'I've got no interest in who is best dressed or most stylish. I've also got no interest in who is the best artist or the most successful,' says Charlie Porter, author of the new book What Artists Wear; a deep dive into the wardrobes, lives and works of modern and contemporary artists including Jean Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol and many more. For a man who lives and breathes fashion - Porter was menswear critic for the Financial Times from 2014-2018, and has been described as one of the most influential fashion journalists of his time - it may come as a surprise that he has no care for rating people's wardrobes. But Porter's writing has always gone against the grain, and has sometimes even teetered on the iconoclastic - while working as deputy fashion editor for The Guardian in 2006, he famously wrote about a Nicolas Ghesquière Balenciaga show where the clothes were 'so small they might just fit an anorexic Cabbage Patch Kid.' The joke fell flat on fashion's luxury crowd, and Porter was promptly banned from Balenciaga's future presentations.
It makes sense that Porter wants to take sanctified artists off of their pedestals too. 'Artists are being deified and treated as these god-like figures that are above us, or above society. As soon as you do that, we can't know them because we can't share a human experience with them,' he says. The central aim of the book - to humanise artists by looking at their clothes - is achieved through a close analysis of their garments. Andy Warhol's love of denim is touched on (he wore Levi's under tuxedo pants to the White House in 1975 like a second skin), while Sarah Lucas' masculine bravado is exemplified via an empty pair of Doc Martens with razor blades in the toe caps, which the artist inserted herself. The mixing of some of art's biggest names along with lesser-known contemporary artists is equally democratic; American painter Nicole Eisenman gets her own chapter in the book, as do household names like Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Beuys. The rest of the artists are covered in chapters spanning workwear, denim and casual clothing.
A depressing revelation comes in the tailoring section of the book. After tracing the origins of the tailored suit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Porter concludes that the suit was the uniform of the British aristocracy, who bolstered their wealth and power through the slave trade. When women wear suits nowadays people often talk of a feeling of empowerment, but the suit has no female origins whatsoever, meaning that this sense of empowerment is entirely derived and aped from white male power. 'Any artist who wears a suit, whatever their gender position, must contend with this encoded meaning of male power. There is no way to escape it,' writes Porter while examining the suiting favoured by female artists like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe.
So why did Porter want to write a book on artists, after so many years writing about fashion shows? 'For the majority of artists, their life involves some sort of removal to make the work. They don't have to dress for work, and don't have to engage in this visual language of clothing of Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. That gives them a more involved, intuitive relationship with their clothing,' he says. Porter also felt restricted by only being able to write about major fashion brands on a seasonal schedule, instead of lived-in clothing. 'I wanted to look at clothing itself. The way we wear clothing, what that language is and how it forms.' There is abundant imagery of well worn clothing in the book, a world away from the cold, pristine presentation of the luxury clothing Porter used to cover in his writing: there's a photograph of British artist Chantal Joffe's Birkenstock clogs caked in five years of paint, or a still from Charlotte Prodger's film Passing As A Great Grey Owl, which depicts the artist pissing in the heathery wilderness, blue adidas tracksuits around her ankles.
Even while writing about high fashion for the Financial Times, Porter was looking at clothes from a sociological perspective. 'There's an assumed language (of fashion writing), but there's all this space to do all this other work and talk about the visual language that we share between each other. You can talk about society, sociology, environment, consumerism,' he says. This approach is exemplified excellently in an entry from Porter's blog where he swiped through the Tinder profiles of 100 men, documenting his snap judgements of the clothing in their pictures.
I wondered aloud whether writing the book changed the way that Porter dressed, since, after reading it, the book certainly made me question why I wear the clothes that I do, and made me envious of the self-assigned uniforms that artists wear. 'Writing the book involved me becoming more interested in clothing that allowed me to work, move, write, didn't constrict me, provided me with warmth when I needed it in winter, or looseness in summer,' he says. When we talk, Porter is wearing a bright yellow pair of Prada sandals with blue socks. 'I'm really enjoying the yellow and blue there in my visual field. So much of dressing is to do with what you give to yourself in terms of feeding your eyes.'
And in terms of feeding us, What Artists Wear is brilliant and unexpected. Many fashion books tend to revere and hone in on the singular, artistic genius figure - think of Dana Thomas's Gods and Kings (2015), about the rise and fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, Terry Newman's Legendary Artists and the Clothes They Wore (2019), or even Ryan Murphy's new Halston (2021) Netflix biopic. What Artists Wear approaches fashion in a wholly different way - Porter writes of Louise Bourgeois' love of Helmut Lang, while later in the book, we discover that Ryan Trecartin prefers American discount stores like Walmart. In Porter's eyes, however, these artists and their clothes - both high and low - are equally worthy of study.
What Artists Wear by Charlie Porter is available on May 27