9 Times The History of Art Inspired Fashion Designers

Fashion is regarded as a part of visual culture, a kind of body-art. Prompted by this, some of the world-famous fashion designers have made outstanding collections based on art movements.

Apr 18, 2021By Stella Polyzoidou, BA Archaeology and Art History
fashion art history
Linda Evangelista in a ‘Warhol Marilyn’ gown by Gianni Versace, 1991; with The Mondrian dress by Yves Saint Laurent, fall/winter 1965 collection; and a dress from the resort collection by Alexander McQueen, 2013


Throughout history, fashion and art went hand in hand, creating a great mix. Many fashion designers have borrowed ideas from art movements for their collections, allowing us to interpret fashion as a form of art. Mainly, art serves us for expressing ideas and visions. As an exquisite ode to the history of art, below are nine wearable art pieces conceived by visionary fashion designers of the 20th century.


Madeleine Vionnet: A Fashion Designer That Channeled Ancient History

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The Winged Victory of Samothrace, 2nd century BCE, via the Louvre, Paris


Born in north-central France in 1876, Madame Vionnet was known as ”the architect of dressmakers.” During her stay in Rome, she was fascinated by the art and culture of the Greek and Roman civilizations and inspired by ancient goddesses and statues. Based on these artworks, she shaped her style aesthetic and combined elements of Greek sculpture and architecture to give a new dimension to the female body. With her master skill of draping and bias cutting dresses, she revolutionized modern fashion. Vionnet often turned to art pieces like the Winged Victory of Samothrace for her creative collections.


The resemblance between the masterpiece of Hellenistic art and Vionnet’s muse is striking. The deep drape of the fabric in the style of the Greek chiton creates vertical bands of light flowing down the figure. The sculpture was created as an homage to Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, and is admired for its realistic depiction of movement. The flowing drapery of Vionnet’s design resembles the movement of the billowing fabric that clings to Nike’s body. Dresses can be like living beings with a soul, just like the body. Like the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Vionnet created dresses that awaken human beings. Classicism, both as an aesthetic and design philosophy, provided Vionnet with the ability to convey her vision in geometrical harmony.


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Bas-relief frieze dress by Madeleine Vionnet, photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene for French Vogue, 1931, via Condé Nast


Vionnet was also fascinated by modern art movements, such as Cubism. She began to incorporate geometric shapes into her creations and developed a different method to cut them, called the bias cutting. Of course, Vionnet never claimed that she invented the bias cut, but only expanded its use. As women made great progress in fighting for their rights at the beginning of the 20th century, Vionnet defended their freedom by abolishing the long-lasting Victorian corset from women’s daily apparel. Therefore, she became a symbol of women’s liberation from the constriction of bustiers, and instead launched new, lighter fabrics that were floating on female bodies. 

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Valentino And Hieronymus Bosch

garden of earthly delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490 – 1500, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


Pierpaolo Piccioli is the main designer of Valentino. The religious artworks from the Middle Ages appeal to him a great deal. The starting point of inspiration for him is the transitional moment from the Middle ages to the Northern Renaissance. He collaborated with Zandra Rhodes and together they designed an inspiring collection in Spring 2017. Piccioli wanted to connect the late ’70s punk culture with humanism and medieval art, so he went back to his roots and the Renaissance, finding inspiration in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights


The famous Dutch painter was one of the most notable representatives of the Northern Renaissance during the 16th century. In the Garden of Earthly Delights that Bosch painted before the Reformation, the artist wanted to depict Heaven and the creation of mankind, the first temptation with Adam and Eve, and Hell, anticipating the sinners. In the central panel, people appear to satisfy their appetites in a pleasure-seeking world. Bosch’s iconography stands out for its originality and sensuality. The whole painting is interpreted as an allegory for sin.  


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Models on the runway at the Valentino Spring Summer 2017 fashion show during Paris Fashion Week, 2016, Paris, via Getty Images


In the fashion world, the painting gained popularity as various fashion designers were charmed by its motifs. Blending eras and aesthetics, Piccioli reinterpreted Bosch’s symbols through floating sheer gowns, while Rhodes created the romantic prints and embroidered patterns, with a subtle nod to the original artwork. Colors were definitely a part of the message that fashion designers wanted to deliver. Thus, the collection of floating dreamy dresses is based on the Northern color palette of apple green, pale pink, and robin egg blue.


Dolce & Gabbana And The Baroque Of Peter Paul Rubens

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Venus in Front of the Mirror by Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, via the Princely Collections of Liechtenstein, Vienna; with Dolce & Gabbana fashion collection for fall/winter 2020 photographed by Nima Benati, via Nima Benati website


Peter Paul Rubens painted women masterfully, ‘with love, scholarship and diligence.’ He presented his Venus in Front of the Mirror as the ultimate symbol of beauty. Rubens exceptionally depicted her fair complexion and light hair that comes in contrast with the dark-skinned maidservant. The mirror is the ultimate symbol of beauty, which frames the woman like a portrait, while subtly emphasizing the figure’s nakedness. The mirror that Cupid holds up for the goddess reveals the reflection of Venus, as a representation of sexual desire. Rubens, who was one of the founders of Baroque art, and his concept in which “colors are more important than lines,” influenced several fashion designers including Dolce & Gabbana. The Baroque style deviated from the spirit of Renaissance, abandoned the peacefulness and the smoothness, and pursued instead elegance, excitement, and movement. 


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Peace Embracing Plenty by Peter Paul Rubens, 1634,  via Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; with  Dolce & Gabbana fashion collection for fall/winter 2020, photographed by Nima Benati, via Nima Benati website


The fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana wanted to create a campaign that will extol the sensual but also the romantic side of female beauty. Peter Paul Rubens was the most appropriate source of inspiration. The creations of the iconic duo came to be in great harmony with the art of the Flemish painter. In this collection, models posed with great nobility, looking like they just jumped out of one of Rubens’ paintings. The scenery was designed to recall the baroque mirrors and embroidery details. The grace of the figures and the pastel color palette were perfectly highlighting the brocade pink dress. The fashion designers’ choice to include diverse models even more so promoted the body type of that era. The curvy lines Dolce and Gabbana used went against the discrimination of different body types in the fashion industry.


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Portrait of Anne of Austria by Peter Paul Rubens, 1621-25, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; with Model Lucette van Beek on Dolce & Gabbana runway, Fall 2012, photographed by Vittorio Zunino Celotto, via Getty Images



Dolce and Gabbana’s Fall 2012 women’s collection displays many characteristics of Italian Baroque architecture. This collection perfectly coincides with the highly ornate characteristics of the Sicilian Baroque style. The fashion designers focused on Baroque architecture as seen in the Catholic Churches of Sicily. The reference point was Rubens’ painting The Portrait of Anne of Austria. In her royal portrait, Anne of Austria is represented wearing Spanish fashion. Anne’s black gown is decorated, with vertical strips of green embroidery and gold details. The bell-shaped sleeve, known as the “Spanish Great-Sleeve” is also a Spanish-style signature, as well as the ruffled lace collar. Artfully designed dresses and capes made out of luxurious textiles like lace and brocade stole the Dolce and Gabbana show. 


History Of Art And Fashion: El Greco’s Mannerism And Cristobal Balenciaga

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Fernando Niño de Guevara by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), 1600, via The Met Museum, New York


Cristóbal Balenciaga could be described as a true fashion master who reformed women’s fashion in the 20th century. Born in a small village in Spain, he transferred the essence of Spanish history of art into his contemporary designs. Throughout his career, Balenciaga was impressed by the Spanish Renaissance. He often looked for inspiration in Spanish royalty and members of the clergy. Balenciaga transformed the ecclesiastical pieces and monastic garments of the era into wearable fashion masterpieces. 


One of his great inspirations was the Mannerist El Greco, also known as Dominikos Theotokopoulos. Looking at El Greco’s Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, there is a resemblance between the Cardinal’s cape and Balenciaga’s design. The painting depicts the Spanish cardinal, Fernando Niño de Guevara, of El Greco’s time in Toledo. El Greco’s ideas were derived from the Italian Renaissance’s Neoplatonism, and in this portrait, he presents the cardinal as the symbol of God’s grace. Mannerism is present all over the painting. It is noticeable in the elongated figure with the small head, in the graceful but bizarre limbs, the intense colors, and the rejection of Classical measures and proportion. 


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A model wearing a red evening coat by Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paris Fashion Week,1954-55, via Google Arts and Culture


Balenciaga’s passion for historical clothing is obvious in this extravagant evening coat from his 1954 collection. He had the vision and ability to reinvent shapes into contemporary fashion. The exaggerated statement collar of this coat replicates the bagginess of the Cardinal’s cape. The red color in the cardinal’s apparel symbolizes blood and his willingness to die for faith. The vivid red color was regarded as extraordinary by the famous designer since he often preferred daring color combinations and bright hues. His great innovation was eliminating the waistline and introducing fluid lines, simple cuts, and three-quarter sleeves. By doing this, Balenciaga revolutionized women’s fashion. 


The designer also introduced the bracelet-length sleeves, that allowed women to show off their jewelry. During the 1960s, while the progressive introduction of women into the work industry was happening, Balenciaga had the idea of giving comfort, freedom, and functionality to the women he dressed. He promoted loose, comfortable dresses that were in contrast to the tight-fitting silhouettes of the time.


Alexander McQueen And Gustav Klimt’s Symbolism

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Fulfilment by Gustav Klimt, 1905, via MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna; with Dress from the resort collection by Alexander McQueen, 2013, via Vogue Magazine


Austrian painter, master of Symbolism, and founder of the Vienna Secession movement, Gustav Klimt marked the 20th-century history of art. His paintings and artistic aesthetic have long been an inspiration for fashion designers. Among others like Aquilano Rimoldi, L’Wren Scott, and Christian Dior, the designer that directly referenced Klimt was Alexander McQueen. In the resort collection for the spring/summer collection of 2013, he designed unique pieces that seem to be inspired by the painter’s work. Looking at the flowy black dress with the repeating gold pattern on top – a specific painting might come to mind. McQueen adopted abstract, geometric and mosaic patterns in bronze and gold tones incorporating them into his designs.


In 1905, Gustav Klimt painted Fulfillment, a representation of a couple caught in a tender hug, that became a symbol of love. The Austrian painter is famous for his golden paintings but also for the perfect blend of abstraction and color present in these works. All of the mosaics have rich golden tones with kaleidoscopic or nature-derived decorations that have had a great impact on fashion. This painting is vibrant due to the contrasting geometric shapes between the two lovers’ garments. The man’s garment includes black, white, and grey squares, while the woman’s dress is decorated with oval circles and floral motifs. In that way, Klimt masterfully illustrates the difference between masculinity and femininity.


Christian Dior, The Designer Of The Dreams, And Claude Monet’s  Impressionist Paintings

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The Artist’s Garden at Giverny by Claude Monet, 1900, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris


The founder of Impressionism and one of the greatest French painters in the history of art, Claude Monet left behind a large artistic oeuvre. Using his home and garden at Giverny for inspiration, Monet captured the natural landscape in his paintings. Specifically, in the painting named The Artist’s Garden at Giverny, he managed to manipulate the natural landscape to his needs. The contrast of brown muddy path against the vibrant color of the flowers supplements the scene. The famous impressionist often chose the iris flower for its purple color to give the effect of a bright sun. This painting is full of life, as the flowers are blooming and embracing the spring. The petals of roses and lilacs, irises, and jasmine are part of a colorful paradise, rendered on a white canvas.


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Miss Dior dress by Christian Dior Haute Couture, 1949, via Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris


In the same spirit, Christian Dior, a pioneer of French couture, made a huge mark on the fashion world that is still felt today. In 1949, he designed a Haute Couture collection for the spring/summer season. One of the highlights of that exhibition was the iconic Miss Dior gown, entirely embroidered with flower petals in different shades of pink and violet. Dior perfectly illustrated the two worlds of art and fashion and imitated Monet’s aesthetic into this functional dress. He used to spend a lot of time in the countryside, drawing his collections in his garden in Granville, just like Monet did. In that way, he defined the elegant ‘Dior’ style, incorporating the color palette and the floral patterns of Monet into his creations.


Yves Saint Laurent, Mondrian And De Stijl

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Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow by Piet Mondrian, 1930, via Kunsthaus Zürich Museum; with The Mondrian dress by Yves Saint Laurent, fall/winter 1965 collection, via Met Museum, New York


Mondrian was one of the first artists that painted abstract art in the 20th century. Born in the Netherlands, in 1872, he started an entire art movement called the De Stijl. The movement’s goal was to combine modern art and life. The style, also known as Neoplasticism, was a form of abstract art in which using only geometric principles and primary colors, such as red, blue, and yellow was combined with neutrals (black, gray, and white). Mondrian’s innovative style of the early 1900s had fashion designers replicating this pure type of abstract art. The best example of a De Stijl painting is the Composition with Red Blue and Yellow


As a lover of art, the French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent incorporated Mondrian’s paintings into his haute couture creations. He was first inspired by Mondrian when reading a book on the artist’s life that his mother gave him for Christmas.


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Mondrian dresses at the Museum of Modern Art by Yves Saint Laurent, 1966, via Khan Academy


Yves Saint Laurent even said: ‘’Mondrian is purity, and you can’t go any further in painting. The masterpiece of the twentieth century is a Mondrian.”


The designer showed his appreciation of Mondrian in his fall 1965 collection, known as the “Mondrian” collection. Inspired by the painter’s geometrical lines and bold colors, he presented six cocktail dresses that marked his iconic style and the sixties era in general. Each of the Mondrian dresses varied a little but they all had in common the simple A-line shape and the sleeveless knee-length that flattered every body type. 


 Elsa Schiaparelli And Salvador Dali 

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Three young surrealist women holding in their arms the skins of an orchestra by Salvador Dalí,1936, via The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida


Born in 1890 to an aristocratic family based in Rome, Elsa Schiaparelli soon expressed her love for the fashion world. She would start developing her revolutionary style inspired by Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism. As her career progressed, she connected with well-known Surrealists and Dadaists like Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean Cocteau. She even collaborated with the Spanish artist Salvador Dali. His aesthetic and surrealist absurdity made Dali the most famous painter of the Surrealism movement.


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The Tears Dress by Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, 1938, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


One of the greatest collaborations in fashion history was that of Dali and Elsa Schiaparelli. This gown was created together with Salvador Dalí, as a part of Schiaparelli’s Circus collection of the summer of 1938. The dress references Dali’s painting, in which he depicted women with torn flesh. 


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A photograph of Salvador Dalií and Elsa Schiaparelli, c.1949, via The Dalí Museum


For surrealist artists, the search for the ideal woman was doomed to fail, since the ideal existed only in their imagination, and not in reality. Dali’s intention, however, wasn’t to depict women realistically, thus their bodies aren’t at all aesthetically pleasing. Schiaparelli wanted to experiment with this play of concealing and revealing the body, giving the illusion of vulnerability and exposure. The Tear-Illusion Dress was made from pale blue silk crepe and the print was designed by Dalí to resemble the three women from his painting. The tears reveal the pink underside of the fabric, with a darker pink revealed in the holes.  



Fashion Designers & Pop Art: Gianni Versace And Andy Warhol

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Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962, via Tate, London


The Pop Art era was probably the most influential period for fashion designers and artists in the history of art. Andy Warhol pioneered a combination of pop culture and high fashion that made him an iconic symbol of the Pop Art movement. In the sixties, Warhol started to practice his signature technique known as silk screen printing. 


One of his earliest and undoubtedly most famous works was The Marilyn Diptych. For this artwork, he took inspiration not only from pop culture but also from the history of art and painters of abstract expressionism. Warhol captured the two worlds of Marily Monroe, the public life of the Hollywood star, and the tragic reality of Norma Jeane, the woman who struggled with depression and addiction. The diptych reinforces vibrancy on the left, while on the right it fades into darkness and obscurity. In an attempt to present a society of consumerism and materialism, he depicted individuals as products rather than human beings.


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Linda Evangelista in a ‘Warhol Marilyn’ gown by Gianni Versace, 1991


The Italian designer Gianni Versace had a long-lasting friendship with Andy Warhol. Both men were charmed by popular culture. In order to commemorate Warhol, Versace dedicated his 1991 Spring/Summer Collection to him. One of the dresses featured Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints. He incorporated brightly colored, silk-screened portraits of Marilyn and James Dean that originated from the 1960s onto skirts and maxi dresses. 

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By Stella PolyzoidouBA Archaeology and Art HistoryStella is a writer, fashion editor, website owner of Silk Pastelle and a cat lover with a BA in Archaeology and Art History from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. When she doesn't write about fashion and art, she watches biographical films and reads about different cultures. She completed her internship at MOMus Museum and she's currently doing her MA in Museum Studies.