For the 1942 opening of her gallery Art of This Century, Peggy Guggenheim paired a custom-made white gown with earrings designed for the occasion: one by sculptor (and friend) Alexander Calder, one by painter (and friend) Yves Tanguy—a soigné demonstration of her commitment to the competing schools of abstract and surrealist art on view in her boundary-pushing new space in midtown Manhattan.
It’s easy to be a walking work of art in literal statement earrings when you’re a Guggenheim whose friends make MoMA-worthy sculpture one day and earrings for you the next. Today, though, it’s a woman further down the art-world food chain who has captured the imagination of fashion designers and young professional women alike. Enter the gallery girl—the brainy, uncommercial type known to both wear and inspire a specific genre of brainy, less-commercial designer, from low-key New York–based labels like Rachel Comey and A Détacher to Euro standbys like Dries Van Noten and Maison Margiela.
“These designers have a reference point in art,” says Esther Min, senior merchandise manager at Totokaelo, the Seattle-based store and website known for its artistic clientele. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of people who work within the art world or are creatively minded gravitate toward those designs.”
Like the shopgirl or the fashion intern, the gallery girl is an entry-level archetype with a rich aesthetic mythology. (Yes, I’d prefer “gallery woman,” but sadly, this phrase—with its alliterative reminder of the assistant’s junior status—has irreversibly entered the lexicon.) A nerd, a hipster, or a rich girl—or all three!—she is both the first person a visitor sees when entering most galleries and also relatively inconsequential to the primary purpose of selling art, which is left to senior staffers. In a world in which money and creativity fight and make up with the passion of artist and muse, she must look like she belongs—on a budget of next to nothing (unless she comes from family money; many do). Consequently, many gallery girls offer up a breezy rhapsody about dressing up Zara and COS with a pair of loafers scored at The Row’s sample sale and a Chanel jacket inherited from one’s mother. (Who are all these mothers with vintage Chanel, anyway?!)
2017’s Art-World Style Standouts
Like a painting of a black square on a white canvas, the art of dressing to work in an art gallery is more complex than it might appear at a glance, say gallery girls past and present. To “belong” here means not to peacock, as one might in an entry-level job in fashion, or neutralize one’s femininity, as in the hypermasculine world of finance, but to complement the environment. “You want to look polished and refined without being mundane,” says Catherine Henry, a former assistant at contemporary powerhouse Gagosian—you might call it “The Devil Funds Prada Marfa”—who’s now an associate director at art e-commerce site Artsy.
That said, the right wardrobe choices can be a means to transcend one’s place on the lower rung. To assert your own artistic and cultural bona fides through, say, standout loafers, artsy glasses, or head-to-toe black “projects a sense of being in control,” says one woman who started her career at the blue-chip Chelsea gallery where she is now the director (she preferred to speak anonymously; whether it’s art prices or wardrobe choices, the gallery world thrives on discretion). “That was important to me in the early days, when you’re expected to carry out your daily tasks while sitting in the middle of a very public space.” (Indeed, interrupting a call with your landlord, say, to inform him the rent will be late in order to accept your boss’s lunch delivery from Nobu requires statement armor that can also function as an invisibility cloak.)
There will always be galleristas who lust after the latest Gucci bag or gravity-defying skirt from Comme des Garçons, but most rely on a pantheon of quieter indie labels. Think of Apiece Apart’s stripes for resort, which bear a resemblance to the geometric paintings of Mark Grotjahn; or A Détacher’s spring 2018 collection, which included a marbled pattern that could pass for Jackson Pollock’s studio floor and a sweatshirt with Cy Twombly–esque scribbles.
Designers’ interpretation of the art gallery look isn’t always quite so literal, of course; by and large, the gallery girl knows it’s best to leave the art on the wall. Which is why nearly every woman who ever sat in a midgallery Eames swivel chair rhapsodizes about the godmother of GG style, Rachel Comey. Jayne Johnson, director of New York gallery Peter Freeman, raves about the designer’s “relaxed silhouettes, wonderful prints, and comfortable shoes.” Comey’s spring 2018 collection epitomizes her art world appeal: Swishy fringe balances a neutral palette; a mottled mesh blouse streaked with silver paint is paired with simple black trousers; a painterly print is rendered in an easy, almost casual strapless dress. The gallery girl’s wardrobe secret, according to Min: The look is “consistently unique, but I don’t think it changes very much.”
Perhaps the embodiment of that school of thought is the Maison Margiela blazer, with its cinched silhouette and its insider status symbol, the tiny embroidered line between the shoulder blades. “Like artwork, the Margiela jacket is discreet and exclusive,” says Danielle Forest, an assistant at Marian Goodman Gallery in midtown Manhattan (near Peggy Guggenheim’s old stamping ground!). “You know it or you don’t. It’s serious and sort of classic, but avant-garde.”
In truth, a Margiela blazer can run about $1,920; most dresses from Rachel Comey are between $400 and $600. More likely, a slate of fast fashion will make up most of the actual gallery girl wardrobe—perhaps pieces with Comey-like silhouettes or Margiela-esque deconstruction, dressed up with a Dries jacket. And when she gets promoted, can she pass that down to me?