What Do Artists Wear, and Why Does It Matter?

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Back in 2015, the writer Charlie Porter was visiting an Agnes Martin retrospective at the Tate Modern in London when he found himself pausing over a photograph of the artist herself. In the image, Martin stands halfway up a ladder, in front of a canvas covered in lightly washed stripes—the first step in crafting one of her signature gridded paintings—and with a spirit level tucked under her arm.

Really, though, it was Martin’s quilted workwear jacket and trousers that caught Porter’s attention. That same year, the London menswear maestro Craig Green had just shown his first-ever standalone collection, evolving the quilted lines of workwear jackets into the vertical strips that would become one of his brand’s booming staples. “It just seemed to collapse time for me,” says Porter. “It made me think about why she was wearing those clothes. I realized that considering an artist’s garments can make you think about someone’s way of working and being in a way that I might not have done if I had just read a biography, or just seen the painting.”

Seven years later, and Porter’s eureka moment has unspooled to fill an entire book, titled What Artists Wear. Loosely adopting the format of John Berger’s timeless art text Ways of Seeing, the book vividly illustrates Porter’s journey through the sartorial mores of some of the 20th century’s most influential creatives, from Louise Bourgeois to Yayoi Kusama, all the way up to some of the 21st century’s most exciting new voices, from Martine Syms to Paul Mpagi Sepuya. The carefully considered outfits presented to the world by modernist titans are given short shrift—Picasso’s Breton tops deliberately take up no more than a single sentence—and instead, the spotlight is turned to a more eclectic lineup, most of whom take a more playful approach to clothes that dovetails with their wider practice. 

The cover of What Artists Wear. 

Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

“It’s not a book about the best-dressed artists—that’s of no interest to me whatsoever,” says Porter. “And to be honest, I’m actually more interested in artists that dress kind of sloppily or messily. As with any human being, I find that much more interesting to look at.” True to form, when we speak over Zoom, Porter is wearing a delightfully Frankensteinian knit held together by safety pins, crafted by the up-and-coming London designer Jawara Alleyne. More importantly, though, it’s a nod to the politically subversive undercurrent that courses through the book when you dig a little deeper. “It’s more like an invitation to start thinking about clothing in a different way, and to realize you can wriggle out of its power structures eventually,” Porter notes. By the time you finish reading What Artists Wear, it’s a more radical idea than you might initially think.

Vogue: What was it about that Agnes Martin photograph that first set you off on this project?

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