Bridget Riley's Impact on Fashion

La Lune En Rodage is a black and white screen print executed by British artist Bridget Riley composed simply of black horizontal lines of equal length, yet, in true Riley fashion, the effects of such simplicity are complex. The lines, as they move from top to bottom, slowly merge from being concave to convex. Consequently, the black lines appear to oscillate, like waves, across the surface of the print.La Lune En Rodage © Bridget Riley 1965
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Bridget Riley is a central figure in the development of Op Art, a movement that emerged in the 1960s and is characterised by its use of optical illusions to create engaging visual experiences. Her work, with its precise abstract patterns and dynamic visual effects, played a crucial role in shaping the aesthetics popular in the 1960s – particularly within the Mod movement and the work of designers such as Rudi Gernreich and Mary Quant.

Riley and the Development of Op Art

Riley began her artistic career exploring figurative painting, but by the early 1960s, she shifted towards the abstract and the perceptual. Her early work was deeply influenced by the study of colour, light and natural forms, but it was her move towards geometric patterns that marked her entry into what would become known as Op Art. Riley's exploration was driven by an interest in the fundamental questions of visual perception: how the eye sees and how the brain interprets visual stimuli. Riley's approach to creating was informed by her study of the Constructivists and the Futurists, whose work also explored movement and visual dynamics. However, Riley pushed these ideas further, experimenting with how static images could be perceived as moving or changing due to the optical effects of her compositions. This work challenged the viewer's perception while engaging with them in an almost physical manner.

Her breakthrough came with her decision to work exclusively in black and white in the early 1960s – a choice that would have significant cultural implications way beyond the confines of the world of art. This allowed her to focus on the underlying structure of visual experience without the distraction of colour. Her compositions of precise geometric shapes, often lines or circles, created intense visual effects that seemed to move, shimmer, or pulsate. This innovative use of geometric abstraction placed her at the forefront of the Op Art movement. In the late 1960s, Riley introduced colour back into her work, a shift that opened new avenues for exploring optical effects. She used colour theory to enhance the sensation of movement and depth in her paintings, exploring how adjacent hues could influence the perception of shape and space. This phase of her work demonstrated how colour could be as dynamic and transformative as form, deepening the viewer's engagement with the artwork.

Riley's work quickly gained international recognition, epitomised by her participation in The Responsive Eye exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965, which introduced a wider audience to Op Art. Her influence soon began impacting design, fashion, and popular culture, where her distinctive style was often imitated.

A monochrome scan of a 1960s fashion magazine, showing four models in psychedelic designs.Image © Creative Commons via Flickr / 1960s Magazine scan showing Twiggy, Sandie, Lynn & Lulu

The Swinging Sixties: Op Art Meets Mod Fashion

The Swinging Sixties was a period characterised by cultural revolution, social upheaval, and artistic innovation – particularly in London, which emerged as a vibrant hub of youth culture, music, and fashion. Op Art’s focus on visual illusions and dynamic patterns found a unique resonance within the Mod fashion movement and rising interest in psychedelia of the same era. Riley’s artworks played a pivotal role in this confluence, inspiring many designers in the fashion world. The novel aesthetic she created with her optical illusions created a distinctive style that encapsulated the energy, optimism, and rebellious spirit of the time.

The Mods were a youth subculture that emerged in London in the late 1950s and reached its peak in the mid-1960s, becoming increasingly mainstream in other parts of the world. Mod fashion was characterised by its clean lines, simple yet bold colour palettes, and graphic patterns. It represented a break from the fashion of the past, mirroring the youth's desire for newness and innovation. They embraced a style that was both sophisticated and edgy, and the fusion of Op Art and Mod fashion was a natural evolution driven by a shared emphasis on abstraction, innovation, and the rejection of traditional forms. This era saw dresses, skirts, and accessories adorned with black and white stripes, chequers, and other geometric patterns that seemed to vibrate and dance, capturing the kinetic energy of Riley's paintings. The Swinging Sixties was a defining moment in 20th century fashion, creating a visual language that expressed the zeitgeist of an era.

A screenshot of a veiled woman in black against a white background. Her entire garb is patterned with black squares of different sizes. Image © New York Times / A screenshot of the first fashion film Basic Black: William Claxton with Peggy Mo, fashion by Rudi Gernreich

Innovative Illusions: Riley's Impact on Fashion Design

Mod fashion reached the United States around 1965, the same year of Riley’s exhibition in the MoMA. Soon thereafter, visionary designer Rudi Gernreich began utilising monochrome and geometric patterns that echoed Riley’s aesthetic. Gernreich's work was characterised by its avant-garde approach and often featured bold, unconventional designs that challenged traditional gendered fashion norms. His use of stark, contrasting colours and geometric shapes created a sense of movement, depth and totality. In 1967, his works were featured in what is widely considered to be the first-ever fashion film, Basic Black by William Claxton with Peggy Mo. Many garbs demonstrate Riley’s influence on the geometric patterns of the fashion at the time

Other designers, such as the iconic Mary Quant drew direct inspiration from Riley’s work. Both women attended Goldsmiths at the same time, although it is unclear whether they knew one another. Quant, who is often credited with popularising the miniskirt, used Riley’s patterns and visual tricks to create clothing that was not just worn but experienced. Her designs were emblematic of the youth-driven spirit of the time, known as the "London Look" and embodied by Twiggy. Quant's fashion was innovative, accessible, and above all, fun. She was drawn to the visual impact of Op Art and saw the potential for integrating its striking geometric patterns into her designs. This inspiration led to the creation of garments that were wearable art and captured the optimism of the 1960s.

While the translation of Riley's art into fashion underscored the vast influence of her work on pop culture, it also raised questions about copyright and artistic integrity. Riley was not pleased to see her artworks being commercialised in this manner. She viewed these fashion adaptations as unauthorised uses of her designs, leading her to take legal action in an attempt to protect her copyright. This situation highlights the complex relationship between art and commerce, especially when art becomes a source of inspiration for commercial products but the artist is not appropriately compensated.

Legacy and Influence: Bridget Riley's Enduring Impact on Design

Riley's rigorous exploration of visual perception and her innovative use of geometric patterns and colour have inspired generations of artists and designers. Riley's work continues to be celebrated for its ability to engage the viewer in a deep, direct experience of visual perception, challenging and expanding our understanding of visual reality. Through her exploration of optical phenomena, Riley has not only defined Op Art but has also contributed to a broader dialogue about the nature of visual experience and the potential of art to transform our perception of the world around us.

The impact of this fusion extended beyond the realms of art and fashion, influencing interior design, graphic design, and even popular media. The aesthetic of the Swinging Sixties, with its psychedelic colours and patterns, became emblematic of a period that challenged conventions and celebrated freedom and creativity. The legacy of this period is still felt today, with contemporary fashion and design frequently revisiting the Op Art and Mod aesthetics for inspiration. This is evident in fashion runways within the last decade, which shows how despite Riley's reservations about the commercial use of her work, it remains a vibrant example of how art can permeate and profoundly shape popular culture. The widespread adoption of Op Art-inspired designs in fashion, interior decor, and advertising between the 1960s and today is a testament to the appeal and lasting influence of Riley’s visual language.

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