Artists’ clothing: Comfortable, practical, modern

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By Tony Sylvester

Sitting down to write today, I am wearing my favourite recent piece of clothing. Brand new from Bryceland’s, the knee-length linen Farmer’s Smock (below) might be a bit of a departure from what you expect from the design team of Ethan Newton and Kenji Cheung, but it nevertheless fits their manner of doing things to a tee. Similar to their Towel Shirt, it feels like an undiscovered item eager to be reinterpreted for the modern wardrobe, and I’m all in. 

Despite the modest name that reflects its humble origin, the smock feels Bohemian in spirit rather than workaday. All the elements of the piece, from the bib front and stand collar to the gathering at the cuff and yoke, put one in mind of a fin-de-siécle painter more than the French labourers who originally wore such garments. But maybe that’s no surprise, considering how ‘workwear’ has been co-opted by artists over the years. 

I've tried the smock loose and billowing over old beaten-up jeans and paired with sandals one day, and tucked into a pair of high-waisted black-linen trousers with Belgian loafers the next, highlighting its similarities to a dress shirt. Or simply with pyjama shorts and grecian slippers, as today. 

In the chapter ‘Dressing like an avant garde artist’ in his superlative A History Of Men’s Fashion, Farid Chanoune notes that at the turn of the Twentieth Century, “a metamorphosis occurred under the triple aegis of youth, sport and art”. The beginnings of this modern age were driven by a new creative generation, weary of the old world. 

How did they dress? They “drew on workers’ and tradesmen’s attire - corduroy pants, blue smocks and overalls” in an effort to break free of bourgeois notions of class.

It didn’t hurt that workwear was both comfortable and hard wearing as well as being ‘of the people’; this was a functional as well as a creative choice. 

This legacy is still with us today. I’d wager a lot of readers can get away with wearing navy ‘chore coats’ based on bleu de travail to meetings instead of sports coats or suit jackets, which to me speaks to the association with artists rather than the jacket’s workwear origins.  

I am fortunate enough to have never had a job that demanded a code or uniform - at least since stacking shelves as a teenager - so dressing has always been a question of personal aesthetics rather than a regimen. I have been lucky to be able to create my own image. With this in mind, I have purloined much from artists when it comes to my wardrobe. 

I’ve pilfered Picasso’s Orcival Breton Stripe (above), Joseph Beuys’ Lock & Co felt fedora (also above), Dali’s laced espadrilles (article top) and Jackson Pollack’s Weejuns (bottom of the article). But probably none have taken such a prominent spot in my wardrobe as the Forestiere jacket by the sadly defunct Paris brand, Arnys (below). 

Originally commissioned by the artist and architect Le Corbusier in 1947 as a uniform jacket, he took as the starting point the classic French gamekeeper’s moleskin or cord jacket (in this case one worn by Gaston Modot in the 1939 film La Régle Du Jeu). 

Simplifying its construction, he added a mandarin band collar, patch pockets, elbow pads and a kimono sleeve for ease of movement. Over the next 50 years, the Forestiere became a French ‘Bobo’ (Bohemian Bourgeoisie) staple,  beloved by politicians and men-of-industry alike. 

My cream-linen summer version (below) is simplicity personified: loose of fit and ‘worn in’ (a polite way to put it) where the winter iterations are plush affairs in autumnal colourways with contrasting linings. Mine came from the Paris-based vintage dealer Chato Lufsen, who also make a spot-on repro version called ‘La Bores’.

This is an article of clothing that can slot seamlessly into a wardrobe, taking on a similar role to a chore coat or unstructured sports jacket.

Most of the modern brands I admire give a nod to these artistic traditions, whether it’s implicit mood-board aspiration or explicit pieces named for a painter or poet.

Kentaro Nakagomi’s label Coherence is one that makes no bones about its mission: a series of seriously quality coats taken directly from portraits of 20th century artisans and writers; Duchamp, Corbusier (again), Camus and Hemingway have all featured heavily. 

One of the most eye-catching examples from the past year is the ‘Mitsou’, an oversized coat in sailcloth canvas that owes as much to a craftsman’s shopcoat as an overcoat (below, top), and is based on a particularly splattered, wrinkled and threadbare coat worn by the Polish-French painter Balthus in a portrait in 1948 by Irving Penn (below, bottom). 

I’ve always loved this photo. The defiantly louche artist reclining, cigarette in mouth, his disheveled coat tied up with string and buttoned to the throat, perhaps to keep the cold at bay in his garret.

A much more enticing inspiration for an overcoat purchase than some aristo horsing it up on the polo field. 

On this theme, the fashion journalist Charlie Porter has just published What Artists Wear on Penguin. The clean stark cover features Georgia O’Keefe’s suit seemingly floating in the void, the graphic design consciously echoing the secondary school curriculum fave Ways Of Seeing by John Berger

There is a lot of Berger’s tone in Porter’s writing here too. It has a breezy, conversational style, heavy on opinion. He elects to cover a lot of ground rather than going in depth, giving the book the feel of a transcribed lecture or a BBC4 mini-series.

It is most certainly a book about art rather than ‘style’, but its sentiments echo a lot of what we’ve discussed above. The concerns of practicality and function, the idea of dressing as role play, the symbolism of how we present ourselves to the world.

I especially enjoyed the delve into the lounge suit as the “standard of authority” in male dress - a benchmark to be subverted or accepted, as Porter puts it. 

Of particular note is the quiet surrealism of Gilbert & George’s complimentary, but not identical, check suits, and Alberto Giacometti’s “clothing of Male respectability: tweed jacket and flannel trousers” (above): a conservative sartorial choice undermined by the fit and condition the sculptor elected to wear them in. 

As Porter writes “Giacometti’s jackets have style from their spacious cut, the aged softness of the cloth, the wilful shambles that overrides any smartness, the relaxed balance of his baggy pants”. 

As a man who wears extraordinarily nice clothes in an almost inelegant manner, this resonated with me deeply.   

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Darryl

Workwear whilst practical for an artist is also rather conformist. Its current ubiquity robs it of any genuine ‘otherness’; its outre credentials are in tatters, and tatters as we all know are a fast fashion emblam. For my artistic manifesto I would champion lavish velvets, furs and feathers – the least practical and silliest of all possible wears; thus suitable for any self respecting artist! Or perhaps the ‘bithday suit’ ! 🙂

bob gerrit

Conformity isn’t contained in ubiquity. Ubiquity often signifies popularity, stylishness, vogue, and even suggests universality, which has nothing to do with conformity. Style isn’t found by simply being in opposition to ubiquity, that’s a simplistic, reactionary position with no foundation in the principles of style. Nor is style found in mere startling attire, for to startle the eye, or the sensibility, is not to please the same. Any attempt to champion a particular style beyond the self is itself an imposition of conformity, for if one’s personal tastes are promoted as necessary to achieve a certain level or status of artistic expression, then by definition this arbitrary necessity is a demand to conform, or be left bereft of the desired, advocated state of expression. In other words, if everyone seeking to appear or display artistic subtlety needs to wear velvet, fur, and feathers, or whatever startles the eye, in order to possess or express artistic sensibility, then they must conform to a set of standards arbitrarily imposed upon them by external pressures.
I appreciate what you’re getting at, which is that conformity is in opposition to artistic expression, and I completely agree that this is the case. However, this being the case, attempts to restrain or even overthrow conformity cannot be accomplished by simply imposing a new set of standards. Personal style must remain a personal choice, anything less is conformity, whether or not the person is aware. Cheers.

Bienluienapris

Great article, can’t agree more about the forestière!

Guy Gadbois

Gaston Modot, not Moody. I am not sure he wears a smock in Regle. Looks more like a gamekeeper’s tunic?

Tony Sylvester

Mea Culpa, Guy, autocorrect on the iPad doesn’t appreciate French cinema icons alas!

Stephen

Hi Tony,
Thank you for an illuminating and enjoyable article. Also very useful for the introduction to further reading.

Tony Sylvester

Thank you Stephen, I can’t recommend Charlie Porter’s book enough, even if it isn’t exactly a book on “menswear” or “style” per se..

PB

It’s very pretentious, isn’t it? Intellectuals and artists in “working man’s” drag while living a life that has nothing to do with that kind of work, really. I’m an artist, and spending a day in the studio isn’t the same things as a day picking tomatoes, that’s for sure. I suppose it comes out of the popularity of socialism/communism in artistic circles starting at the turn of the last century, too. So phony! So fun!

Tony Sylvester

I’m not sure that “pretentious” is apt here. You’re right on the political angle, but I think it was broader than that and was about exploring what an artist does and what role art played / plays in society at large. I think this played out not only in the subject matters tackled but also the actual type of work being created. I don’t think anyone was “pretending” per se.

Aaron

So as an artist, what do you wear? It doesn’t strike me as pretentious at all, it seems fitting to me – particularly depending on what type of art is being made.

Nick

I see what you’re trying to say but I think if we go down this line then literally anything, if you scratch the surface enough, will be ‘phoney’. The german aristocracy wearing dirndls and lederhosen inspired by people who worked on their land, tailors from outside the UK and Italy adopting techniques and styles of those countries or people wearing western shirts who aren’t American let alone cowboys etc. I don’t think any of these people are trying to be someone they are not, they are just wearing clothes they fancy.

PB

All good points. And, to be clear, I agree that most everything could be seen as “phony” if you dig deep enough. I suppose I was thinking of someone like Bob Dylan. He dressed like a dust bowl laborer (or Woody Guthrie’s vision of what that looked like) in order to play with the ideas around the common man, etc. And probably also to borrow some of that authenticity. I guess that’s where the “pretension” comes in in my mind. But there’s nothing wrong with any of it, of course.
And what do I wear? Whatever is too old and worn out to wear otherwise. Today, it’s an old chambray shirt and Levis LVCs. Super authentic. 😉

M L S

Well stated PB and great observation.

Marco

another very refreshing article by tony sylvester

Ben

Positively surprised to observe Monsieur Newton in a “shalwar kamees”

zo

thats totally a shalwar kameez, i thought exactly the same!

WES WP

I wonder – to what extent – menswear sites and magazines have perpetuated the fetishization of the wardrobes of “stylish” people like Picasso or Woody Allen. But there are two things that I’m reminded of after reading this article:
ONE: Simon’s “When Style Becomes Costume” – https://www.permanentstyle.com/2008/03/when-style-becomes-costume.html
TWO: Yes, clothing must (above all else) be functional, but it should flatter the wearer. There is no one in the world who would be improved (aesthetically, visually) by the farmer’s smock (and I understand that farmers didn’t need to worry about such things).
Anyone who tries to dress like an artist who was historically (innately, inherently, or forcibly) trying to dress like a proletariat, is doing a kind of cosplay that I don’t understand (I actually kind of “get” the notion of cosplay in other contexts, as it’s purely fantasy or – as the word implies – play).
Lardini has a number of “sartorial jackets” on Yoox these days – knitted blazers or sport coats – that look exactly like bathrobes. And that’s what they are – bathrobes. They’ll never be accepted in the boardroom, and they wouldn’t be okay on a Zoom call. Now, if you’re a creative or a freelance writer, sure, put on a bathrobe. If you work in an office that has a low bar, or no bar, then (sure) wear what you’d like to. If there’s no one to answer to (but there’s always someone to answer to — even if it’s just your own style consciousness), then wear whatever moves you at that moment in time.
But I look at these artists – and the writer of the article – and I wonder: do they look good in what they’re wearing in these pictures? Picasso (with the mixed stripe directions) does (at least) look smart and comfortable (and at peace with himself, sartorially). I love a good field or safari jacket, but Arny’s famous coat always seemed both too stuffy (to me), and too instantly dated (as opposed to some timeless classic that cost $5,000 Euros or more). The Foresteire jacket seems stuck in time with 60s Peter Sellers – and I don’t mean the Peter Sellers on a yacht with some remarkable blonde, I mean Dr. Strangelove-Sellers). Would Beuys’ clunky fishing vest look good on anyone other than Beuys or an actual fisherman (and it seems Beuys was using it vs. “runway working it.”)? No.
I would like to see drawstring pants adopted by business culture, but I don’t work in finance, so I don’t really care if that ever happens (it would just have a nice trickle-down effect if it did). I would like to see a work culture where people can wear what they want – but artists didn’t have to worry about any of these things. Most of us do.
And all of us can think about dressing for the bodies we have, the jobs we have to do (or get to do), and for the people who are forced to look at us each and everyday (from spouses to colleagues).
Bathrobes, in every way, should remain on the back of bathroom doors, and Lardini probably won’t change that fact.

WES WP

I’ve learned a great deal from you, Simon, so I can only say that you’re probably right in your response.

My thinking, still, is:

  • Many people think “this is how artists and counter-culture people dress, so I’ll do the same.” No one on your site may be directly advocating for the emulation of “a singular look,” but it’s hard to feel that given these “looks” show up again, and again (in no small part because of style blogs). When People put on that shirt they think – immediately – of Picasso. When people put on a black rollneck, they think, immediately of Steve McQueen, etc. (the idea here is that iconic figures – to some extent – “own” these wardrobe pieces…and to some extent, of course, they don’t).
  • I don’t think that being flattered by clothing is a “small part” of getting dressed. I think (beyond function) it is THE most important thing.
  • There are far too many people in the style-blog-o-sphere who have been deemed “stylish” but who also (IMHO) look utterly terrible. Yes, they have (possibly) “gone their own way,” but they don’t look good (which I understand is an incredibly subjective assessment in each and every case).
  • Finally, I don’t know how that chore coat will have “bags of style.” A nice part of one’s wardrobe? Perhaps. A statement piece? Maybe. A piece of cloth that would make most of us disappear? More likely (unless it’s tailored or “styled” properly – but how many people can carry that off?).
WES WP

I think that’s what draws me back to you and your blog: your openness.
Thanks for being you (and for helping move the needle).
Believe it or not – I’m more open than I used to be…

Dr Peter

I wonder if you have noticed some similarities between two of the pieces you discuss in this article, and items of clothing commonly worn in Pakistan and India. The long smock reminds one strongly of the long calf-length shirt worn over loose trousers in Pakistan by men. It can be seen everywhere in that country. Likewise the “authentic” Forestiere coat is very similar to the closed collar galbandhi jacket commonly found with trousers in India — the Indian version of the suit, so to speak.If the jacket is longer, with additional buttons, it becomes a sherwaani. In turn, both the galbandhi coat and the sherwaani have been influenced by the western suitcoat in the placement of pockets, vents and cuff buttons. I suppose these sorts of influences go back and forth. Le Corbusier designed an entire city in the Punjab, the city of Chandigarh. I’m sure he must have been influenced to some extent in the design of the Forestiere coat by closed collar coats and sherwaanis he saw in India.

Paul

I came to say just that.

The smock is very akin to the Kurta, which is really South Asian, and seen in Asian communities in the UK also. I wonder how much of this is marketing? I can’t imagine High end customers paying for a Pakistani kurta, even with great cut and materials, but call it a French throwback and you can sell much easier.

See also Japanese vs Chinese food pricing.

Tony Sylvester

Excellent observations on Forestiere and Sherwani jacket, and I have no doubt that was one of the influences in Corbusier’s mind when he designed the coat. Although he didn’t start working on Chandigarh until a few years after commissioning Arny’s to make the coat, I’m sure he would have been aware of how Indian men dressed.

zo

I’m Pakistani (born and bred) living in the UK. And yes that’s a Kurta. And yes the short sherwani is a Nehru jacket. Commonly worn with matching trousers at weddings, events etc.
I disagree with Wes WP when he says no one can be improved aesthetically by the kurta. Kurtas are incredibly flattering on all body types and genders and incredibly flattering in the climate. You can find formal and informal kurtas. Flashy kurtas and understated kurtas.
I quite like Western brands adapting (re-branding?) kurtas and similar ethnic items. It allows me to wear my collection of kurtas outside ethnic events! P Johnson sells them too…I think they started off calling them ‘Kurtas’ but later changed to ‘Tunics’ possibly because it appealed more. They regularly show them off on their IG. In fact, the guy behind PJ wore one with dinner suit. Photo from their IG.

123.jpg
zo

btw galbandhi literally means ‘closed neck’

zo

*incredibly practical in the climate

JKH

in the novel Tonio Kroeger German author Thomas Mann makes his protagonist say something like the following: Why do people always expect artists to run around in flamboyant velvet jackets? As an artist I am enough of a risky person and adventurer on the inside. Seriously! My appearance needs to be reliable and rather matter of factlly on the outside.

Georgios

Simon really interesting article as always. My only complaint is that the brands you refer to are really really expensive. I think one misses the point of artist clothes if we are talking about such prices. Artists clothes are practical stylish and not so common but affordable( many artists arent rich, many wanna look like artist although are).

Stephen

Just building on the points above. Bill Cunningham the American photographer is a great example of practical inexpensive stylish clothing. Where his persona stylises the clothing rather than vice-versa. I once saw a documentary where I seem to remember him saying he purchased his work (chore style) jackets in bulk from a hardware store.

Fredrik

Thanks for a very interesting and thoughtful article! As a person that has been in the contemporary art world for many years I have some experience to share. I work fulltime as an artist (mostly paintings no stains on my suits) I have teached as a professor and guest lecturer at numerus schools and academies – and you rarely see real professionals dress like the people on these pictures, sadly…. most student have baseball caps both male and female and trainers, very large t-shirts. At the big art-fairs, Basel, Freeze and so on, visitors sometimes (buyers) tend to have slim suits in black, sneakers (mostly curators and writers). You rarely see a smart dressed person – the same for gallery and museum openings. You just dont find many Lucien Freud or Balthus with Saville row suits full of dryed oil paint. Its a rare bird to even see a pair of Crockett & Jones on an opening. My impression is that much of the contemporay art scene stylistic very much is a mix between the cheap cassual and secondhand clothing for the artists on the left side. And then you have the buyers on the rigth/luxury traditional side, expensive handbags, Hermes, LV, shiny tassel loafers and so on. So looking at these pictures is like entering a mythical and more stylish, but lost world…
And of course artists looks great on film like Julian Schnabel in his housecoat, Warhol in the black rollneck, Frida Kahlo with her eybrows and folkloristic style.
And Koons, Murakami and Kusama is a part of the LV brand…but thats business!

Anton

“Fascinating if a bit sad” is a decent working summary of the Art World (or as it is currently known, the Art Market) right now.

Jason

To digress. A constant theme and inspiration is how classicism is updated. It would be interesting to take great movies that have an important sartorial content and modernise the look whilst remaining faithful to the spirit of the original.
This could be expressed in a ‘How To Dress Like Feature’.
A good one to start with could be ‘How To Dress Like Reynolds Woodcock in 2021’.
As you are doubtless aware, Woodcock of ‘Phantom Thread’ was dressed by A&S for the 1950s.
Were he with us today, he would doubtless have stayed faithful to his sartorial roots whilst modernising. Thus giving real credence to Permanent Style.
This would make good use of your extensive wardrobe or alternatively it might be something the brand would like to anticipate in by saying; “That’s how we dressed Reynolds in 1950 but this is how we’d dress him today !”
Interesting me thinks. What thinks Simon ?

Tom

What fascinated me in reading this article is a certain kind of relocated continuity that we hold with these past artists. Sure we can admire Jackson Pollocks shoes, but take into account the blobs of paint on them as well and you realise that these artists have a very different relation to their outfits than we have. It’s not only the carelessness that is foreign to — at least — most of the studied web images we seem hooked on, the dirtied shoes also point to the job the man performs and to what makes him the person he is (an artist). In our days this external reference seems to have been replaced by a dressing-up that has its purpose more or less in itself. The continuity I was thinking of lies right here. Whereas we have developed a self consciousness as clothes enthousiasts who are acquainted with many different historic styles and concepts, the modernist artist has acquired an understanding of himself/herself in relation to an artistic tradition and sees his/her products as art works that carry all of these references in themselves. Have we started regarding ourselves as works of art…?

Jack

Hi,
Can I ask where the hat is from in the seventh picture?
Thanks!

Tony Sylvester

Hey Jack, it was made by Cody at Wellema Hats in California.

https://www.permanentstyle.com/2020/03/the-quality-and-style-of-wellema-hats.html

Jack

Many thanks, Tony. Great hat!