Ongoing stories in art history

Ongoing stories in art history

In our new interview series, Christie’s invites cutting-edge creatives to reflect on the continuing influence of art history on contemporary fashion, art and design.

Gareth Pugh is one of British fashion’s most daring designers. Born in Sunderland in 1981, he graduated from Central St Martins before launching his eponymous label in 2005. He has since shown at Paris, London and NY Fashion Weeks, collaborated with such prestigious institutions as the Opera Garnier and the Met’s Costume Institute, and received global recognition for his approach to redefining modern luxury.

In 2018, Pugh and his long-time partner and co-creative director Carson McColl founded Hard + Shiny, a London-based creative studio specialising in fashion, film, stage design and experiential entertainment.

‘I think it’s really important to have an eye for what’s gone before in order to reinvent what the future might look like,’ Pugh says. ‘Historical fashion is something that we look at time and time again.’

Here, Jonquil O’Reilly, a specialist in the Christie’s Old Master Paintings department, talks to Pugh about the impact classic art has on his formidable creative output.

JONQUIL O'REILLY  I’ve been a fan of your work since I first started writing about clothing. Some of your designs are so out there that period fashion and historical art are not necessarily the first things most people would associate with you. How much have Old Masters and ancient art inspired your designs, and how did you come to be interested in them?

GARETH PUGH  The first time anything of that ilk came into my consciousness was when my mother brought me down to London for my 10th birthday — she took me to see The Phantom of the Opera. We stayed around the corner from the British Museum. It was a seismic moment in my life.

English School, c.1590

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I
Negotiated to the Royal Museums Greenwich

JOR  So these historical references were deeply ingrained from a young age then?

GP  Yes, when I was six I got a copy of Discover magazine. That was my introduction to Queen Elizabeth I and the Tudors as the first power dressers. I came down again to London with my mother and grandmother and went to the Tower of London to see the Crown Jewels. There’s just this thing about regalia and historicism that fascinates me.

JOR  I’m always interested in the fact that historical fashion has long been referred to by art historians as ‘costume’. But they’re not in fancy dress! This is actually what people wore. And yet, at court, it was a theatrical performance.

GP  The whole notion of theatricality — this dramatic presentation of oneself — it is kind of costume. I’m really drawn to the idea of clothing yourself as a character. Take someone like Michèle Lamy, Rick Owens’ better half. She lives her life in a way that’s very performative. She’s constantly stage-ready.

JOR  At court you were always stage-ready. You had to dress in such a way that honoured the monarch and reflected your social status while respecting the hierarchy. There were sumptuary laws — literal fashion police — to make sure you didn’t wear a particular fabric or sleeve size or skirt width that was above your station.

GP  There were even laws about the width of the ruff. People got a bit too big for their boots thinking, ‘How far can we push it...?’

JOR  Yes! Cartwheel ruffs were a metre wide. Ruffs have to be the most flamboyantly frivolous garment in fashion history. In 2016 we sold a portrait by Cornelis van der Voort of a woman wearing a massive, multi-layered ruff. The linen is so fine it’s transparent. You can even see the outline of her gown underneath. The ruff needed to be extra light otherwise it would collapse under its own weight.

They required masses of the finest linen and lace to make, specialised laundresses to care for them and huge amounts of starch to set them daily.

GP  For me, the ruff is all about the space around the body. It’s anchored to a human point (the neck) but it doesn’t replicate the shape beneath. It’s kind of exaggerating and disfiguring as a silhouette.

One of the looks from an early collection of mine is a double ruff that goes over each shoulder. I love that — a nod to historicism but turning things on their head to make something look quite modern.

JOR  Those shoulder ruffs remind me of a moment in Dutch fashion in the early 1600s when sleeves became really structured and rose from the shoulders like huge disks. We sold a Paulus Moreelse portrait in 2010, dating to 1602, which beautifully illustrates this. The sleeves of the sitter’s bodice are quite soft and voluminous, but then there are these stiff disks at the shoulder of the black mantle that she wears over it. It’s a really nice textural contrast.

So much of women’s clothing was about obliterating her natural form — flattening busts and hiding legs beneath conical skirts — and dictating how she moved and interacted with people. You can’t run in a bodice, bum rolls and farthingale.

What really interests me is that you obliterate natural forms too, but instead of debilitating the wearer you empower them.

GP  It is interesting that you mention it being powerful. The triangle is the strongest shape that exists. If you create a shape that goes down into a waist and then opens to a bigger triangle on the bottom, it becomes almost a chalice shape. It’s a very feminine form but it is a very, as you say, commanding.

JOR It really is. That chalice shape really struck me in your Toreador look from The Reconstruction in 2020. When I look at full-length royal marriage portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries, that power dynamic is really apparent.

You have the women, who look super solid, structured, armoured, in poses that just say, ‘pow!’ And then you have the men, posing like ballerinas with their spindly, stockinged legs in puffy trunk hose, probably a massive cod piece as well...

In 2014 we sold a fabulous portrait of Sir Reginald and Lady Mohun. Her gown is so huge that only two thirds of the farthingale fit in the frame. Imagine all those stiffened layers and padding. She looks immovable, like she’s bolted to the ground. He’s practically tap dancing in comparison. I think her face says it all.

GP  I know you say that it wasn’t costume, it was what people wore. But we only ever get to see the very austere final images. Those portraits of untouchable figures served as propaganda. You see Henry VIII’s figure in portraits and then you look at his surviving suit of armour and... that isn’t the same guy.

JOR  Yeah... Henry’s court painters tended to err on the side of generosity when it came to his portrayal.

GP  It’s this idea of using visual media to essentially rewrite reality. As a fashion designer or an image-maker, all of your work could sometimes be summed up by that one image on Vogue Runway. But there is so much to communicate, both to my creative peers and to a wider audience, to make that ‘perfect’ statement — yet so much of the final message is beyond your control.

The Tudors had control over how they presented themselves for these portraits. It was so considered, so nuanced with layers of semantics built up onto the canvas.

JOR  Such a codified language too, from the clothing to the props to the pose. With these portraits it was all about legacy, dynasty. You mentioned Henry VIII’s armour — there are loads of armoured effects in your clothing. Not just in your silhouettes but also in some of the construction.

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt., P.R.A. (1829-1896)

Joan of Arc

GP  Like an exoskeleton.

JOR  Exactly. From a historical point of view, men’s fashion in the 16th and 17th centuries very much mimics what’s going on in armour. The peascod belly of a doublet followed the rounded shape of a breastplate, for example.

You get a great sense of that breastplate form coming down to a sharp point below the waist in Jean François Clouet’s portrait of Charles IX which we sold from the Wrightsman Collection last year. This padded clothing was initially supposed to be worn under armour but became everyday. Those silhouettes bleed over into women’s fashion, too. What’s the idea behind your articulated exoskeleton forms? Are you thinking of modern armour?

GP  That’s exactly how I think of certain things that we do. I see it very much as modern armour. I do find that it imbues the wearer with a kind of confidence, a defence from the wider world — a kind of punk-rock sensibility mixed with fearlessness.

François Clouet (c.1516–1572)

Portrait of Charles IX (1550-1574), King of France, full-length
Sold in The Private Collection of Jayne Wrightsman on 14 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

JOR  So the clothing itself is armour, taking up physical space and creating a wall of defence. But also setting you up for battle?

GP  It was about creating these warrior women. I have a big family full of incredibly powerful, strong women. And I would go out as a teenager and see this weaponised femininity. These women who’ve got everything on show and massive spiked high heels on. They’d move from bar to bar in these huge packs — they don’t travel solo! It’s quite a sight to behold. But let’s not forget that a lot of the fashion that you see on a night out is ultimately about power.

JOR  Which brings us back to Elizabeth I and how she controlled the narrative with her image. You can see it so clearly in the historic Armada Portrait, secured for Britain through a private sale negotiated by Christie’s. She projects authority through the sheer physical space she took up with those huge farthingales and voluminous sleeves and spiked ruffs. It kept people, even her courtiers, at a distance and commanded attention. I come back again and again to the idea of fashion as armour for both offence and defence.

GP  That’s exactly the thing I find so fascinating. It’s inviting attention but in the same way deflecting. There’s a thesis in there somewhere.