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Folk Art Influence: American Art Turned Fashion by Morgan Watkins


When you think of the term “folk art,” what comes to mind? Do you instinctively 
hum a tune by Mumford & Sons? Do you imagine paintings of rural lands or cows? Regardless of whatever conceptions you may have of folk art, there’s a lot to be said about its staying power in America and how it’s shaped artists and fashion designers alike. Want to learn about folk art and its impact on the fashion world? Keep on reading!

Folk art was introduced to the eastern regions of America in the 1700s. Vastly talented artists, who were characteristically self taught, used a variety of mediums to communicate their surroundings to the people around them. Initially, these art pieces served as forms of income for individuals around the country. Paintings of landscapes and portraits were most common around this time, featuring simplistic techniques and styles that perfectly reflected this era. Portraits displayed fairly basic backgrounds but intensely detailed facial features and expressions. These creations also serve as a wonderful record of what the fashions looked like centuries ago, even if the paintings were simple. Landscapes depicted images of all scenery imaginable, whether that be the sea, forests, farmland or townships. By the 1800s, mourning paintings were quite popular, presenting portraits of lost loved ones and families weeping at funerals. Important life events in general, like weddings and births, were also documented via folk paintings.

 

(Image from https://folkartmuseum.org/exhibitions/a-shared-legacy-folk-art-in-america/)

Sculpture was yet another medium utilized by 19th century folk artists. The earliest American folk sculptures were carved from wood and perched upon the stern boards and figureheads of ships. These carvings mimicked female figures and were said to protect the ship. Cigar and tobacco shops also worked with folk artists to create lifelike signs for their businesses. Carvings of life sized Indians and soldiers were most commonly requested by shop owners, who set the self-standing sculptures outside the doors of their storefronts to attract customers.

 

(Image from https://www.skinnerinc.com/auctions/2258/lots/189)


One of the most common associations with folk art is quite arguably the 
patchwork quilt. The American staple was birthed from Amish communities in the 18th and 19th century Midwest, where resources were limited and winters were cold. These quilts served utilitarian as well as decorative purposes, as folk art can be either or. Another folk art attribute that was prevalent in quilt making especially is the concept of creating works with your own two hands. And while quilts, paintings and sculptures are all examples of art you can touch, intangible forms like music, poetry and dance also have their place in the realm of folk art.

 

(Image from http://amishamerica.com/hostetlers-quilt-shop/)


So how has folk art presented itself in the fashion world? Well, just recently, Raf 
Simons was celebrated by the American Folk Art Museum for the Americana quilt designs he created for Calvin Klein. And celebrating the 50 year anniversary of his brand, Ralph Lauren presented a collection dripping in folk art influence for New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2019. The designer claims that his collections and mood boards are birthed by American inspiration, listing American folk art as a specific example. Lauren’s American muse is clear in his patchwork designs, paired perfectly with folk-y patterns and fabrics like wool, plaid, and tribal print.

 

(Image from https://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-scoops/raf-simons-to-be-honored-by-american-fo lk-art-museum-1202770974/)

Above all, folk art is an outlet that has always been for the people, by the people. Although it started out as a means to make a living, folk art has evolved into a contemporary practice made for self expression and community bonding. Its inclusivity, patriotism and effortless attitude makes it an art style that will likely withstand the test of time, growing with us in fashion and other gorgeous art forms worth admiring.

 

(Image from https://www.bangstyle.com/posts/ralph-lauren-50th-anniversary-ss19-fashion-show-318 6)

 

References:

Aktar, Alex. “ Ralph Lauren Marks 50 Years at Star-Studded Central Park Show.” New York Post,8 Sept. 2018, https://nypost.com/2018/09/08/ralph-lauren-marks-50-years-at-star-studded-central-park-show/. 

Lockwood, Lisa. “Raf Simons to Be Honored by American Folk Art Museum.” WWD,Aug. 2018,https://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-scoops/raf-simons-to-be-honored-by-american-folk-art-museum-1202770974/.

Sessions, Ralph. “Folk Art.” Scholastichttp://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3754295.

“What Is Folk Art?” Museum of International Folk Art, http://www.internationalfolkart.org/learn/what-is-folk-art.html.

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