I had so much fun participating in the art-inspired outfits week on Instagram and Reddit last month that I’m back for another round!
As a mortal with a finite wardrobe, to give myself more options I made collages for some of these outfits, but IMO playing at (virtual) paper dolls is always a fun way to engage in fashion as a creative activity without spending money, sewing, or having to worry about how things fit 🙂
Going to jump right into the art and outfits to start with, but stick around for some tips on how to evoke your favorite painting, sculpture, or other visual art piece through clothing.
I’ve shared the first two outfits already on Instagram, but let’s do a more in-depth look while we’re here anyway 🧐
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers
Van Gogh created a whole series of sunflower paintings, not just one! (Something I learned pretty recently.) The painting below is the fourth version of the vase of sunflowers, and is in the National Gallery in London.
Even though most of the flowers depicted are dead or well on their way there, the intense textures from the thick brushwork and lines of motion in the painting make them feel almost like fireworks, while I find the wash of yellows creates a happy, almost soothing vibe.
I wear a lot more yellow than the average person in any given week, but I hadn’t done yellow+yellow until I decided on using the sunflowers as inspiration.
I really loved how this turned out, even though the proportions are a little leggy. The top and skirt are both made of textured fabrics, and the decorative seaming on the top and the decorative stitching on the wide waistband collectively add enough additional visual elements so it didn’t feel like a Belle Halloween costume. As a bonus, I liked how the running stitches reminded me of the visible brush strokes in most of Van Gogh’s work.
Usually for outfit prompts based on something other than a specific fashion style, I find that about 80% of it is just getting a similar color palette down, but figuring out what can work as a more direct callback to the original inspiration is what will take it from “oh yeah, you could make an argument for that as inspiration” to “definitely channeling it!” Here the round straw tote is a more obvious reference to the fluffy sunflower heads, and is a fun way to get the floral vibe without jumping direct to kitsch. (I LOVE kitschy accessories, but I’ve been trying to show some restraint and stick to mostly versatile bag designs due to space constraints)
Would have been nice to have a pop of yellow-green somewhere (maybe a tie-on accessory for the tote or non-tropical leaf earrings if I had them) but I think it hit enough points that it wasn’t going to break the concept.
Monet’s Water Lilies
There is also a series of water lilies paintings by Monet, not just one. (According to Wikipedia, over 250!)
With impressionist paintings I usually imagine a serene and flowy scene, so I threw a long, drapey cardigan over the base of dark green velvet and light wash blue jeans. Given the cool toned colors, I was limited to start with by the few green and blue pieces in my wardrobe, but I did like how the dark on top gradient matched up to this particular water lilies example.
For the pop of pink, I added some tassel earrings. Earrings felt like a good choice because the placement also has the lily flower element sitting at the top of the outfit.
I think a shoe like blue or green suede flats would have been cute here, but in lieu of those (as I don’t have any), I just kept to the relaxing vibe with simple sandals.
I revisited this one because I couldn’t stop thinking that this would be a great use for a pastel variegated yarn sweater, or something with a watercolor print. I poked through google images until I found a sweater that had basically the exact color palette of the Monet, which was pretty sweet.
I wanted to keep a flowy feeling through the outfit, so I figured a drapey midi skirt or swishy trousers would complement it best. I couldn’t find any slip style satin midi skirts that I liked in images, but I found a pair of navy culottes. While there’s not much dark blue in the photo, I figured the sweater was strong enough as a color reference, and I liked the higher color value contrast it had with these pants.
To give the whole look a slightly more modern feel I looked around for a pair of clean silhouette sneakers, and decided on the pair of New Balances, since they also added a small pink detail.
At this point I decided that a green fancy fanny pack would be a PERFECT finishing touch because it would also mirror the look of a lily pad floating over everything. Thankfully, there are some slightly more upscale-looking fanny packs made in green. While there aren’t really strong lines or chevrons anywhere in the painting, just on their own merits, I like how the pleats on the pants and quilting on the bag add some structured elements to the outfit to contrast with the soft sweater and swishy pants.
Frida Kahlo’s self portraits
Whenever I think of art that often shows up in conjunction with fashion, Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits are definitely near the top of the list, especially as Fridamania continues going strong today.
I just went with two of her most well-known portraits, but she did a lot more than currently-marketable magical realism. Google Arts and Culture has TONS of resources about her art and life, including the Appearances Can Be Deceiving exhibit on her wardrobe, its meaning to her, and its influence on fashion from the Museo de Frida Kahlo. The museum also has a full virtual tour available on its website (word of warning if you get motion sick easily that it starts out by zooming in aggressively from a fisheye lens sort of birds eye view before settling into a google street view style of navigation).
I didn’t want to go too much toward exact copying of any of her outfits or into Tehuana dress, so I decided to build the outfit around stylized hand earrings and a tropical print.
I wanted to keep the top pretty minimal so that the print would be emphasized more on its own merits rather than having any Hawaiian shirt vibes creeping in. I liked that the handkerchief hem of this skirt was a little more romantic and feminine than a basic slip style skirt would be while not going full out boho/peasant skirt. To pull towards a modern vibe on the other end of the outfit to match the tee and wire earrings, I looked for a pair of mules. I went for a woven style to reference the thorns and roots that appear in her works.
I included a lipstick mostly to fill out the space in the collage, though I think it also works from the outfit perspective to add a little color to the top half (plus Kahlo seems to be wearing a bright lipstick in both portraits shown).
Bodys Isek Kingelez’ model cities
As Kingelez is not a household name, here’s some background copied from Wikipedia, whose combined authors put it better than I could:
Bodys Isek Kingelez or Jean Baptiste (1948 – March 14, 2015) was a Congolese sculptor and artist known for his models of fantastic cities, made of cardboard, paper, tape and other commonplace materials. His work has been presented in numerous exhibitions around the globe, including exhibitions at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the documenta XI in Kassel.
Kingelez is known primarily for his models of fantastic and utopian cities made of scrap materials like cardboard, paper and plastic; these models depict an idealistic vision of society that contrasts our harsh reality and dually a statement against the widespread construction funded by The World Bank in collaboration with corrupt African regimes. He sought to establish a fairy-tale world in his work that reflected his inner fantasies and ideals he had envisioned for reality that would be open for all to explore; as Sarah Suzuki, curator at the Museum of Modern Art New York, has said: Kingelez’s work creates “a place of optimism, a place of beauty… That feels very welcome.”
Read more and see a recent exhibition at MOMA here, as well as see a link to the book on his work (of which the cover is above). I was fortunate to see that exhibit in person, which was how I learned about his work. It’s still one of my personal favorite art exhibitions that I’ve seen. There were so many cool details on the models from every angle, and just being in the cities’ vicinity was very energizing.
I did another collage for this one, incorporating the following elements inspired by his models:
- Saturated primary colors: his cities are bold, optimistic sets, not dystopian or drab
- Stripes and grids (check): to call back to the sharp lines and windows in the buildings and streets
- Upcycled material earrings: a lot of material in the cities is recognizably from old packaging
- City skyline: I thought a graphic tee would be fun here, so why not have a bit of a direct call.
- Fun: I finished up with a pair of classic high-top Converse sneakers, which I tend to associate more with a more energetic and fun look. I think this would also look great as a standalone thing with boots, flats, pumps, etc, but I wanted to balance out the more formal direction of the blazer and trousers, and also to play off the more casual earrings and tee.
Again, I find that getting an outfit to feel like a successful reference is about 80% evocative colors and prints and 20% getting in some sort of thematic accessory or motif. Here are some specific things I consider when putting together art-inspired outfits.
Tips: Colors and Prints
- Aim for similar proportions of colors. e.g. in the water lilies outfit, there’s a little pink, but it’s more of an accent than a base color.
- Check that your colors are a similar saturation (how intense they are – e.g. a pure red vs a dull brownish red) and tone (if they have warmer colors or cooler colors mixed in). You don’t have to exactly match every color, but I find that having similar colors in the same saturation and tone will make the outfit’s overall spirit feel closer to the art inspiration than trying to match the colors in name.
- For example if you had a bold blue, neon orange, and lemon yellow art inspiration but you don’t have neon orange, IMO it would likely feel closer if you went with a bright color a neon pink or a bright red instead of a burnt orange or ochre, which would mute the whole thing.
- Same for prints and patterns: you likely won’t have exactly the same pattern in your closet, but you can aim for patterns of the same scale (i.e. are the shapes large or small) and crispness (is the overall effect more subtle, with the shapes bleeding into each other, or is the pattern clear from 5 blocks away?)
- Nail polish and makeup are easy way to add pops of color if you need a particular accent color but don’t have any clothes or accessories that work for it. You can even try mixing polish colors.
Or you can cheat: Reverse engineer the “inspiration” based on your existing clothing 🙃
Google Arts and Culture has a tool where you can find art pieces by color!
Check it out here. This is also just fun to explore even if you have no intention of wearing something inspired by a particular art piece, seeing less conventional color combinations in a variety of existing art pieces can be pretty inspiring for branching out in outfit color palettes.
No, I’m not being paid to promote Google Arts and Culture. But they just have SO. MUCH. STUFF. and I feel like I rarely see it mentioned anywhere despite having come a long way from their beta launch.
Strengthen the link of your outfit and inspiration by matching a few details in addition to the colors. For example
- Textures and shapes: Do the shapes have sharp clean silhouettes (think blazers, umbrellas, structured bags, sharp trousers), or are they softer (drapey fabrics, soft prints)? Does the art have a lot of texture in it, or is it more simple or graphic?
- Motifs: Nothing wrong with directly incorporating something from the art into your outfit. A t-shirt or tote bag with apples for Magritte’s The Son of Man, shell jewelry for the birth of Venus, that sort of thing. A great time to bust out all your kitschy items. Disneybounds are often a good example of directly adding items from the inspo into a casual outfit via accessories.
People Matching Artworks tumblr by Stefan Draschan
The Getty Challenge! The Getty Museum asked people to send in photos of themselves recreating paintings using common household items. More on humor than fashion, as it’s more dependent on props and staging than clothing.
And a Buzzfeed round up of some really spot-on submissions.
If you’re even just slightly interested in having a go at some art-inspired looks, I recommend it as a reason to play dress-up. It’s a lot of fun and I find that times where I look for inspiration outside of fashion can help get me out of a rut and try new pairings of things within my own wardrobe. Plus it’s a great excuse to spend some time browsing online art resources. There’s so much to explore, and it’s pretty fun when clothes can bring you closer to other cool stuff out there 👩🏽🎨