Some Summer Exhibitions

As we embark upon high summer, it’s a slow time for more traditional academic geared events.  Yet, there is a consistent amount of fashion related exhibitions at home in New York, throughout the United States, and around the world.   This summer–although I won’t have the opportunity to take the more extended vacation that I desire–I am looking forward to taking some long weekends and using my mini travels to see some exhibitions outside of the city.  However, despite my enthusiasm and ambitions, there are many shows which I will not have the opportunity to view, and this week I wanted to draw your attention to two which recently opened and fall within this latter category.

The first, at the Royal Ontario Museum, is titled: Riotous Colour, Daring Patterns: Fashions + Textiles 18th to 21st Centuries.  This show, which runs until October 16th, includes 120 objects from the permanent collection of the museum.  The exhibition draws from the global history of textiles and includes items as divergent as African textiles to Scott Paper Caper dresses from the 1960’s.  The second is at the Mode Museum in Hasselt: Prints! Motifs in Costume & Fashion History (1750-2000). It will be on view until January 8th, 2012.  Although both exhibitions seem to emphasize wearable textiles, there are home furnishing items and artist collaborations included in both.

As John Gillow and Bryan Sentence state in their opening line of World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques, “The history of the world can be read in textiles: the rise of civilizations and the fall of empires are woven into their warp and weft along with the great adventures of conquest, religion and trade.”  But on a much more nuanced level, textiles–with their symbiotic relationship with fashion—also convey messages about the individual wearer in addition to larger cultures as a whole.  They can reflect beauty ideals, practicality concerns, status, and lifestyle information, while simultaneously creating tangible documents of technological capabilities and innovations throughout history.  From the jacquard loom, to aniline dyes, to techno-textiles—fabric is a link between technology and art, between fashion and function.  Generally, the color, pattern, or texture of a garment is the first detail that is observed.  The semiotic potency of color and pattern is something that will prevail throughout history, and the haptic is an important aspect of every individual’s experience when wearing a piece of clothing.

On this note, I thought that I would share a couple books/suggested summer reading material, that I have particularly enjoyed which touch upon these themes somewhat.  The first, Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting, is written by Anne Hollander, and was created to accompany a 2002 exhibition at the National Gallery in London.  The title is fairly self-explanatory, and the essays and images make this book a worthwhile investment for any fashion or art enthusiast.  The second–is a captivating labor of love that is small enough to tuck into a purse or beach bag, but inspiring enough to merit an afternoon spent indoors at the library instead.  The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes, was written by Michel Pastoureau, a historian with specialties in medieval studies and semiology.  This book covers the history of stripes from the 13th to the 20th centuries, and is an intriguing read that is equally informative as it is captivating.


1- Cecil Beaton, “Polka-Dots”.  From Vogue May 10, 1930. Page 62

2 & 3 – The Mode Museum Hasselt website.

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  • Lisa October 09, 2011 10.28 pm

    How much does the first book examine the technical aspect of rendering textiles? I’ve become quite interested in that subject, of late.

  • Mellissa October 10, 2011 10.19 am

    Hi Lisa,

    “Fabric of Vision” looks at painting from the mid 15th century through the mid 20th century. Although Hollander does not discuss the technical aspects of how costume & textiles were rendered (as far as I can recall) in any great depth, she does draw the readers attention to the use of line, color, pattern, stylization, and other aspects of composition when depicting garments and fabric through the artworks that are featured in this catalog. This helps to illuminate their significant role in art and identity, as well as many of the inherent messages linked to such choices found through specific works of art–it is more of an after-the-fact formal analysis, than it is a tutorial in any way.

    Still, I think that it’s a fascinating read, and although it might not dwell on the technical aspects of rendering, it will certainly make you think about them differently!


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