Conference Report: The Discipline of Fashion, Between the Museum and Curating

On March 10th, 2012, the University of Venice, the London College of Fashion and the Centre for Fashion Studies of Stockhom University, held a symposium they jointly organised in conjunction with the exhibition Diana Vreeland After Diana Vreeland.  The conference took place in Venice, and I was thrilled and humbled to have been invited to speak along with other distinguished emerging scholars and curators, on a panel addressing fashion curating in academia.  Overall, the day’s programme included papers and panels related to Diana Vreeland’s curatorial and editorial legacies both in and out of museums, and provided a platform for reflection upon the development of fashion curating both before and after Vreeland’s tenure as Special Consultant to the Costume Institute.  With keynote speakers Harold Koda, current Curator-in-Charge of the Costume Institute, and Akiko Fukai, Director of the Kyoto Costume Institute, and dress curators from around the world, the day was for me, an almost overwhelming opportunity to see and hear most of my heroes in one room – which also happened to be in Venice, my favorite city in the world without question.

Harold Koda delivering the morning keynote speech, photo: Contessanally.blogspot.com

The conference was streamed live on the IUAV website, and the conference programme is still available to download here. The day’s schedule was well-crafted and although we ran over time, there was never a more attentive and exhiliarated audience in my experience of conferences and symposia!

I hope in this post to share brief synopses of the papers and my impressions and reactions, but with all respect for the speakers, can by no means comprehensively convey the wealth and breadth of information that was shared.  Overall, the presentations were highly relevant to the topics at hand, eloquently delivered and surprisingly poignant and replete with personal reflections and anecdotes. It was not merely an effect of having worked long hours preparing the exhibition beforehand, when I found myself periodically brought to tears upon hearing the moving and inspirational words of the delegates.

The morning commenced with a joint welcome from representatives of the organising institutions; Amerigo Restucci Università Iuav di Venezia, Alberto Ferlenga Università Iuav di Venezia and Frances Corner Head of College, London College of Fashion, followed by the day’s first keynote speech, delivered by Harold Koda of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Exhibition curators Maria Luisa Frisa and Judith Clark at the opening of Diana Vreeland after Diana Vreeland

Harold Koda, who has been Curator-in-Charge of the Costume Institute since 2000, was an assistant in the department under Diana Vreeland in the 1970s, and worked alongside her to prepare some of her most famous exhibitions including Eighteenth Century Women, and History of Russian Costume. He shared heartfelt and humorous anecdotes about what it was like to work with Vreeland – and even the story of their first meeting, during which he attempted to impress her with his knowledge, and she replied with the seeming non-sequitir, “Are you Japanese?” Even more hysterical was his recollection of having crafted a headpiece to be presented with a Ballets Russes costume for Le Dieu Bleu with exactitude and accuracy, only to be reprimanded by Vreeland for including pearls as part of the decoration for a man’s costume. He even had a photo of the moment when she received the unsatisfactory prop, with the priceless look on both of their faces. (I would love to share this photo with the readers of Worn Through but it is nowhere online – so, Mr. Koda, if you are reading this, then please share this picture if you can!) Despite the gentle laughter, Koda presented Vreeland as a mentor, a unique force and presence and asserted that there was “always intention behind her fantasy.” Above all, his demystification, and to some degree re-mystification of Vreeland set the pace and mood for the rest of the day’s papers and panels.

The keynote was followed by a panel comprised of Anna Mattirolo Direttor of MAXXI Arte, Roma in conversation with Judith Clark and Maria Luisa Frisa, co-curators of the exhibition Diana Vreeland after Diana Vreeland. The panel provided space for the curators to discuss their approaches, inspirations and relationship to Diana Vreeland’s work and curatorial language, and how the exhibition reframed her contribution for contemporary reflection. Judith Clark commented upon the process of curating and designing the exhibition as ‘building an essay,’ that was also an ‘exhibition about exhibitions.’ She also substantiated the choice to have the exhibition in Venice as an appropriate place to imagine Vreeland’s own imagination – to have the exhibit in a place whose idea of itself is almost bigger than its reality – much like Vreeland herself and the world of fashion fantasy which she presided over for so long.

The Royal Ontario Museum

The morning session continued with a talk by Alexandra Palmer, Senior Curator Textiles & Costume, Royal Ontario Museum, who spoke about her own role as a curator within the museum, as well as mapped the history of the Costume Institute from its inception and under the directorship of a lineage of pioneering curators such as Polaire Weissman, and Stella Blum.

Installation view of the costume and textile galleries of the Royal Ontario Museum

The session concluded with Amy de la Haye’s case study of Diana Vreeland’s curatorial legacy in comparison with that of Cecil Beaton, whose landmark exhibitoion at the V&A, Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton, shortly preceded Vreeland’s career at the Costume Institute.

Chanel's sequined evening suit as pictured in the catalog for Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton, 1971

She used a Chanel sequined suit worn by Vreeland and exhibited by Beaton as the key to unlocking the relationship between the display of 20th century dress, the practices of collecting, and the similarities in the approaches of Beaton and Vreeland at a turning point in the history of dress exhibitions. Somewhat mischievously, she elucidated the fact that Beaton came before Vreeland in staging a spectacular and comprehensive survey of fashion – and that Vreelandisms, such as filling exhibit galleries with accompanying scent, were employed by Beaton first.

The following session was a conversation concerning the relationship between fashion curating and fashion editing by Stefano Tonchi Editor-in-Chief, W magazine and Mario Lupano of Università Iuav di Venezia. It was welcome and enlightening to have Mr. Tonchi’s strong and varied insights into the realm of fashion image-making in magazines, and his commentary on the future of magazines and the proliferation of digital platforms for the dissemination of fashion information. In his opinion, the magazine is not headed for extinction – because people are still hungry for the content of magazines, even if the amount of print publications may continue to decrease. I would have like there to have been more voices from the world of fashion editing, which played such a large role in Diana Vreeland’s oeuvre, but it was enlightening to have such a prominent and well-spoken editor on the panel.

Benedetta Barzini in Vogue USA April 1964

Appropriately, the following paper was a portrait of Vreeland and her work in the sixties, through the eyes of one of the era’s most famed beauties, the fashion model Benedetta Barzini. Her recollections of what it was like to be one of “Vreeland’s girls,” was evocative and poignant – and even tinged with sadness. In five years working as a model for Vreeland at Vogue, Vreeland never spoke to Barzini directly; she was as she called herself ‘Mediterranean colour,’ in Vreeland’s fashion palette. The talk made real the experience of modelling, working in the 1960s, and being in the room with Vreeland, and was illustrated by a slideshow of spectacular images from Vogue featuring Barzini styled as a host of exotic female archetypes.

Exhibition view from the Kyoto Costume Institute

After the lunch break, which was a splendid opportunity to meet and get to know colleagues from around the globe – and as always at fashion conferences – to have a good look at what people were wearing – the day proceeded with the second keynote delivered by Akiko Fukai of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Significantly, the Kyoto Costume Institute was founded directly as a result of Vreeland’s costume exhibitions, following the display of Vreeland’s Inventive Paris Clothes exhibition at the contemporary art museum in Kyoto. Fukai brought up the salient points that in the Japanese mentality, dress had been long recognised as an art form, specifically with regards to the kimono and traditional textiles. When the Kyoto Costume Institute was founded, there was no tradition for the display of Western dress in Japan, although there was an interest in it, by both Japanese designers and the exhibit -going public. As a result of the pioneering status of the museum in Kyoto, the curators and designers developed the now world-reknowned system of custom period mannequin silhouettes.

Custom designed period mannequin silhouettes by the Kyoto Costume Institute

Undoubtedly, the Kyoto Costume Institute is a paragon of the modern costume and fashion museum, with innovative and insightful permanent displays and temporary touring exhibitions, and a prolific series of exquisite publications. It was thrilling to learn more about the development of the museum and its ties early ties with Vreeland, and her lasting influence upon their mission, aesthetic and philosophy.

18th century dress from the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute, with wig in exaggerated style referencing Vreeland's mode of display from the Eighteenth Century Woman exhibit at the Costume Institute

 

The afternoon session proceeded with a series of talks by museum curators, commenting on projects, exhibitions and the research activities and innovations at their respective institutions. Highlights for me among the talks were Laurent Cotta Musée Galliera, Paris, Kaat Debo Director, MoMu Antwerp Fashion Museum and Miren Arzalluz Cristóbal Balenciaga Foundation. Notably, because I have not had the opportunity to visit MoMu, or the recently opened Cristobal Balenciaga Museum or the Madame Gres exhibition curated by Musee Galliera, I was eager to hear and see more about these institutions and their work.

Installation view of the Musee Galliera’s Madame Gres exhibition at the Musee Bourdelle, Paris 2011

Laurent Cotta of Musee Galliera presented a behind the scenes look at the first of the museums ‘extra-mural’ exhibitions, held outside the Galliera Museum during its closure for major renovation works. The seeming handicap; lack of home venue, was transformed into a unique opportunity to view Gres’ work in another context – within the Musee Bourdelle scultpure museum. This venue provided an arena to examine Gres as a sculptor, and the exhibition design and curation was crafted to elucidate the relationship between dressmaking and sculpture, and even employed the design of the sculptor’s turntable as a device for display of the garments. Cotta also revealed some technological secrets, such as how they managed to display fragile garments in light filled galleries via the use of UV glass showcases.

Installation view of MoMu Antwerp’s Walter Von Bierendonck exhibition

Kaat Debo, of MoMu discussed a number of exhibitions held at the museum under her directorate, primarily the recent Walter Von Bierendonck exhibition and the Stephen Jones retrospective. She also gave a preview of the installation of their upcoming exhibition of 19th century fashion whose scenography includes a hand-painted cobblestone floor treatment that took over three dozen painters day to create. Debo was brilliant at elucidating some of the challenges inherent in contemporary curating, such as working alongside a living designer, and collaborating to bring their vision of their work in line with the remit of the museum and exhibition curators. In the case of Von Bierendonck, this constituted the difficulty of displaying clothes designed for homosexual, male, subcultural bodies onto the available range of male mannequins. Humorously, she commented that no one is currently making mannequins to imitate the body types of gay bodybuilding culture, or specifically “bears.” To redress this imbalance, the clothes were also featured in a photo shoot and film which were displayed at the exhibition and also on ShowStudio. She showed the film clip, entitled Dream the World Awake, to the sounds of booming club music, which you can view here. The video and photo shoot are excellent examples of new ways to present archives, subcultural dress and significantly the designer’s intent.

Balenciaga ‘baby doll’ dress as part of the Essential Balenciaga display at the Fondacion Criistobal Balenciaga Museum

Miren Arzalluz, of the Fondacion Cristobal Balenciaga, and author of the Museum’s stunning monograph catalog, delivered an eloquent and meditative presentation of the museum’s history, collection, exhibit design and mission to present the work of Balenciaga as a master of couture.  Outstanding among the developments they have implemented in their display are a series of animated films that map the creation of 14 Balenciaga “essential” pieces from sketch to pattern to finished garment. Absolutely astounding! My only desire at the end of Arzalluz’s talk was to know how much airline tickets are to visit the museum in Getaria.

Lauren Bacall on the cover of US Bazaar under the editorship of Diana Vreeland

The afternoon carried on after tea break with a journey though Vreeland’s relationships with iconic models of the twentieth century with a paper entitled, “I suggest that she is refreshing and that you use her,” delivered by Becky Conekin of Yale University. Her talk highlighted Vreeland’s career-making interactions with famous fashion faces such as Twiggy, Cher, Lauren Bacall, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree and Veruschka.

 

Cover of Address, fashion journal edited and published by Johannes Reponen, who participated in the Fashion Curation and Academia: New Insights panel

The day concluded with the panel entitled Fashion Curation & Academia: New Insights, chaired by Louise Wallenberg of the Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm and Marco Pecorari, also affiliate of the Centre. I was among the six panelists invited to speak in forum about our own individual practices of fashion curating and research and how these experiences inform our collective outlook on the discipline both in and out of museums and educational institutions. Despite the long day, and overload of information it comprised, our panel brought some further salient points to the fore, including the relationship between the curator and the works exhibited, the use of alternative spaces, and the variety of activities that constitute curating for academics and practitioners of our generation.

Finally, the conference closed with words of heartfelt thanks from Judith Clark, Maria Luisa Frisa, Mario Lupano, Louise Wallenberg. Indeed the day was rich and varied, and certainly planted the seeds for further discussions, exhibitions, interactions and collaborations, and new friends and old were acquainted and re-acquainted.  Thank you above all, Diana Vreeland, for giving fuel to our fire, and for being a visionary and fearless innovator, whose legacy is indelibly present upon all that

 

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