Museum Life: Making Fashion Underground

Entry gallery installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT.

While in New York I was able to visit Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch at the Museum at FIT, which just closed this past weekend.  I was completely blown away by the critical mass of beautifully presented, fantastic fashion in the ambiance of a recreated clubland environment. The music, lights, and clothing in the galleries transported me back to my 12-year old self, when I read about and devoured photos of London designs by Vivienne Westwood and Body Map, or storied club kids like Bartsch and Leigh Bowery, from the relative quietude and conformity of my suburban existence.  The art of mannequin dressing, conservation work, and gallery design enacted by skilled behind-the-scenes staff makes such a transformative experience possible.

Installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph by the author.

Installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, The Museum at FIT. Photograph by the author.

The Museum at FIT is in the midst of a very busy time, with Denim: Fashion’s Frontier opening last week, Barstch closing this last weekend, and preparations for the upcoming Fairy Tale Fashion underway, so I am grateful to Ann Coppinger, senior conservator at the Museum Conservation Laboratory, for taking the time to answer a few of my questions via email. If you missed it, please be sure to read Monica’s interview with Suzanne Bartsch for the perspective of the lifelong fashion collector, collaborator, and arbiter.

Although this is not an aspect of clothing that FIT highlights, one thing I always find so interesting about clothing on exhibition is seeing traces of wear–if one looks very closely you can see glimpses of the hard-working life of these clothes. It is through these imperfections that a more human, living aspect of clothing is brought into focus, defying its display on the inanimate mannequin. I couldn’t help but wonder how much FIT intervened in making ensembles ready for display that had been danced in, lived in, and performed in so passionately.  Coppinger noted that “our intervention was minimal. Many of the ensembles belonged to Susanne and/or were loans from private lenders.”  She underscored FIT’s philosophy in displaying previously worn clothing: “We try to dress and display them in a manner in which their signs of use are not that noticeable. The low lighting levels required for costume objects also helps to camouflage imperfections.” 

At the beginning of the exhibition, the visitor is greeted by the Adel Roostein mannequin made in Bartsch’s likeness (see lead image above)–the most literal evocation of the exhibition’s subject. Beyond the wigs and makeup that undeniably conjure Bartsch throughout the exhibition (provided by Bartsch’s personal makeup and hair design staff), the impeccable fit of the ensembles to the forms and the thoughtful use of different mannequin types and poses made for an effective and powerful display. This is especially important in representing a person for which pose, gesture, and performance are such important elements in self-identity and image-making.  The visual rhythm and movement created by the placement of the many mannequins in the main room was impressive. Coppinger remarked that the conservation staff “used several different painted resin mannequins from the museum’s inventory. We also worked with a mannequin supplier to develop and make custom sized models that could accommodate Susanne’s one piece corseted ensembles.”

Installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph by the author.

Installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, The Museum at FIT. Photograph by the author.

The accompanying exhibition brochure describes the phrase “fashion underground” and its attendant love of fashion as encompassing the “embodied practice of self-expression and transformation”. To accommodate each garment and accessory, there is a process of “transformation” that the mannequin must undergo. Any display of costume has its challenges, but I asked how difficult is it to invoke a very particular–and living–person through an inanimate mannequin. Coppinger replied,“nearly impossible, so we tend to use neutral mannequins.  Our goal is to highlight the costume itself with the mannequin serving as a mount for that costume.”  Despite the difficulty, or intentioned avoidance, Coppinger describes in achieving a particular likeness, during my visit the mannequins seemed to be a visual force equal to the costumes.  The combination of costume and mannequin and the dynamic assortment of stylized mannequins created a strong, tangible presence of a very specific individual that permeated each gallery.

Ensemble by DSQUARED, hat by Piers Atkinson, Entry gallery installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph by the author.

Ensemble by DSQUARED, hat by Piers Atkinson. Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, The Museum at FIT. Photograph by the author.

Bedroom installation view in the exhbition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch.

Bedroom installation view in the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT.

Finally, I loved the subtle, delightful connections between ensembles in the Fashion & Textile History gallery upstairs (showing the equally fantastic Global Fashion Capitals) and the Special Exhibitions gallery downstairs, which housed the Bartsch exhibition.  One of the most stunning and exciting features of the Bartsch exhibition was a moving carousel of early Mr. Pearl ensembles.  My favorite was a corset sequined and bejeweled with tiny Union Jacks and bra cups fashioned from metal purse frames.  Upstairs in Global Fashion Capitals, Mr. Pearl had a conversation with Bonnie Cashin, who used a similar object to create a pocket on her wool jersey skirt.  Wonderful.

Mr. Pearl corset and headpiece. Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph by the author.

Mr. Pearl corset and headpiece. Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch, The Museum at FIT. Photograph by the author.

Bonnie Cashin shirt and skirt. Global Fashion Capitals. The Museum at FIT. Photo by the author.

Bonnie Cashin shirt and skirt. From the exhibition Global Fashion Capitals, The Museum at FIT. Photo by the author.

Detail of Bonnie Cashin skirt. Global Fashion Capitals, The Museum at FIT. Photo by the author.

Detail of Bonnie Cashin skirt. From the exhibition Global Fashion Capitals, The Museum at FIT. Photo by the author.

Lead image credit: Entry gallery installation view of the exhibition Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT.

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