Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman lives for dressing up; “Sometimes I feel I just accept invitations to events just to have excuses to wear the stuff I've bought," she once told Harper's Bazaar. In her everyday life, the artist has been known to wear Proenza Schouler and Narciso Rodriguez, but she makes her work by dressing up in more extreme costumes, frequently borrowing pieces from the likes of Stella McCartney, Marni and Marc Jacobs – indeed, she was one of the first artists to start working with high-end fashion in the 1980s. Sherman has been everyone from clowns to men, society women to many versions of herself – all fabricated through fashion, make-up and wigs – and takes pride in the ownership of her look, doing her own make-up and hair without assistance. She is equally hands-on when it comes to sourcing the clothing for her art, scouring eBay and venturing to far-flung lands to achieve her iconic ensembles.

Louise Nevelson 
Born in Tsarist Russia, Louise Nevelson’s sense of personal style matched her large chaotic sculptures. Old photographs of Nevelson show her in magnificently overpowering fur coats, silk headscarves worn babushka style and silk blouses with lots of chunky jewellery. She had a love for hats with wide brims and coats that mimicked artful tapestries, and the way she draped herself in beads, silks and furs was as sculptural as her artwork. She often wore multiple pairs of false eyelashes at once. In the book Nevelson’s World, she wrote, “I feel the clothes that I have worn all my life have been freedom, a stamp of freedom – because I’ve never conformed to what is being worn… I don’t feel dressed without my eyelashes.”

Grete Stern 
Grete Stern was a German photographer who came on the Argentine art scene during the 1930s. In her work, she juxtaposed traditional 1930s fashion – short, wavy bobbed hair, demure collared blouses, pleated midi-skirts – with the surreal (things like massive snakes, turtles wearing suits and giraffes in convertible cars). Her photomontages represent the blurred lines of how women were depicted in surrealist art without sacrificing her personal style. Her photographs often include some form of self-portrait; she appears in a frilly, empire waist dress emerging from a human mouth or and in a long-tiered dress, supporting a lampshade. Her fashion sense is empowering, as most women in surrealist art were depicted by men, and in the nude.

Niki de Saint Phalle 
Colour was as important in Niki de Saint Phalle’s wardrobe as it was in her sculpture and drawings. Raw emotional expression and violence have also influenced her fashion sense, as shown in her infamous Shooting Paintings (literally, paintings she shot at using a rifle after a break-up). During one of her infamous shooting sessions, she shattered a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo wearing the uniform of a Napoleonic army officer. While working on her art, she often opted for printed silk scarves, white jumpsuits, straw hats, and pastel colored jumpers, and she dressed up in high-waisted trousers, long skirts and veiled hats. She told Vogue in 1967, “With long skirts you can really bluff. People open doors for you and everything.” Her roots will forever be linked to fashion as she began her career as a model and was the cover girl on the November 1952 issue of Vogue Paris.

Frida Kahlo 
Frida Kahlo's traditional Mexican clothing was a shield. Through flowered headbands, vibrant skirts, chandelier earrings and Rebozo scarves, she hid the pain she endured for her entire life, following the tragic bus accident that shattered her spine. What’s more, Kahlo paved the way for women artists taking on authority in society through fashion. Her unibrow demonstrated that she had no desire to conform to societal beauty norms, and she wore Tehuana style dresses from the Tehuantepac region of Mexico, where women were established as authoritative, independent figures. Her iconic look has inspired designers the world over, from Rei Kawakubo to Jean Paul Gaultier and her vibrant self-portraits have been the subject of innumerous exhibits.

Georgia O’Keeffe 
In contrast to Georgia O’Keeffe’s brightly painted blooms, she kept it simple and chic, always dressed in black and white. Early on in her career, she favoured men’s pieces such as tailored suits, collared shirts and bowler hats. Her look became more pronounced with age as she transitioned to a looser look, including long black skirts and kimono-style cardigans that gave her the freedom to move easily while painting. Reading American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman – who advocated that boys and girls should dress the same for social reasons, inspired her fashion sense. O’Keeffe eschewed makeup and heels in favor of Bohemian headwraps (again in monochrome) and flat shoes. However, despite the lack of colour, the shape and line of her clothing was always important to her. In her old age, she was known to greet guests at her home while wearing a black Balenciaga ballgown.

Tamara de Lempicka
The glamorous Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka followed the fashion of the early 1920s, but with a twist. Like her modernist, soft-cubist paintings, she appeared bold, clean and elegant. Portraits show her wearing extravagantly pleated tulle dresses designed by Marcel Rochas with bobbed hair and gold jewellery, and the clothing worn by the women in her paintings is said to have been inspired by designs from Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet and Madame Grès. She had a large collection of designer hats, and was quite the fashion guru during her time in Paris – many consider her the first woman artist to be considered an icon of glamour. One of her iconic paintings, Auto-Portrait, shows her in a green Bugatti wearing elegant gloves, red lipstick and a helmet. Like many fashionistas before her, she invented her persona from scratch: she was born Maria Gorska.

Marina Abramović
Marina Abramović has stated that in the 1970s, any female artists who wore red lipstick, nail polish or had a relationship with fashion disgusted her. During those times, she dressed in a simple uniform of all-black or all-white trousers and shirts, or nothing at all. After Abramović finished her piece titled The Great Wall Walk, she came to a pivotal moment and decided to embrace fashion: in performances and public appearances she favours patent leather Givenchy looks with extreme silhouettes and explains that for her, fashion is an outlet to boost her confidence as a woman that she previously lacked. She has become somewhat of an artistic muse to Ricardo Tisci, frequently wearing his custom creations to events.