Art and Fashion – Da Vinci and Haute Couture

I’m a relatively late adopter of podcasts but I’ve now subscribed to quite a few French radio programs, covering topics from philosophy to performing arts. I listen while I do my needlework/embroidery and it’s amazing what you can learn from the sessions.

There was an interesting 3 part series on Leonardo Da Vinci a few months ago. It discussed his life as a scientist, as a courtesan and as an artist. The main portion that sticks with me is the discussion of Da Vinci the artist, and how he conducted his business and ran his ateliers. I see quite a few parallels between the work of the Masters (like Da Vinci or Raphael) and the way the fashion industry works.

Head of a Woman, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1508

Head of a Woman, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1508


Haute Couture

Artists like Da Vinci did paint some of the work attributed to them – but not all of it. The pieces completed by the Masters themselves were hard to come by and quite expensive (and are even more so now). The limited output of the artists compared to the demand drove up the value of the pieces and the status attributed to owning one.

The parallel to fashion is to the world of haute couture. There are few pieces produced because of the intense work required, and those that are produced are astronomically priced. Clients that can pay these prices are few and far between, but owning a haute couture garment is like owning a painting by one of the Masters – the ultimate status symbol, and a possession to be cherished.

Da Vinci's work on the left, and his student Melzi's on the right

Da Vinci’s work on the left, and his student Melzi’s on the right


Ready to Wear

Da Vinci ran an atelier where pupils would learn techniques from him and essentially develop styles that were near identical to the Master’s. The output of the ateliers was much higher than Da Vinci’s individual work. The paintings began with a plan and design from the teacher, and were then executed by the advanced pupils.

The fashion parallel is the RTW collections. More accessible, they’re driven by the designs of the same artists who create the haute couture collections, but the reduced detail level and the greater availability lowers the price points. ‘From the school of Da Vinci’ becomes “From the school of Chanel”.

Charlotte Olympia's cat slippers (far left) have spawned a number of imitations.Photo credit

Charlotte Olympia’s cat slippers (far left) have spawned a number of imitations.
Photo credit


Mass Market

Finally, outside of the ateliers countless painters found inspiration in the masterpieces and created their own artworks. Lowest priced of all, these were not the work of the masters, or of their students, but of other artists who were able to recreate the technique and creative impact of the revered works. I touched on this topic in my post Imitiation in Art.

In the fashion industry, this is your fast-fashion. Inspired by the haute couture and RTW collections, designers adopt looks and adapt them to create their own collections. Mimicking the look and feel of a garment or accessory allows them to appeal to clients who want to be on trend and update their wardrobes without the long wait lists of expense of the original collections.

7 thoughts on “Art and Fashion – Da Vinci and Haute Couture

    • Thanks Kristen!
      My absolute favourite moments are when one of these connections seems to pop into my head – but then there’s the mad dash to a piece of paper or the computer to capture it before it vanishes again.


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  3. So cool how you think outside the box.
    I find this whole idea of mimicry very interesting. Why does the creative process have to begin with the designer brands? is it a financial thing? Is it based on time and resources?
    Why is it always the affordable lines that have to copy the unaffordable ones? Why can’t the creative process begin from the ground up, instead of trickle from the top-down?

    It’s brilliant how you compare it to Da Vinci’s strategy, but it raises the question: why are the designers for high fashion brands considered the masters? Surely there are many talented people who can’t reach that level.

    Anyhow – very thought-provoking post. Thanks for taking the time to draw the parallel.


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