Each time a fashion exhibition opens somewhere in the world, the great and timeless debate concerning the legitimacy of such displays is questioned. Does fashion deserve to be in museums? Is fashion, art? Are fashion blockbuster exhibitions purely mercantile? When are exhibitions intelligent versus commercial? I must say, I usually apprehend these debates because as an art and fashion historian and curator, to me there is no such thing as distinguishing the patrimonial competence of all creative disciplines: yes, fashion is sold in stores but paintings are also sold in galleries; but also because if there is a specialty that deserves to be at the same time glittery, aesthetic, commercial, inventive, flamboyant and resourceful, it is fashion.
There are currently two major exhibitions in Paris that tend to explore similar grounds but that have chosen distinct patterns. On one hand, the Musée Galleria, with Anatomy of a Collection, that proposes an exploration of historical and contemporary garments by highlighting their intimate relationship with their wearers while, on another hand, the Arts Decoratifs, with Fashion Forward, celebrates its thirtieth birthday with a complete chronological exploration of fashion history from the 18th century to nowadays. Today, I’ll write about the Arts Decoratifs’ display before leaving you longing for Galleria’s review. Let’s be honest, Fashion Forward is a beautiful display and the numerous pieces (more than 300), pure eye candy. Yet the specialist in me wasn’t over enthusiastic about the process which I considered a little ‘easy’. For a large public, being able to comprehend in one sole exhibition, three centuries of fashion history, observing the evolution of silhouettes, textiles and aesthetics, is a true gift but, what does it really provide? Not much!
I am not intending to make a distinction between amateurs and experts’s apprehension of an exhibition but I believe amateurs are also allowed to be offered a skillful discourse. The historical periods, until the 1930s, are presented in various rooms with an accent put on contextualization, enabling visitors to appreciate how fashion belongs to a whole decorative, artistic and social environment – a context delivered with the help of painted backdrops, pieces of furniture, wooden decors or conceptual-like ellipses in the shape of historical empty frames or mirrors that enhance discreet group sceneries. The contemporary garments are displayed in the museum’s principal nave where for the first time in the museum’s history, they are freed from their glass cases and evolve on and under abstract staircases leading to nowhere, suspended in the space’s height – the highest pieces were thus difficultly observable or at least could we admire their underskirts and foam legs: let’s call it an innovative behind-the-scenes exposition!
This part benefits an eclectic arrangement that enhances the vertiginous dimension of fashion that can be minimalist, extravagant, inspired by historical shapes, conceptual, pop or glamorous – an array of pieces worn by various mannequins whose gestures are adopted from those of dancers to add a little life and animate the clothing. Yet this whole part is quite frustrating with its chaotic organisation and its refusal to offer a comprehension as contextualized as the historical periods while the museum’s staff could have chosen to present rarely seen pieces rather than the usual illustrious garments that the Arts Decoratifs often shows in its contemporary expositions (except for two original H&M outfits – H&M being the sponsor!). In the whole, Fashion Forward also clearly lacks written explanations, panels and labels that would have added a more thoughtful insight.
If you wish you could see come to life one of your favorite fashion history books then you should run to the Arts Décoratifs, if you just want to see beautiful objects, then run too but, if you are a blasé specialist, you’ll be disappointed. Let’s say I was very happy to be able to see so many exquisite garments brought together but I would have also appreciated a more resourceful discussion.