Here's a Real Coat of Paint for Those Who Want to Wear Their Art on Their Sleeve—and Chest and Back

updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Much "wearable art" is wearable the way a 20" TV is portable—that is, infrequently and only with great care. You're not likely to dash out for pizza in a Joan Steiner cape with its three-dimensional replica of the Brooklyn Bridge arched across the front and anchored on the shoulders by an exquisitely stitched bas relief of buildings and exit ramps. Nor are you liable to throw on Mark Mahall's bomber jacket festooned with 25,000 interlocking brass safety pins when you're taking the dog to the vet.

But you might well be tempted to perk up such mundane errands with one of Valerie and Priscilla Snyder's animal handbags or suitcases (choose from fish, dogs' heads and chameleons) or Stefano ("Be your own mural") Castronovo's leather-jacket portraiture (choose from Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry or yourself).

Art to wear is not a new phenomenon—witness a lavish coffee table book by that name that was recently published with a $95 price tag. Written by Julie Schafler Dale, who in 1973 opened the first gallery in New York devoted to wearable art, it offers a stunning array of garments crafted during the past 17 years from yarn, paint, feathers, leather, plastic, wood, silicone and even spare limbs from baby dolls. What's new is that, more and more, wearable works are actually getting worn. The marriage of art and fashion that spawned hand-constructed items with five-figure prices and limited social utility has now inspired less expensive, more versatile pieces that are popping up every day. In New York, the headquarters of art you can go out in, SoHo streets are dotted with Suzan Pitt's second-hand raincoats, painted first-hand with copies of old masters or cartoon heroes. Village clubs are aglow with Davey Mitchell's snazzy luminescent paint designs. Limited edition sweaters by the fashionable French artist Erté" have sold out at Bonwit Teller, while graffiti king Keith Haring's "Pop Shop" is doing such a lively trade that he likens it to a burger franchise and calls his signature shirts and buttons "fast art."

The common denominator for these objets of wearable art, says Dale, is that "they work when they're off you and they work when they're on you too." Despite its armholes, a piece like Linda Mendelson's knitted coat with a jukebox theme works best in a museum like the Metropolitan (which in fact is where it ended up). The new generation of art-wear doesn't really come to life until it hits that ultimate museum without walls, the street. Pitt—who's also a successful animator and has just finished work on a video for Peter Gabriel—sees her raincoats as "moving images walking in free space." Though they are sometimes hung alongside her paintings at prestigious galleries, Pitt says, "I'm not content with making objects. I need a more electrical connection with people."

Denver artist Bill Gian. got a huge jolt of that when he was enlisted to make T-shirts for a friend's annual solstice party near Knoxville, Tenn. Gian. individually designed and hand-painted 150 shirts, sold them out on the spot and was "thrilled" then to see "all of my bright and colorful paintings moving on the dance floor"—an instant, unplanned bit of performance art that was "absolutely bizarre." For the once-impoverished (and oddly punctuated) Gian., who moved to New York last year and has branched out into kimonos, jackets and dresses, putting his Miró-like imagery onto clothes is "a lot more than just my bread and butter. It has become a source of creative ideas that has influenced my other work."

That, says Jean Druesedow, head of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is what distinguishes the new wearable art from the random dabbling of an "artist who designs or paints one garment." True wearable artists, she says, "believe in the concept and are committed to it." Haring, for one, has hung an impressive collection of other artists' originals in his closet and often sports one on his back.

A new generation of model/collectors is also springing up. The Guggenheim Museum store reports that Gian. shirts sell out "as fast as he brings them in," and Suzan Pitt raincoats are gobbled up in the East Village. As she points out, the prices, which start at $350, may seem expensive in fashion terms, "but in art world terms they are giveaways." And you never have to ask someone up to see your etchings. ."I love the idea that your collection goes wherever you go," says Robert Feldman, a publisher who wears a Pitt raincoat around midtown. A Long Island art dealer says her coat not only "brightens a rainy day and makes you feel special," but can "break tight silences in elevators"—which is an art unto itself.

From Our Partners