Rodarte’s Fra Angelico at LACMA


From December 17, 2011 through February 5, 2012 Rodarte’s Fra Angelico installation was on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I had the opportunity to view the exhibit myself at the end of January, just before it closed. This capsule collection was designed exclusively for LACMA, and was inspired by not only the San Marco murals painted by Fra Angelico from which it derives its name, but also by the Baroque sculpture, The Ecstasy of St Teresa, by Bernini.

Displayed on a raised platform and invisible mounts in the museum’s Ahmanson building, which houses their collection of European art, the collection consisted of ten gowns, some with metal breastplates, belts, and headpieces surrounded by paintings in the same style as the Fra Angelico murals. The collection was positively riveting and even in its last week and in the midst of LACMA’s new In Wonderland exhibit launch was still extremely popular with visitors.

The colour palette was clearly where the Fra Angelico influence came in. Possibly one of his most famous murals is The Annunciation, and when looking at the angel Gabriel’s wings in particular you can see the aqua, coral, and white and red that can be found in many of the dresses.

Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St Teresa has been a favourite sculpture of mine since I was an undergraduate, and it was exciting to see it reinterpreted as the breastplate, belt, and headpiece displayed as well as (in my opinion) in the golden lead dress for the collection. I found the transformation of St Teresa’s passivity into a more forthright, even aggressive, form of self expression provocative and inspiring.

But, had I not known what art the Mulleavy Sisters had looked to for their concept I would have assumed they had been watching old film footage of late 1930s to 1940s Hollywood film premieres, awards shows, or to fashion shows from that era. The whole collection had a vintage glamour feel, which was wonderful, but decidedly not Italian Renaissance or Baroque. As I circled the platform, I was reminded of a video that made the rounds a year ago of 1930s fashion predictions for the year 2000, and a relatively unknown film of a very young Grace Kelly modelling the latest evening fashions.

Placing the dresses on invisible mounts, even to the extent that the St Teresa headpiece floated ethereally above the main garment, was an extremely elegant and powerful way to display the clothes. It transformed them from dresses into sculptures and created a focus that is occasionally lost when clothing is mounted on mannequins. It was possible to circumambulate the collection, enabling visitors to see them from any and every angle. I found the placement of the pieces in a room with paintings most like the Fra Angelico murals to be an excellent way to echo the colour scheme of the garments in the walls that surrounded them.

The Rodarte pieces have now become part of the LACMA permanent dress collection. Rodarte has previously donated single pieces to museums, but this is the first time that I am aware of where they have created and donated an entire capsule collection. Dress collections were originally created to show what and how people wore. It appears that they are in the process of evolving. Not only are pieces being acquired straight off the runways, but it seems the greatest testimony that fashion is now accepted as an artform and not just a practical craft that pieces and collections which will never be worn are being commissioned by and for museums. I hope that this will not be the last Rodarte collection created exclusively for a museum, and that they will inspire other designers to do the same.

Fashion Bytes will return next week.

** Special thanks to LACMA’s Costume and Textiles curatorial staff for the images of the Rodarte installation.

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