“Dress Codes” exhibition review, International Center of Photography

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Once again, a slight diversion from the international fashion theme, but I wanted to take a moment to review a current NYC exhibition which is actually very international in scope. I highly recommend the “Dress Codes” exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography…

The codified nature of dress is a contentious subject. Implying either a clearly defined structure of communication or a system which dictates behavior, the term “code” connotes a certain amount of rigidity. In either case, it might be premature, or rather a bit passé, to speak of clothing as a kind of semiotic endeavor.

Despite the evocative nature of the exhibition title, perhaps subtly referencing Roland Barthes’ seminal work on the subject, it appears that the very message of the images filling the galleries at the ICP is that of a code being broken. As the impressive collection of artists in this triennial exhibition suggests, maybe clothing, or our relationship to the objects that clothe our bodies, is far too complex and murky a matter to be broken down into a clearly demarcated system of references. In fact, it appears that the entire theme of this show is one of blurred boundaries – specifically those between flesh and fabric; individuality and conformity; art and commerce.

While the exhibition includes such art stars as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Lorna Simpson, all of whom have frequently engaged questions concerning masquerade and consumerism, other notable artists shown in this triennial delve into these same concerns, but in a suitably unique manner. Pinar Yolacan’s portraits of women dressed in garments created from fabric and flesh are particularly arresting. The cow placenta and animal organs atop velvet blouses restore the jolting shock of exposure that we’ve all but forgotten in contemporary fashion. These images serve to remind us how all clothing can sometimes make even human flesh seem grotesque. The animal flesh that almost seamlessly replaces a ruffled collar around the neck reveals that the twisting push and presentation of bodily flesh is only truly possible with the aid of clothing.

"La Contrebandière" ( The Smuggler), Tanger, 2006

"La Contrebandière" ( The Smuggler), Tanger, 2006

What study of dress would be complete without an homage to masquerade? Amidst other images in this collection of performing subjects dressed in drag or other costumes, the mask itself stands as an iconic image showcasing the duplicitous nature of our socially constructed identities. In the video “My Blood Self, Artificial Beauty (The Mask)” (2006-2007) Grace Ndiritu continually caresses the felt mask covering her face. Perhaps there is a sense in which we all begin to pet, cherish, and even fondle the façade of our social selves.

Another film, David Rosetzky’s “Portrait of Cate Blanchett” (2008), opens with shots of the actress standing in an empty stage set moving her hand with her other hand, beginning with her wrists and fingers. As she speaks concerning her craft as an actress, and her efforts to “make the mask transparent,” we see her literally manipulating her self, so to speak. In doing so, Blanchett speaks to what we all experience as she reiterates that “who I am is constantly shifting.” If in fact we are all acting, as Erving Goffman reminds us, an actress by her profession as well as her representation, Blanchett presents what is true of every person, especially when discussing dress.

Although this exhibition highlights so many of the unsettling contradictions apparent in our relationship with clothing, one image actually displays a strikingly perfect harmony between body and body covering. “Agnes, Red Dress” (2008), Richard Learoyd’s simple large-scale depiction of a woman wearing a garment of rich red, seems to represent a peace-inducing synthesis of the body/fabric dichotomy. Here is a woman whose face rises above her frock, and whose apparent personal confidence seeps out beyond the bright hue of her dress. Despite the obvious covering of her body, the cloth appears to blend into her person, seamlessly and effortlessly. And while she is clearly an individual, she is not such a performer that her individuality appears affected or contrived.

We are frequently unable to draw clear boundaries in our relationship with clothing, yet we still must accept the arbitrary and malleable systems that dictate what may be acceptable or understood by others. In this sense, the “dress codes” of the exhibition title is a double-entendre. Dress is a first layer social skin, somewhat coding our everyday interactions, but it is also a form of dividing social and economic classes, a social and cultural code of sorts.

Yet there is still a kind of mystification involved in the task of finding harmony with the objects of our world. As fashion continues to push the envelope of what clothing is, what it does, and to what cost, who will crack the code? And if fashion is anything and everything, then of what kind of codes are we speaking?

(image above is Richard Learoyd’s “Red Dress”)

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