Drawing on the body is as old as time. Tattooing in all its varied forms, from adorning the body with symbols of the clan, to depicting images of your favourite pin-up, has remained a constant. A 30,000 year-old skeleton from Wales found tinted with red ochre supports the idea that body painting was one of the very first art forms. It probably started tens of thousands of years before cave painting. Tattoos have been used as signifiers of belonging for probably as long as humans have roamed the earth: not only to mark tribal affiliations but also as regimental membership in the military, membership of maternal and fraternal orders, and to mark gang membership.
Tattooing as a practice has long been associated with social outsiders as a sign of rebellion. Donned by criminals, prisoners, bikers and prostitutes they used to have connotations with deviant behaviour.
In recent years, however, the practice has entered the mainstream and become socially acceptable for the masses, as a cursory glance along any highstreet or in any magazine reveals. A 2015 survey showed that one fifth of all British adults have been inked, with 30% of 25- to 39-year-olds having at least one tattoo. It'd be quicker to name check the models without than those with. As the popularity of the artform increased, and tattoos have appeared on more and more bodies, they are no longer considered taboo. However, in a society that repeatedly attempts to control and govern our body image — through censoring nipples, condemning female pubes and other such regulatory rules — tattoos still signify a desire for something radical.
A Tattoo and Fashion Union
In their ubiquity, tattoos have shed their rebellious origins. So what do they signify today? If they can no longer unite a social group in some counterculture, what place do they have in art? Fashion has adopted them. While apparel has always existed as a site for constructing identity, it has seen a marked resurgence as of late.
Tattooing has earned itself a place both in couture fashion houses around the globe and advertising campaigns. Fast fashion such as brands like Topshop and H&M have even sold temporary tats. Tattoo imagery has appeared on catwalks and this trend has intensified in recent years using tattooed models in their advertising campaigns. The blurring of boundaries between fashion and tattooing has inspired people of all ages and nationalities to adopt this kind of corporeal alteration.
Jean Paul Gautier Leads the Way for High Fashion
It was actually in 1989 that Martin Margiela premiered the ‘tattoo top’, a transparent shirt embellished with trompe l’oeil illustrations, giving the appearance of tattoos on the wearer’s body.
But it was Jean Paul Gaultier who, inspired after attending a tattoo convention in Britain, really paved the way for this fusion of artforms. The brand’s famous Spring Summer 1994 collection called ‘Les Tatouages’ paid homage to the transformative power of body art, with models wearing body piercings as well as the tattoo inspired apparel. At the same time, the ‘Les Tatouages’ collection, honoured the sheer printed shirts exhibited five years previous by the designer’s protégé and former intern Martin Margiela. Overall, the clothing and the body modifications drew on Indian and African tribal symbols, resulting in a sublime fusion of cultures, the accomplishment of which came to be synonymous with Gaultier’s work.
Luxury Fashion as Fertile Ground for Experimentation
From this pioneering collection, came a host of tattoo-inspired clothing capsules. Scott Campbell, renowned tattoo artist who has inked celebrities such as Jenifer Aniston, Orlando Bloom and the late Heath Ledger, has collaborated on designs for high fashion houses Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. He applied his unique designs to leather bags for the LVMH company’s Spring 2011 menswear collection and also worked directly onto the models’ skin, applying temporary LV logos.
In 2016, Dries Van Noten created a selection of tattooed undergarments. Think of the fake tattoo sleeve but much more classy. Available in an assorted range of colors, the undergarments were made from transparent skin coloured bases and featured swirling coloured lines, making the model appear as if covered in tattoos. More recently, a number of brands have jumped on this trend: most notably of late, Comme des Garçons, whose Spring Summer 2019 women’s collection consisted of translucent leotards and dresses adorned with tattooed roses.
The Future of Tattoo Inspired Clothing
The fashion industry has always had an intense fascination and fierce appreciation for tattoo designs and tattoo artists. No doubt, part of this affiliation is rooted in fashion’s obsession with subcultures. And this love for tattoos shows no signs of slowing down within the industry.
Fashion has provided a unique space for a generation of skilled tattoo artists and helped herald a wider appreciation of the art: designs made from both emerging and established tattoo artists have been transformed into apparel. Now, people who like the look of tattoos but who don’t want to commit to getting something permanently inscribed on their body can turn to a wealth of clothing designed by their favourite tattoo artists. Etching onto fabrics, much like drawing on a person’s skin, can provide a creative outlet for artists. At the same time, the product of their creation offers those seeking to rebel against the norm, a unique item of clothing whose symbolism lasts as long as ink on skin.