Fashion Bytes

People Weekly Collector's Edition: The Diana Years

Princess Diana has been in the news quite a lot. Aside from references to her own wedding in the wake of her son’s,  Untold Story, the new novel from Man Booker Prize winning author, Monica Ali, speculates on what Diana would have been like if she had not died in 1997. A photoshopped version of the People’s Princess graced the cover of Newsweek and was the subject of their feature article discussing who the princess would be at 50 (her fiftieth birthday would have been 1 July 2011).  But the wondering and pontificating took a more realistic turn over at Worn Journal, where Alyssa reviewed the Toronto Design Exchange‘s exhibition of a private collection of Diana’s dresses.

Image via Museum of Costume

In contrast to the fantasies that Ali’s novel and the Newsweek article create, Worn’s review focuses on the present, which Alyssa unexpectedly confronted during her visit to the exhibit: discovering that the animation and life was not in the garments, but in the person who had once worn them.  I experienced something similar while at the Bath Museum of Costume in September when they were showcasing their own exhibition of The Diana Dresses. The Bath exhibit had multiple photos — and indeed the background to many of the displays was nothing more than a photo montage — of Diana wearing the garments now adorning the dress forms, but there was something lacking.  The Bath exhibit had a video in the background, like the Toronto exhibit, which only seemed to underscore the lifelessness of the pieces versus when they had been worn.

The recent McQueen catalogue was revolutionary in that it placed the garments on live models — only because the pieces are still in the possession of the House  — and the most vibrant images were those where the models were in motion.  At the recent CSA Symposium in Boston, one of the most interesting panels titled ‘The Graveyard of Fashion: Towards an Archaeology of the Wardrobe’, put forward and discussed at length the very question Alyssa (and I myself) asked when viewing Diana’s dresses: “Can a life be held in fabric and threads?”

As fashion and costume academics the objects we work with have a history, and usually one that includes someone who has died.  During the Keynote Speech for the CSA Symposium, the quote that stood out most prominently for me was that we need to “do justice to the artefacts”. Is it equally important to do justice to the individuals who wore them as well, when the occasion calls for it?

Do you think it is a struggle for museums to create a sense of vibrancy in fashion exhibits? Does the museum environment itself force you to see the garment more as an artistic piece or a historical artefact, rather than as a living aspect of a person’s life? In what ways have fashion exhibits incorporated life into the displays correctly, and where could they be improved? Does whether the subject of the exhibit is alive or dead make a difference, such as the Diana exhibits as opposed to FIT’s upcoming Daphne Guinness exhibit? Is it ever possible for a museum to accurately portray the life of a person who was – and still is – considered an icon through their possessions?

Please share your thoughts.

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Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.