Exhibition Review- In Fashion: High Style, 1690-2011

During a recent trip to Vermont, I discovered the unique charm of the Shelburne Museum.  Primarily focused on American art and material culture, the institution is comprised of 39 separate buildings, which are scattered throughout lush grounds with gardens, trees, and even a covered bridge.  Many of the exhibition spaces are in fact, historic buildings that were relocated to Shelburne, which in turn became an important part of the collection themselves.  While researching the institution in anticipation of my trip, I came across a New York Times feature from May, with a great slideshow. These images give some insight into the delightful pastiche of objects that the museum has to offer, but still falls somewhat short of completely communicating the wonder of this contemporary Kunstkammer.

In Fashion: High Style, 1690-2011 is the first exhibition that the Shelburne Museum has put together focusing solely on fashion.  Many garments were pulled from their permanent collection, which were supplemented with loaned items from a variety of contemporary design houses.  The show is divided into four themes: Fashionable Fifties, Haute Couture, Complete the Look, and Head to Toe.  Upon entering the gallery space a Christian Siriano gown from his Spring 2010 collection takes center stage.  This dress is the exhibition press image and sets the tone for the remainder of the show.

The first themed section of the exhibit: Fashionable Fifties, features a handful of Hattie Carnegie dresses that were once the property of the museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb.  On a platform opposite the dresses are a pair of poodle skirts with unique patterns and embellishments, one of which features both Vermont and New York City landmarks.  Boldly colored martini glasses are splashed across the gray walls, with little other visual information to compete with the garments.

Haute Couture is the second and largest part of the exhibition.  Runway-like platforms sprawl the width of the room, which host a random mix of dresses that range from the 19th century to as current as 2011.  One finds a Giovanni Bedin for Worth Couture black & gold chantilly dress from A/W 2010, as well as an original Worth silk gown with lace ca. 1900.  Objects from different time periods are paired side by side such as a Naeem Khan motorcycle vest and trumpet gown from 2010 and an Emile Pingat dress ca. 1880-88.  Designers and decades are mixed on even a single mannequin–a 1980’s Christian Lacroix dress is accessorized with a Geoffrey Beene wrap dated 1995-2000.  Motivation for this somewhat unorthodox pairing and display of garments is explained in the wall copy: “Our historic pieces from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are paired with garments created by today’s most celebrated designers from New York to Paris.  The daunting task of reinterpreting classics and restyling them for contemporary taste confirms that fashion is inherently, an ever-refreshing cycle of old-is-new-again.”

In the Complete the Look room, 19th century bodices and jackets were paired with custom-designed skirts and dresses, executed by Fashion Institute of Technology design students who competed for the privilege.  The resulting ensembles are like a 3-dimensional game of exquisite corpse, mashing up eras, techniques, and fabrication resulting in looks that elicit an immediate response.  The student designs for the most part were very playful and creative. There was an unabashed use of color, mixing of materials, and experimentation with form that more seasoned designers with sales figures in mind might be more wary of undertaking.

I had somewhat mixed feelings about this project.  On one hand, I highly value innovation and creativity, and with complete empathy for smaller institutions without a large budget to spend, I am well aware of the tremendous costs involved in storing, maintaining, and exhibiting fragile items such as clothing and textiles.  Thus, an innovative solution that has the potential to be cost effective, and which also allows a collection to utilize and exhibit pieces that might not be parts of a whole ensemble can be a very good thing.  Yet displaying the garments in this way, seemed to focus on only the immediate visual components of the clothing, without addressing the historical significance or context that these objects signify.  The student designs were all interesting and fairly well executed, but I don’t know if they quite deserve the contemplation of a museum setting without a clear thematic story to merit their presence.

In the Coat Couture section of the exhibition, viewers are greeted with a pink-silk-damask 1920’s dressing gown with rabbit fur trim, and wall text that reads, “Today, capes are back in style but not with the mainstream elite.  Instead they are the garment of choice for those unconventional spirits costumed as Goths, vampires or superheroes.”  Overlooking the oxymoron of the phrase “mainstream elite”, wall copy like this was frustrating to read both for its lack of serious insight into any relevant and interesting history, as well as its apparent disregard for what is happening within contemporary fashion today.  As recently as Fall 2010, capes and ponchos have maintained a significant presence on the runway with many well know fashion houses including Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Phillip Lim showing and producing this type of outerwear.  This is not the first, nor will it surely be the last time that capes will come in and out of style–and although it may be true that certain subcultures and costumed characters might spring to mind when thinking of the cape, ideally wall copy will trust the viewer to make these instant associations and find a way to educate further while still keeping the text light and engaging enough to appeal to a more general public.

On these lines, I was disappointed to spy the term “fashionista” on at least one wall label, further underscoring the somewhat superficial-seeming approach that was taken towards assembling and displaying these articles of clothing.  Label on a Dennis Basso dress from his F/W 2011 collection in the Haute Couture section of the exhibition advised, “Available at all Dennis Basso Boutiques”, allowing the mercantile aspects of the fashion industry to penetrate the historic authority of the curatorial label.  This being said, the outerwear room was probably my favorite overall, as the objects were grouped within a cohesive time frame and included gems such as fin-de-siecle Worth capes, and a paisley challais mantle from 1885—a prime example of popular taste for the time period.

Overall, the Shelburne museum has some very interesting and beautiful clothing items in their permanent collection.  Hopefully, in the future they– along with other museums–will have further opportunity to display these items in their exhibitions, and will continue to give clothing the significance and attention that it deserves.  For those who have the opportunity to view this show, there are several upcoming museum talks this summer (see below).  The other buildings of the museum are also not to be missed, I particularly enjoyed the silent-creepy-beauty of many of the antique dolls and automata in their collection–also interesting to view in terms of the textiles used.

There will be daily afternoon gallery tours for this exhibition at 1:30 through October 30th, as well as evening talks on Thursdays through August 11th that take place at 6:30 pm.

Also notable is a lunch box lecture taking place on August 12th that will be hosted by Lynn Bassett, discussing the changes that Women’s fashion underwent between the Civil War era and World War II.  More information is available on the Shelburne Museum website.


Image 1: Christian Siriano Spring 2010 gown.  photo: Shelburne Museum website

Image 2: Emile Pingat Dresses, 19th Century.  photo: Shelburne Museum website

Image 3: Installation shot

Image 4: Domingo Gomez designs with bodice ca. 1895-1900.  photo: Shelburne Museum website

Image 5: Hyo-Kyoung Lee designs with bodice from 1905.  photo: Shelburne Museum website

Image 6: Fans from the “Complete the Look” accessories focused portion of the show.  Tortoise shell fan 1860-70, Paper fan 1920’s.  photos: Shelburne Museum website

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