Something I’ve learned about fashion and textile exhibitions is that size really, truly doesn’t matter. It is generally the big exhibitions — the Met’s annual gala and accompanying show, the de Young’s Balenciaga exhibition, etc. — that get the press, but I have found it is the smaller, more intimate shows that tend to stay with me and which can genuinely surprise me. Such is the case with the Asian Art Museum‘s Woven Luxuries.
As I said in my last post, Woven Luxuries is a small exhibition of only ten pieces from the Indictor Collection in New York and many of those are mere fragments. I was tempted to put quotations around “mere” in that last sentence because what the Asian does in this exhibition is prove that in the right hands, even the smallest fragment of textile can shine. I have see this done before, such as my favorite piece in the de Young’s From the Exotic to the Mystical. But unlike that exhibition, which had over 40 objects many of which were intact, Woven Luxuries is built on ten fragments and it uses them to tell the story of silk velvets in India, Persia, and Turkey and their roles in their respective cultures and empires. No small feat for ten pieces of fabric, but one which they perform masterfully.
At first glance, Woven Luxuries was set up in a similar manner to LACMA’s Art Deco Textiles, though this perception is quickly challenged by the exhibition itself. Opening with the map and wall text you see in the opening image, the Asian sets the ground work for what we will be examining, the collection from which these textiles come, and how important velvets were in Indian, Persian, and Turkish society beginning in the sixteenth century. The exhibition space is dark and cool, as is fitting for displaying delicate, historic textiles. But this darkness also increases the feeling of intimacy, quiet, and contemplativeness that pervades the show.
There is one bench in the room, in front of a video display that plays on a loop. There is no sound, only subtitles against a background of paintings and other artwork from the focus countries which you realize as the video progresses, and zooms in and out on particular details of these paintings, feature the very textiles you are about to examine. The video is slow, but not to the point of becoming aggravating. Instead, this deliberate pace rather cleverly sets the pace for the entire exhibition. Having driven through the insanity that is San Francisco’s Bay-to-Breakers marathon traffic to get to the exhibition, this deliberate, quiet pace was an intense relief — an oasis, if you will, before I had to venture out again.
The video also communicated succinctly the place these textiles held in Turkish, Persian, and Indian court life. Used as tents in a time before hotels when travelling from one court to another, their designs often mimicked the architecture of the various palaces and temples. They were also an indicator of status — though not necessarily wealth — since they were given by the emperor/king/maharaja (depending on which country and which area of that country they were in) to those he felt had done him great, and often personal service.
The next large text panel explained in detail how these luxurious fabrics were made. The weaving process was very precisely outlined, and yet the panel had less text on it than the opening map. It was startling to think of these amazing, luxurous textiles — all of which were made of silk if not in their entirety, at least in some part — being laid on the ground and used as tents. And as you moved through the exhibition, the tombstones continued this theme of being succinct, but informative — using the individual textiles to further the story of velvets in these three countries, and to underscore points that had already been made.
Another wonderful aspect were the magnifying glasses positioned strategically throughout the exhibition (you can see them above). Having just read such a marvelous description of the weaving process, it was wonderful to be able to see elements of that process (the cut silk threads that created the plush, the interweaving of brocade and velvet, etc.) up close without worrying that I would damage the textile or bring down the wrath of a gallery attendant for getting too close. And as you can see from my photographs of details below, it was definitely worth getting up close and personal with these textiles.
The exhibition grouped the textiles by region as well, which was fascinating because you could track the influence the three cultures had on each other through trade and diplomatic contact (those travelling tents I mentioned earlier). Since I did my master’s thesis on India’s influence on Britain, I focused very heavily on the textiles of India before I could look at its influence on British dress and textiles.. And naturally, the interplay and exchange of aesthetics are of great interest to me. Being able to track the evolution of the boteh (flower), or paisley, from something asked for by European traders into something that was distinctly Indian, Turkish, or Persian into what we now think of as the boteh, or paisley teardrop was genuinely fascinating. Especially since I was looking at three distinct evolutions. It also explains why almost all of my close-ups are of flower motifs. I try to keep my personal research interests in check at exhibitions, but sometimes I don’t notice until I look back at my photos that I didn’t entirely succeed.
The tombstones were genuinely informative. They would tell you not only about the particular textile, it’s origin, what it was originally a part of and used for, and the tombstone would invariably find a way to add to the story of velvets in Indian, Persian, and Turkish culture, their relationship with Europe, or the place textiles held in art and material culture of the time period. You can see in the following photos that they often included photos either of paintings that featured the type of textile — as the video did — which importantly shows the culture’s perception of the textile to go with the research the museum has done. Or it might show a similar, intact textile so you could imagine what the piece you are looking at must have looked like when it was “whole.” But my favorites were those which included photos of architectural details with similar designs, so you could compare the design elements, or those like the one below which explained why we might be looking at fragments. It wasn’t because the textiles weren’t valued, but precisely because they were that people tried to preserve as much of these fabrics as they could as the normal wear and tear of time (and being laid on the ground as tent material) took hold.
The photo above shows my absolute favorite part of the exhibition. And in an exhibit I loved as much as this one — that is definitely saying something. To the right of the last textile displayed on the walls of the room, there is an eleventh textile, contemporary in creation, but made in the traditional way. Next to it are visual demonstrations of how textiles in general are woven, and how velvet is woven by comparison.
Even more divine? The sample textiles you COULD TOUCH below these displays! After wall text and video captions and tombstones describing centuries of artistic luxury, I confess I desperately wanted to find someone at the museum and say “look I’m one of you! If I promise to wash my hands, can I please touch the pretty?” Except, I didn’t have to. The museum provided samples. Something that I feel many textile exhibitions should include, because they are just so tactile.
The exhibition, while wonderful, was not perfect. Admittedly nothing is — and this one came very close — but there were a couple things that were disappointing. The first were the fantastic quotes about textiles, which you couldn’t quite read. They were color on color, in low light, high up above the textiles in full light, in a dark room. It genuinely became too much effort to read them all, having to duck and shuffle back and forth to try and get enough shadows that you could read them. They would have been much better placed lower, so they would be more easily read.
The other critique I would make would be that there was one aspect of the story that was not discussed: the weavers themselves. My area of focus is predominantly Kashmir shawls, and I am fully aware of the rather atrocious conditions the weavers lived under during the “golden age” of the shawl in European fashion. I would have loved to know about the weavers of these beautiful velvets, rather than just about their “consumers,” if you will.
However, these two disappointments did not in any way detract from my admiration of this exhibition. Woven Luxuries is beautiful, provided such a wealth of information and it did so in the best way possible: it let the textiles speak for themselves. It is definitely worth a visit if you will be in San Francisco any time soon.
Woven Luxuries is on display until November 1, 2015.
Have you seen Woven Luxuries? What did you think? Are there any small, intimate exhibitions that have stayed with you for weeks afterwards? What were they, and why did they linger? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And if there are any exhibitions or events that you feel Worn Through readers should know about, please mention them below or feel free to email me the details and I will put them in my next column!
The national museum, Te Papa is having a bumper year with a succession of incredibly successful exhibitions, two of which are still on show. Alongside the blockbuster that is Gallipoli – The Scale of Our War (which provides an opportunity for commemorating the centenary of the Anzac experience) is Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our nation. The world. Connected. Quite a convoluted name for an exhibition that I find to be one of the sleekest I have seen of late at Te Papa. This exhibition begins inside (I say inside as the nose of an airplane is outside the museum for visitors to take their photo inside) with a lit runway guiding visitors along a pathway to the site of the former Eyelights Gallery. Eyelights was the museum’s dedicated space for exhibitions of a textile/costume/clothing nature but has been under threat through the last couple of restructures and doesn’t appear to be entirely out of the woods. Te Papa’s recently appointed Chief Executive, Rick Ellis, cut his chops working in digital media for Australian telco Telstra and the state-owned broadcaster Television New Zealand. Ellis has come in to this position with his completely unabashed dedication to all things digital and I bring this up as, since his appointment in November 2014, it has been announced that all long-term exhibitions will be redeveloped at the cost of short-term exhibitions going ahead. What this means for a space like Eyelights that had continuous short-term exhibitions featuring clothing from the museum’s collection as well as touring exhibitions, only time will tell. What space will clothing now inhibit in the museum? How will the textiles collection continue to inform researchers and visitors alike about New Zealand history?
Back to Air NZ. The exhibition opens with a trip back in time through the past iterations of flight attendant uniforms. For the life of me I can’t understand why the uniforms are shown going back through time, as a visitor I much prefer the evolution of a story. Watching a story grow makes more sense to me, especially in this instance with a recurring theme of the exhibition being that as the airline expands, the identity it takes on is unapologetically New Zealand. As I say, the exhibition starts with a case featuring the current uniforms made by New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper and the immediate predecessors by Zambesi. Cooper’s designs reflect a functionality that should be a prerequisite of such work (as we will see, this hasn’t always been the case) and she utilised different colours to differentiate between ground staff and cabin crew. Female flight attendants were given dresses in a “twilight pink” with patterns in black that feature motifs that recall New Zealand culture e.g. the koru (this is a Māori word given to an unfurled fern frond and symbolises life) of the Air NZ logo. The male flight attendants were not so lucky, though the exhibition labels state that their uniform finally eschewed the “sober suits of the past with its lively patterns and pops of colour”, it is quite a ghastly rendering of Kiwiana kitsch. However, as functionality has increased over the years with these uniforms, so too has versatility and the males are able to pair the unfortunate waistcoat with a tie (twilight pink being an option) and a choice of either a tūī (native bird) tiepin or a Rangitoto Island tiepin. Again, the reinforcement of nationhood is inescapable.
Female flight attendant uniform
Male flight attendant uniform
Choice of tie and tiepins
The other outfit in this case was designed by Zambesi, one of New Zealand’s highest exporting designers and a pioneer of New Zealand fashion’s obsession with black. Their uniform however was not very well-received, with staff and customers finding the colour scheme of (here we go again with the nationhood theme) teal, pounamu (greenstone) and schist to blend into plane interiors posing too much of a safety hazard. Also, it is very bland. It did however, feature a merino (famous New Zealand wool export) wrap with a design by Māori artist Derek Lardelli reminiscent of an earlier uniform’s use of Māori motifs.
Female flight attendant uniform by Zambesi and merino wrap featuring illustration from Māori artist Derek Lardelli.
The case after this showed another New Zealand design from 1987 by Isabel Harris of Thornton Hall. This time the functionality of the garment came from consultation with crew members advising the designer, who in turn incorporated an elasticated waist and neckline that could be worn buttoned up or down.
1987 design by Isabel Harris of Thornton Hall
Beside the Harris’ businesslike look is the 1976 design from Parisian designer Nina Ricci. It was quite a surprise to see that an international designer of such repute had designed for Air NZ, but she wasn’t the first (again, why did this exhibition not show in chronological order?). The design again drew cues from nature with it’s wavy blues and greens but, it did not skimp on functionality with the dress being made of hard-wearing polyester. It is interesting to note how these hues would be repeated to much less acclaim by a New Zealand designer almost 30 years later.
1976 design from Nina Ricci
The next case (undoubtedly my favourite of the lot) highlights why the chronology of exhibition is an issue for me with the wall text saying of the National Airway Corporation and Air New Zealand’s uniforms: “This was the last time the styles would diverge. By the end of the decade, they had merged into one corporation.” This text sets you up for things to come, how will the new corporation’s uniforms reflect this merger? But instead of weaving together these stories as you go along, you have to awkwardly unpick them and remember which thread belongs where. Unfortunately, this is not the only time this happens during the exhibition either.
1976 National Airways Corporation uniform
Glorious. At first glance I thought this was a jumpsuit but wasn’t too disappointed to discover that it is instead a blouse, vest and trousers made by Holeproof New Zealand. The trousers, resplendent in their 1970′s glory, were the first time that the corporation had made trousers for female staff. This is also the first time that see we a uniform utilising such a bold colour scheme with its use of primary block colours of a less natural shade. After NAC merged with Air NZ, the scarf was replaced with a similar one bearing the koru from the Air NZ logo, marketing through identity was, and still is, an important tactic for this airline.
Also in this case is a design from a Croation-born New Zealander, Vinka Lucas whose design was also made by Holeproof NZ. Lucas’ main trade was in evening and bridal gowns and her design reflected this in the blouse design on show, with it’s billowy sleeves and the tiny back buttons which the flight attendants needed help in doing up. This design shows the first time that Air NZ consciously decided to highlight it’s New Zealand-ness through the inclusion of what the text label refers to as “Māori motif”. Though delicately beautiful and reminiscent of the Lardelli illustration of 2005, I struggled to see what was particularly Māori about the design, I guess that’s what the ‘motif’ is for, a disclaimer for authenticity.
Vinka Lucas’ design
The last design in this case is the most exciting of the whole exhibition and caused the largest reaction each time I saw the exhibition. From 1970, this NAC incorporated arguably the shortest hemline in the history of Air NZ uniforms. Rendered in bright colours, these outfits were show-stopping and quickly earned the nickame of ‘jellybean’ or ‘lollipop’. This was another instance where uniform was used as a marketing ploy to showcase how young and funky the airline was in a bid to attract young customers, however, functionality was sacrificed as the wall text stated that reaching into overhead lockers was an ordeal.
NAC’s lollipop stewardess
Going from these colourful and quirky ensembles to the more demure and classic lines of the 1960′s was like drinking a tall glass of water after a few too many cocktails. The 1960s saw more people with more money taking to the skies and the airlines emulated this sense of luxury with rich designs in expensive fabrics with NAC featuring its first New Zealand designer, Babs Radon, and Air NZ (or as it was previously known, TEAL, again, you have to read the labels backwards to make sense of the name change) employing Christian Dior. These designs proved popular with staff as they were comfortable and sophisticated, I’m sure being able to wear Christian Dior to work will have helped with the popularity!
Babs Radon’s 1966 design, the hat was dubbed the “mustard pot”
Christian Dior’s 1969 design featuring a hibiscus flower on the sleeves to call back to our Pacific identity
The first uniforms for the airline reflected the post-war need for safety and security, the dresses were military in form and the rules around cosmetic embellishment were military in nature. This uniform played up its military symbolism and as many flight attendants were trained as nurses, they were encouraged to wear their badges. Despite how functional it looked, the white linen could not remain crisp for a long-haul international flight and quickly sagged and got dirty.
Post-war uniform reminiscent of nursing
Opposite the wall of cases is a wall of historic photographs featuring staff members wearing each of the uniforms. In the middle of each of these walls is a video wherein an actor, wearing a uniform from the display, has a mini monologue about what it is like to work for Air NZ. I’m not sure what these videos add to the exhibition. Being no fan of falsely constructed history, it was hard to tell whether the stories these actors were telling visitors were real stories and if they were, why didn’t they have actual former employees holding their uniforms and telling stories? The lack of authenticity in these videos I found quite annoying, I don’t think it adds anything to the story of the clothing. The most striking aspect I found that put some life into these uniforms (apart from the parts of the labels that included quotes from former staff) was seeing the name badge of a former worker. It was much easier to imagine someone walking to work through an 1970 airport just by seeing the evidence that she had been there. Sometimes it is the simple objects that can tell a complex story so much more succinctly.
An actor in uniform
Name badge on the Dior uniform, the name can’t quite be made out
The sleekness of the exhibition’s design is echoed throughout with the clever use of the airline’s own typeface in the signage. Clever marketing isn’t new to the airline, they have utilised it throughout their history as is seen with the inclusion of many of the airline’s past travel bags in the exhibition. These show how the logo has changed throughout the airline’s history and the way in which they aid in promoting the airline with the pink travel bag below. This bag was a giveaway in a specially chartered flight taking passengers to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney one year and was a part of a full spectacular that featured drag performances, themed drinks and a cabaret by crew members. This particular pink bag was given to the Māori performer Mika.
Air NZ travel bag from 1965 – 73
Teal travel bag 1961
Air NZ travel bag with the current koru logo, from c.1986
Themed bag from 2008
The final aspect of the exhibition that I want to cover is part of the interactive space at the end. Here there are shrunken reproductions of crew uniforms for children to wear and have their photos taken in. When I first attended the exhibition, there was a constant stream of kids playing mini pilot or mini flight attendant. The second time round the mini flight attendants were happy to walk around as if they were staff! I have seen dress-ups used in exhibitions before as a way to entice children in but often they were second-hand jackets that were adult size, having them the kids’ size made the imaginative play much more believable and I would say, much more successful.
Mini crew hats and pilot jacket
I have mentioned how I think Air NZ is savvy and clever with their marketing through the continued use and promotion of their brand and I must say, the most savvy and clever marketing campaign of all has to be this exhibition. Starting with the staff clothing really set the scene for visitors to be able to imagine themselves as either a staff member or a customer and this is continued throughout the exhibition. To then bookend it with children being able to play with the uniforms was a great move and reminded you that this is a fun and luxurious airline. Not to mention the national carrier.
Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our nation. The world. Connected. is free entry and on at Te Papa until July 26th.
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.
All photos by me.
With the Met Ball having kicked off last week that can only mean one thing: it’s time to start planning your summer exhibition visits!
One exhibition that has been getting a lot of press in the lead up to its opening (no not the Met!) is Richmond, Virginia’s Classical Allure: Richmond Style at The Valentine Museum. This is the inaugural exhibition for Kristen Stewart, formerly of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who is the new Nathalie L. Klaus Curator of Costume & Textiles at the museum, and it has involved everything from conservation of a coronation robe to Stewart’s exploration of the museum’s 40,000-object strong collection. From what the reviews show, it is definitely worth a visit in the area. Though knowing Kristen and her work, that is absolutely to be expected. The exhibition opened May 3 and will be up until January 31, 2016.
Emma is still away, so for this week’s post I will share a video from the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition which opened in March. The video offers and inside view of the exhibition and features interviews with Claire Wilcox, Katy England, and Shaun Leane.
Have any of you seen Savage Beauty, either in London or New York? What did you think? Have any of you been lucky enough to see both versions of the exhibition? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Kia ora from Aotearoa/New Zealand! This is my first post as the Worn Through New Zealand contributor and I’m starting off with something a little unorthodox. Creamy Psychology is an art exhibition that recently showed at Wellington’s City Gallery. It was the first time that the whole gallery had been dedicated to the work of one artist: the inaugural winner of the Walters Prize (New Zealand’s most prestigious art prize), Yvonne Todd. Todd is an Auckland-based artist and alumni of the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland who works predominantly with photography to create often unsettling portraits of characters, real and imagined. The show consisted of around 150 photographs, an installation featuring a selection of Todd’s expansive vintage clothing collection and a room showcasing objects and images that inspired Todd’s work. As a recent convert to the Yvonne Todd cult, I found the recurring themes of nostalgia, obsession, glamour (and the fall from it), reality and imagined reality throughout her oeuvre. The creations in Todd’s photographs are a mixture of characters she has dreamed up, real people/situations she has obsessed over before styling and photographing, and people playing themselves, or at least Todd’s version of themselves. Throughout her work clothing and costume is a constant, whether it be the inspiration for the story she tells or an element she employs to assist in her storytelling.
Installation view of frock room
The first room I entered presented two opposing walls of close-up portraits, the first a series called Bellevue depicting 9 women immaculately presented in their stiff cosmetician’s blazers and smocks. For this series Todd used real women i.e. women who worked in the beauty counters at local pharmacies, but these women were presented very coldly: their unsmiling faces and chests are cropped and lit in a way that makes them unapproachable. The starched look of their clothing only adds to the prim, distant feeling the evoke. Todd tells a story of how one of the woman reacted when seeing her portrait, gasping at it in shock and leaving the gallery. Across from these women is a similar series of female face and chest portraits titled Sea of Tranquillity. Here, Todd’s characterisation of the models is more overt; she has styled them all in high-necked, mock-Victorian, polyester blouses, again their faces are immaculately made-up but on their heads they wear wigs. However, these women do not match the unapproachable distance of the cosmeticians, in fact none of them look at the camera and their minds appear to be elsewhere. These portraits have a stifling feel about them, a sadness belies their distant looks and the oppressive feel of the itchy-looking high necks only adds to this. That Todd sees Bellevue as a modern day rendition of Sea of Tranquillity is highly insightful in regards to her childhood obsessions of cosmeticians.
The following room featured a photograph titled Pupators and on face value looked like a it could be from a girls clothing catalogue. It features three delicately fluffy angora cardigans that float in a black background. Though the cardigans were made for young girls, they are filled out by an unseen, flat-chested mannequin so they appear beguilingly androgynous. Todd styled these so as to emphasise a time in life when girls are in a state of transformation, verging on puberty and inevitable adulthood. By presenting the cardigans in this way, Todd highlights the opportunities and experiences to come but with the black background the sinister feeling that is ever-present in Todd’s work remains.
Also featured in this room was the unsettling series Vagrants Reception Centre. This was one of the instances in which the story was inspired by the clothing. Todd is an avid vintage clothing collector and after buying two Victorian dresses online, she realised upon receiving them that the extremely nipped in waists would not work on modern women thus this series of discomfiting portraits of young girls was borne. For the most part the photos are cropped in a similar way to Bellevue and Sea of Tranquillity with the face and chest on show, and this only highlights the juxtaposition of their overdone, mature facial make-up and the high-necked, embellished, ruffled Victorian dresses. That these dresses were intended for women and yet are worn by modern day 12 year old girls is unnerving, what does this say about how young women’s lives in today’s society? What do they tell us when their portraits appear as a caricatured version of kids playing dress up in their mother’s closet yet none of them appear to be enjoying themselves? The leg o’ mutton sleeves appear even more exaggerated upon their young shoulders and symbolise the oppressiveness that recurs throughout Todd’s work.
Installation view of frock room. The work in the background is “Mulkie” and features a model wearing a Norman Norell pantsuit.
As aforementioned, a selection of Todd’s clothing collection was displayed as part of the exhibition. Curated by Claire Regnault, Senior Curator Creative Industries at the national museum Te Papa, the decision was made to focus on the glitzier pieces in Todd’s collection. Todd has collected clothing for many years but her collecting practice gained momentum with the advent of websites like Ebay which gave her unprecedented access to glamorous clothing of a higher quality than before. Consequently Todd now has pieces by Emanuel Ungaro, Norman Norrell and Bob Mackie with some pieces having significant celebrity provenance including Whitney Houston and Liza Minelli. Despite these interesting back stories, Todd insists that the impetus to buy is due to the dress itself, not the provenance. Regardless, the inclusion of the dresses in the exhibition added a material dimension to the exhibition wherein the exquisiteness of the dresses in situ could be appreciated up close and the back stories added an element of intrigue in and of the clothing that is somewhat superfluous when they are utilised by a model in character. Glamour is a dominant theme in the works of Todd’s that I haven’t covered here but it is a flawed glamour, a glamour that has undercurrents of despair and darkness. The stories that the clothes and their former owners add via this sculptural dimension reinforces a lot of Todd’s ideas surrounding glamour and their inclusion is to be lauded.
Installation view of frock room.
The final series that I want to highlight is Todd’s most recent work Ethical Minorities: Vegans and this is because I think it is her most overt example of the way in which Todd confuses reality, and clothing plays a major part. Todd herself is a vegan (and includes a self-portrait in this series) and through this work she wanted to explore the ways in which she believes that wider society sees vegans. Todd recruited her artists through specialist publications and unlike most other series’, the models showed up in their own clothing and it is unknown to the viewer whether Todd kept them in their clothes or not. By keeping this to herself, we as viewers are forced to confront our own perceptions of what a vegan looks like and what a vegan wears. It is a fascinating exercise in stereotyping and indicative of the ways in which Todd plays with her viewers.
There is so much to discover in Todd’s work and I implore you to look it up. She uses clothing to tell stories but also to manipulate what you think you know. A comprehensive book about the exhibition has been published and is available here. The book includes essays and images of her works.
All photos credit: Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psychology installation view. City Gallery, Wellington, 2014. Photo by Shane Waugh.
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.
It’s no secret that I love the FIDM Museum. This is not just because I have worked there. I loved the museum long before I worked there simply because of the quality exhibitions they produce. Their annual Art of Motion Picture Costuming exhibition and the ever-changing Helen Larson historic collection displays are no exception.
With the V&A’s Hollywood Costume having overlapped with the opening of this year’s Art of Motion Picture Costuming, I had wondered what was in store for me when I headed down to Los Angeles this weekend. I was, of course, not disappointed. There may have been some competition for costumes this year, but Michael Black is a master at finding them — especially those by FIDM alumi — after all this time and the museum staff put together a truly wonderful exhibition.
Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent costume, which you see above and below, opened the exhibition and set the tone for drama and fantasy that rather pervaded this year’s exhibition as it pervaded many of the 2014 films.
As the exhibition is entitled The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design, opening with the Maleficent costumes was a perfect way to emphasize the artistry that goes into costume design. The dramatic silhouette of Angelina Jolie’s costume is of course the first thing you notice, but there is a intricate interplay of textures and fabric that draw you in closer and must have been wonderful to see on screen. The train on the gown, coupled with the collar and the sleeves don’t compete for attention but all combine to create a perfect garment for, I confess, my favourite Disney villain EVER. And this was not a case of emphasizing one character at the expense of the others.
Above you see the costumes for not only the fairies, but Prince Philip (in hunting garb) and Princess Aurora when in hiding as Briar Rose. The mediaeval origins of the costume designs are clearly present, but adapted to create a fairy tale world in which dragons and griffins and sleeping curses exist. Having been disappointed before by costumes that turned out to be printed fabrics, it was delightful to see embroidered details on even the fairies’ aprons and gowns, and detailed trimmings on Philip’s hood — minor characters who still received the designer’s full attention.
FIDM Museum’s skill at exhibition design was far more subtle even than the black on black details of Maleficent’s costume. It wasn’t until I’d been all the way through the exhibition that I realized how well the exhibits flowed from one film to the other, from one film genre to the other. Moving in a clockwise motion around the Maleficent display, you saw most of the other fantasy film costumes on display: Exodus, Dracula: Untold, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Night at the Museum. Oddly the biblical costumes for Exodus with their ancient Egyptian armor were the perfect segue into the fantastic interpretations of Turkish and Eastern European clothes found in Dracula.
I loved the Egyptian gown above for its clear links to Fortuny. Even more interesting was the use of the alien villain, Ronan’s costume as a transition from the Eastern European aesthetic of Dracula into the pure SciFi of Guardians of the Galaxy — the similarity in lines between the Turkish armor from Dracula and Ronan’s armor would never have occurred to me had the two not been displayed. I found myself wondering what the Guardians of the Galaxy designer’s inspirations and research included, and what their design process was — exactly the purpose of the exhibition, to highlight the expertise and broad range of knowledge designers must have to draw upon when it comes to even designing for a “comic book” movie (albeit one I rather enjoyed).
It was the next transition that I realized later was absolutely brilliant — it was so subtle that it was only as I flipped through my photos choosing which one I would use for this review that I noticed it. Moving again in a clockwise motion, we went from Guardians of the Galaxy to Birdman, which has its contemporary costumes, but also Michael Keaton’s ‘Birdman’ persona and its extravagant, feathered suit lurking in the background. This was the perfect transition from the purely fantastic movies we had begun with to the more contemporary or historical costumes that dominated this next section of the exhibition.
This section was also the point at which I realized I really hadn’t seen many movies this year, because wonderful as the costumes were (Gone Girl, Get on Up, Step Up — the last costumed by a FIDM alumna) I hadn’t seen many of them.
The next genre shift wasn’t as smooth as the Birdman transition, but it made sense in my head from an historical costuming perspective. Between the fantastic dance costumes from Step Up and the rather incredible costumes by Colleen Atwood from Into The Woods (possibly my absolute favourite Sondheim musical, and it starred Meryl Streep, need I say more?), was a display of costumes from Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. This made sense in my head because upon seeing the purple dress Carey Mulligan wore as Daisy it became obvious that it wasn’t ruffled, they had simply sewn on little satin “tassels” if you will to simulate ruffles. A way to save fabric no doubt, but in combination with the menswear’s trouser legs being much to narrow for the time period, with Into the Woods costumes beyond it seemed to emphasize the fact that this was a fantasy version of the 1920s – and Fitzgerald’s novel, for that matter – rather than trying for any historical accuracy. Again, a juxtaposition that revealed aspects of the Great Gatsby costuming that would have escaped me otherwise.
I will try not to spend too much time waxing rhapsodic about the small collection of Into the Woods costumes — perhaps it is Disney’s seemingly bottomless budgets, but their costumes always seem to actually be good quality rather than simply appearing good on screen — but I absolutely adored the fairy-tale mix of genres: The 1890s leg o’ mutton sleeves seemingly constructed out of feathers on Meryl Streep’s blue gown, and the adaptation of a seventeenth-century doublet into a rocker-cool leather jacket from Rapunzel’s prince were absolutely brilliant.
The rest of the costumes seemed to rather mirror each other, Big Eyes (set in the 1950s and 1960s) next to the costumes from Jersey Boys, and directly across from them the costumes from Selma, those from The Theory of Everything down the way, with the wonderfully eccentric costumes from The Grand Budapest Hotel mixed in. This was a wonderful grouping because it showed the myriad ways in which a single era of clothing could be interpreted to fit a film’s aesthetic and tell a story.
Also on display were the costumes from The Imitation Game — mixed into the 1960s smorgasbord you see above — and those from X-Men: Days of Future Past. The latter was what you saw as you moved from this main display space back into the opening room with the other fantasy and science fiction costumes — so again, an excellent transition out of historical interpretation into fantasy, especially since I understand that movie involves time travel back to the 1960s. The planning of this exhibition’s displays and layout is absolutely incredible.
This is born out by the fact that as you exit the Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition you see two sets of costumes from two British historical films: Belle and Mr Turner. The latter I have not yet seen (but very much want to), and the former I would not have seen if not for a wonderful podcast review over at Frock Flicks.
Putting these two films together made absolute sense simply from the perspective of grouping the costumes together by genre; but when I tell you that these are the last sets of costumes you see before you round the corner to see the eighteenth-century historic clothing on display from the Helen Larson collection, it becomes apparent that this is also excellent exhibition design.
And this is where I get very, very excited. It’s not that I don’t love movie costumes, it’s just that I love historic garments that much more. In my own research I tend to focus on menswear which is something that does not often make it into exhibition displays — at High Style there wasn’t a single man’s item of clothing to be seen — so I was utterly delighted to see more menswear in this display than women’s clothing. This could just be because the men’s silhouettes were so much narrower for the time period and display space is at a premium in the Helen Larson collection gallery, but the FIDM Museum managed to create such a masterful display that it really captured the range of clothing worn by ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century.
There were two full court suits, four waistcoats, and four coats for men; there were four gowns for women including robes à la française, anglaise and a robe volante. My mother had come with me to share the driving and was absolutely fascinated by the latter, especially since the tombstone explained that it was the transitional style that would eventually lead to the other styles on display. Through four gowns FIDM managed to convey the evolution of women’s eighteenth-century court attire. The unfortunate nature of the display space, though, was that since the backs of all but one of the gowns was emphasized it was nearly impossible to see the fronts of the gowns on the other three. I imagine mirrors would have amplified the light which would not have been good for the silk, but it still would have been lovely to see as close to a 365º view of the gowns as possible.
I, naturally, was in raptures about the menswear. Here, too, there was a range of decades in menswear so you could see the breadth of choice that men once had when getting dressed in the morning before the “Great Masculine Renunciation” of color in clothing. I loved the contrast of the velvet court suit with the bright coral silk suit opposite it on the platform. These two suits and the range of coats and waistcoats showed the various ways that menswear in the eighteenth century could be decorative. There might be embroidery, the fabric — as with the velvet suit (my personal favorite) — might be decoration enough, or you might have not only an exquisite fabric but appliqués and tassels as with the coral court suit.
And to put the finishing touches, if you will, on the period — there were a number of accessories on display including a fan, a work bag, and two pairs of very elaborate (of course!) shoes.
These two exhibitions have confirmed my belief that a visit to the FIDM Museum is always worth the trip.
The 23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costuming exhibition closes this Saturday, April 25, so get there while you can! Opulent Art: 18th-Century Dress from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection will be on display until July 4th.
Have you seen either of these exhibitions? What did you think? Do you have an exhibitions or events happening near you or at your institution that you would like to share with Worn Through’s readers? Feel free to leave a comment, or to email me the details!
April seems to be filled predominantly with exhibitions that are about to close — so this week’s column will be filled with a lot of “last chance to see” notifications. That being said, there are a couple of new exhibitions, and some upcoming events that I’m sure many of you won’t want to miss.
At the Museum at FIT, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston is closing on April 18, while Faking It closes on April 25. These are, by all accounts, incredible exhibitions so go see them while you can.
Also in New York, the french institute : alliance française‘s Fashion Talk for April is a conversation with Proenza Schouler taking place on April 15. Tickets are still available according to the website.
At the Kent State Museum, Inside Out: Revealing Clothing’s Hidden Secretshas been open for about a month and is getting rave reviews. This exhibition takes a somewhat radical approach to revealing the craftsmanship that goes into clothing construction, according to the website, “This exhibition showcases these secret inner-workings that are usually out of sight.” Definitely worth a visit if you can reach it. While there you can see their many concurrent exhibitions, as well as the retrospective Geoffrey Beene: American Ingenuity which opened in January.
In San Francisco, High Style — which I reviewed here two weeks ago – is still open at the Legion of Honor. And Oscar de la Renta: His Legendary World of Style is still open at the SCAD Museum in Savannah, Georgia.
In Los Angeles, African Textiles and Adornment: Selections from the Marcel and Zaira Mis Collectionjust opened this week at LACMA, and the 23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition at the FIDM Museum will be closing on April 25.
In Portland, registration is still open for the Costume Society of America-Western Region event for the V&A’s Italian Style exhibition, which is up at the Portland Art Museum.
As always, if you have been to any of these exhibitions and want to share your thoughts, or if you have an event or exhibition you want to let Worn Through readers know about feel free to leave a comment below, or to email me the details!
This weekend ended the Parisian art fair entitled Art Paris. I regularly attend art fairs in order to discover new artists and also take note of the trends of the art market. As I passed by the De Buck Gallery’s space, I was attracted by a hanging shirt splattered with paint. The art work was by Shozo Shimamoto, a Japanase artist – who died in 2013 – who had participated to the foundation of the Gutai movement, an eastern answer to the American post-war action painting. Shozo Shimamoto specialized, from the 1950s, in the making of art pieces via the elaboration of dynamic performances. During his performances, the artist would throw paint entrapped in various containers that would thus explose once they had hit their targets, most often a simple canvas. The performance would therefore lead to three art moments: the performance itself, the canvas and all the collateral damages – adjacent objects splattered by paint.
Shozo Shimamoto, Felissimo 40 – 2007 – De Buck Gallery
Shozo Shimamoto not only produced paintings but also invited trivial reminders of his performances, that from minor witnesses would later become major art works as soon as the artist decided to isolate them, sign them and enclose them within a frame. I must admit I have found very little information about the artist and his performances. All I did discover is that the different painted clothing signed by the artist and that can be found today in various collections are the result of a performance entitled Felissimo as it was commissioned by the Japanese brand bearing the same name and took place at the Kobe Fashion Museum in 2007. The Felissimo performance is one of the rare artistic moments in the artist’s existence that had something to do with fashion. Yet fashion here did not serve a purpose nor a discourse, the white clothes used during this performance were simply an innovative canvas, the means of a transformation. The whole performance engaged with sound and action, there’s something very chaotic and almost violent in the way the painting containers are hit and thrown towards the floor below and when we observe the splattered clothes, we can’t help but think of them as victims stained by watercolor that evokes blood. Like all the objects found within his performances, Shozo Shimamoto turned the pieces of clothing into unique art works. The shirt I saw at the fair is signed and numbered and hangs within a glass case: fashion and art closely mingled.
Alexander McQueen, SS 1999 – Shalom Harlow
The Felissimo art works instantly recalled two further artistic projects. First, I could not help but look back at Alexander McQueen‘s 1999 Spring-Summer show and Shalom Harlow’s encounter with mechanical robots that sprayed paint on her immaculate dress. I don’t know whether Shozo Shimamoto had this peculiar moment in mind when he organized his own performance but to me there’s something similar in the violence of the action. The main difference yet resides in the fact that when Alexander McQueen used inorganic machines to ‘attack’ a human being, Shozo Shimamoto invited humans to assail inanimate objects.
François Aubert, Emperor Maximilien’s Shirt, 1867
Finally, examining the framed shirt, I was reminded of François Aubert’s iconic photography from 1867. The French photographer created a historical and artistic momentum when he photographed the shirt of the Emperor Maximilien that had just been executed in Mexico. Without depicting the execution itself and with this stained shirt pierced by bullets, the photographer evoked a macabre shroud and turned the intimate piece of clothing of a man into the abstract symbol of death. Within Shozo Shimamoto, I found that similar morbid feel and the process of turning something trivial into a more grandiose concept. When clothing is seized by contemporary art, it often takes on disturbing feelings as if the inanimate garment, separated from flesh and movement, comes too close to death and sorrow. That is why there lies the whole challenge for fashion curators who need to bring life to their motionless objects..
I would love to hear about your opinion on that subject and if any of you have further information concerning Shozo Shimamoto’s work and the Felissimo performance, I would love to read about it.
You can watch the performance, here.
I’ll say straight out that as an admirer of the work of Amy de la Haye and Judith Clark, I was happy to see a publication on fashion exhibitions coming from these two accomplished and innovative curators. As many Worn Through readers are likely aware, Clark and de la Haye have curated several exhibitions for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and are faculty at the London College of Fashion. They take very different approaches to the practice and subject of fashion curation, which often intersect with each other. Clark has been careful not to call herself a “dress historian”, preferring to use fashion to “talk about other things” (Clark and Philips, 2010: 110) and make linkages in aesthetics, philosophies, and design techniques and strategies across time and space. De la Haye takes an object-based, historical approach guided by material culture studies and the social life of dress. The front and back covers illustrate these approaches and the ultimate goal of the book quite nicely, with an archival installation photograph of the main subject of study, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (front cover), and its trajectory into the future with a recasting of the exhibition’s promotional imagery and Beaton’s garment selection through a photograph from Harper’s Bazaar in 2013 (back cover).
Front and back covers of Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971, Yale University Press, 2014
This study is not an exhaustive overview of the history of fashion exhibition themes, strategies, protagonists, or techniques (de la Haye directs readers to Lou Taylor’s excellent Establishing Dress History  for more detailed historical analysis). The title alludes to this incompleteness by referencing a specific pivotal date in time–the year 1971. The authors take “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” (henceforth referred to in this review as “Anthology”) as a significant marker that changed how fashion was interpreted and displayed, “a moment of shift in fashion curatorship” (p. 6). Overall, the focus is squarely on the V&A and Beaton’s exhibition, with brief discussions of exhibitions and exhibiting strategies at other museums in the UK, Europe, and the U.S. (the latter mainly the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Because Anthology is not discussed by Beaton in his diaries or by his subsequent biographers, de la Haye and Clark saw a gap in discussion and an opportunity to give this exhibition the scrutiny it deserves, utilizing the recollections and research of past V&A curators, the institutional papers, and archival photographs.
De la Haye and Clark set up their case by first giving some crucial historical context as to why Beaton’s exhibition matters so much (the first three chapters are written by de la Haye). Historically, garments were first kept at the V&A because of the quality or importance of the textile only, or the trimmings or embroideries as evidence of craft. In the context of the V&A, modern, contemporary fashion was not collected pre-1971. Up to that point, the goal of bringing legitimacy and respectability to the study of fashion and dress continued to be hard-fought, with the prevalent attitude to costume throughout most of the 20th century as being a “a sort of rather unholy by-product of the textile industry,” to quote Charles Gibbs-Smith commenting on the occasion of James Laver’s death in 1975 and the respectability that Laver brought to the study of costume in England (p. 38). De la Haye dedicates several pages to three British dress study and curation pioneers–James Laver, Doris Langley Moore, and Anne Buck. These “curatorial case studies” not only acknowledge their contributions to the field but also act as a foil or significant antecedent to the display and curatorial choices within Beaton’s exhibition.
An important point de la Haye emphasizes is that the only two exhibitions of modern fashion at the V&A in the 20th century (pre-1971) were organized by non-professional curators, or by those outside of the museum world–Beaton in 1971, and the 1946 exhibition, “Britain Can Make It” (BCMI), by James Gardner, affectionately known as “G”. Both exhibitions were also connected to the commercial side of fashion as well–the Council of Industrial Design for BCMI, and the talents of window dressers from major department stores and the inclusion of contemporary London boutiques for Anthology. BCMI was an industry show of mixed media with a large emphasis on contemporary fashion for men, women, and children–some fashions so new that they were not yet available to the buying public. The role of exhibition designer did not exist before WWII, and BCMI showcased innovative and “fantastical” exhibition techniques and tableaux by Gardner that were new to the presentation of fashion. This is evident in numerous archival photographs found at the Brighton University’s Design Archives that reveal spaces filled with theatricality, a sense of movement, and a touch of Surrealism, and contrast with photographs of costume display at the V&A pre-1946 in previous pages, which tend to show garments in rows of display cases or configurations that call for contemplation of single or small clusters of garments in a spare, uncluttered space. Interestingly, BCMI continues to be the highest attended show in the V&A’s history. Eye-catching, theatrical, and highly designed exhibitions continue to draw crowds and capture the public’s imagination today.
Next, de la Haye discusses Beaton’s artistic practice. Numerous examples of his innovative approaches in film and theater design, photography, and his love of fancy dress and the fashionable people he often photographed inform how he envisioned his collection, and ground the presentation of dress seen in the exhibition images in Chapter 3. One can see Beaton’s penchant for creating tableaux with unusual, “low tech” materials (such as distinctive foam masks on mannequins, originally intended for their packing and transport), and his love of illusion and “metamorpheses of space” that were realized through the work of exhibition designer Michael Haynes.
Beaton first suggested the idea for an exhibition of modern fashion to the museum’s then-director, John Pope-Hennessy, in 1969. Couture would be its “central tenet”, and it was accepted by the director with the stipulation that the exhibition would steer clear of celebrity and promote the garments as “works of art”, not “socially salient objects”, in keeping with the V&A’s emphasis on design (p. 69). Ironically, this focus would fall short of Beaton’s original vision of highlighting the specific personalities and tastes of the fashionable women he admired (this would be done four years later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “American Women of Style”, curated by Beaton’s close friend, Diana Vreeland). Instead, the exhibition was broken up into 16 sections, some chronological (1920s, 1930s, 1950s), some dedicated to a particular designer (Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy), some to English contemporary design (Mary Quant, Biba), some to a particular “look” (Space Age) or group (Royal Family).
De la Haye examines this loss of object biography in an extended discussion of Diana Vreeland’s sequined Chanel pyjama suit, which she first considered in her article on Beaton’s Anthology in Fashion Theory (Haye, 2006). She not only considers Vreeland’s ensemble in the context of Anthology, but also how its presentation and attendant meanings have shifted and changed in the years before and after 1971, both at the V&A and other institutions worldwide. This is a good set-up for Clark’s later section, which traces the outward and inward reverberations backwards and forwards in time of the styling, construction, display, and conceptual approaches in the exhibition.
One of the strengths of this book is the copious illustrations, many of which have never been seen before this publication, and that dominate the central section of the book. There is not one section of this publication that is not significantly illustrated. In talking about and researching exhibition history, images are crucial, and oftentimes they are all we have in reconstructing a curator’s vision or intention. Sometimes there are none at all left to posterity. The size of the publication, nearing coffee table book-size at 12 inches in length, lends itself well to showing off the color and black-and-white installation photos to their best advantage.
Complete documentation of installations is common now, but much more unusual for exhibitions of the past. De la Haye notes that often the timing of publication and exhibition do not coincide, and that studio shots are generally privileged over installation images. Likely because of the high-profile nature of the Beaton exhibition, many installation photographs exist; several photos show the same installation from different vantage points. This is extremely helpful for analysis, as both de La Haye and Clark note that the object selection for exhibition was done very hastily, and the exhibited items are not noted in the catalog (all 405 garments and accessories from Beaton’s collection–donated to the V&A, the first significant gift of contemporary fashion–are listed). De la Haye describes Beaton’s installation and Haynes’s design as “enticing, exacting, and original” (p. 72) even to our eyes today, and the photographs of extremely varied and dynamic tableaux are very convincing of this point. As Judith Clark points out in her later section (#15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”, p. 145), the shorthand or “simplistic equations” for mannequin choices were not established as of 1971. Anthology’s configurations and mannequin types (especially the bald, makeup-less ones) may look very familiar to our contemporary eyes and we may forget how experimental they were at the time. Some viewers found the bald mannequins, their heads draped with chiffon, unattractive, “as though there was a bank raid in progress” (p. 104); it was also revolutionary at the time for designer boutiques to use mannequins–the standard method was flat display for garments.
When the book shifts to dusty rose pink pages with red ink print, this aesthetic clue tells us that we are shifting gears–the visual equivalent of “now for something completely different.” Despite this signal and pleasing color combination (and not the only case in the book where color is used to indicate a transition in direction), I must say that the red print on pink paper is extraordinarily difficult to read, even in the best of lighting situations.
Judith Clark chooses “28 Aspects” of the exhibition on which to focus her attention, whether it is the multiple meanings of a styling prop (#6, “Wigs”; #15, “The Mannequins–Gestures”; “Peach Mirror”), the employment of certain kinds of materials (#14, “Gauze–Blurring”; #10, “Perspex”), future exhibitions inspired by the methods or motivations of Beaton’s Anthology (#4, “Environments, 1996″; #24, “After Beaton, Jones”), a design or museological strategy (#13, “Rotations”; #1, “Finding Space”), or exhibition images that elucidate Anthology catalog entries (#7, “Painted Backdrops: Dali, Bosch and Lepape”), to name a few.
Clark weaves a web of connections between the exhibition and its designers, collaborators, and overall aims to other exhibitions, designers, imagery, museum practice and display approaches past and present. For example, she considers how contemporaries such as Anna Piaggi and vintage dealer Vern Lambert affected Anthology and Beaton’s vision (#23, “Italian Vogue”) and how future designers like Gianfranco Ferre followed threads considered by Anthology and engaged fashion past and present simultaneously (#4, “Environments, 1996″). In the majority cases the visual and textual evidence for her time and space traveling is intriguing and compelling. She uses Anthology to “talk about other things” (her quote referenced above) and raises some interesting questions, such as, “If the object (dress) is already defined by its commercial production and established means of dissemination, does it mean that the exhibition can only be an extension of this, or can it be a critique of it too?” (p. 151).
Some readers may find this open-ended, non-conclusiveness unsatisfying, but in many cases a definitive answer to many of these questions is not possible nor necessarily desired, and leaves the question open for the reader to consider. However the reader chooses to view 28 Aspects, I find that Clark takes an interesting approach to dissecting the meanings and significance of the various exhibition strategies and circumstances, and how they have been culled from both the past and contemporary practice and reverberate forward into the future. Clark’s meditations are about exploring possibilities and connections, anticipated and unexpected.
The final section, “An Incomplete Inventory of Fashion Exhibitions Since 1971″ by Jeffrey Horsley, is also illustrated and invites the reader to chart further the traces of or departures from Anthology throughout subsequent exhibitions, from 1971 to 2014. The image of a robe à la française at the Musée Galliera reflected in an infinity mirror (p. 199) recalls the optical illusion mirror in the Dior section of Anthology, or the concentric black and white squares behind Beaton’s costume for My Fair Lady that greeted visitors at the exhibition entrance.
Horsley culled exhibition dates and titles from colleagues, his own collection of exhibition brochures and ephemera, and from exhibition reviews in journals. Exhibition trends, though not conclusive, reveal that exhibits of wedding attire, 18th century dress, and accessories (hats, shoes, etc.) are perennially popular. The “thought show”, or exhibitions examining cultural and social issues surrounding fashion continue to grow since the 1990s; designer monograph exhibitions are also very popular but remain Eurocentric, with the exception of Japanese contemporary designers.
Beaton reflected on his regret that he could not include or acquire everything he wished for for the exhibition and the larger collection with the statement, “I comforted myself that an anthology, by its nature, is always incomplete” (p. 71). Those looking for a definitive, complete study of international fashion exhibition history in this publication will be disappointed. This publication offers instead a thought-provoking, creative–and incomplete–approach to looking at exhibiting fashion and a pivotal moment in fashion exhibition history. Overall, Clark, de la Haye, and Horsley’s study successfully demonstrates how Anthology was, especially for the V&A, a plunge into uncharted territory with new and exciting presentations of not just historical fashion, but clothing of the moment. It provides fascinating material to return to again and again, and leaves out a welcome mat for all who wish to venture further into the research of the fashion exhibition.
Clark, Judith and Phillips, Adam (2010). The Concise Dictionary of Dress. London: Violette Limited.
Haye, Amy de la (2006). Vogue and the V&A Vitrine: An Exploration of How British Vogue has responded to Fashion Exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 1971 to 2004, with specific reference to the exhibition, “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” and garments imprinted with wear. Fashion Theory (10): 127-151.
Taylor, Lou (2004). Establishing Dress History. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.
All photos provided by the reviewer.
If I didn’t know better, I would claim that someone at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco knows that March is my birthday month. Not only did Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland open at the deYoung at the beginning of the month — institutions I visited frequently while earning my master’s degree in Edinburgh — but High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection opened a week and a half ago at the Legion of Honor. I was lucky enough to visit on Saturday as part of a Costume Society of America, Western Region event.
I had been aware of the wealth that is the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, even while a graduate student new to the field. This speaks to the magnitude of the collection, that even in cold Edinburgh with the Victoria & Albert a four-hour train ride away, I was avidly following the Brooklyn Museum-Metropolitan Museum of Art costume collection merger. Not that I need tell anyone reading this blog that this is an incredible collection. That being said, I was extremely keen to see High Style, since as a California resident I had no idea when I would have such an opportunity again.
The exhibition was extremely popular, as fashion and costume exhibitions are wont to be, with a hugely diverse audience. The exhibition moves to a certain extent through decades which gives a sense of continuity and impressions of a general aesthetic for each era from 1900 to the 1980s. This was an intriguing background for the clothing of the visitors who might be “old” or “young” (both being relative terms), from hipsters to well, anyone and everyone else. To me, this diversity speaks to the universal appeal fashion exhibitions have to the public, especially when they are as well done as this one.
I went through the exhibition twice. Once with my ‘Worn Through Managing Editor’ cap on, the other as myself — because it was such an amazing exhibition. Having purchased and looked through the catalogue after these two walkthroughs, it became very apparent that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) selected only a small portion of the collection available to them. This was clearly both purposefully and masterfully done. While the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century historian in me is a bit sad that I did not get to drool to the side of the garments from those eras, I was extremely impressed by this exhibition, and surprised to be.
Considering the wealth of talent in the Bay Area, the FAMSF museums often fall short in the exhibition design department. There is a lot of stepping on toes, nearly colliding with other patrons, and looking lost as you look for the next audiotour track number — if you are using an audiotour — because where you are supposed to go next is anything but clear. This may be a personal quirk of mine, but the flow of an exhibition’s layout and design is something that I am always hypercritical of when I am visiting exhibitions. Even when I enjoy an exhibition, I can feel myself tut-tutting at the layout in the back of my mind if it is very noticeably vague. I don’t want to be distracted by the art because I’ve just nearly — or possibly not “just nearly” — collided with another visitor. This is possibly unfair — one of those “museum insiders make the worst museum visitors” instances – since I am fully aware that the museums are often left adapting spaces that are not ideal, but it is still something that needles me. That being said, High Style is beautifully laid out and uses the temporary exhibition space in the Legion of Honor’s basement to perfection.
The FAMSF selections as I said take full advantage of the catalogue offered them by the Brooklyn Museum, but to tell a story they wish to tell. The story they chose is the story of haute couture and high fashion from 1900 through 1980s. While the first arresting gowns are evening and presentation gowns of the 1920s — who can object to a little glitter to start off an excellent exhibition — the museum expertly uses its awkward exhibition space to give patrons a crash course in fashion history. We begin with the heyday of haute couture, with gowns by Doucet and Worth from 1900 to circa 1913. This careful, meticulous, visual lecture in both haute couture history and the history of 20th-century fashion was so well done that I was not limited to just my fellow Costume Society of America members for pleasant interchanges, instead I had the unusual experience of connecting with several other visitors — virtual strangers — but also the gallery attendants and other museum employees about the garments, their construction, and which were our favorites.
As you can see in my photo above, which shows the first group of gowns, the excellence of curation in these three gowns properly, and as completely as possible, shows the evolution in silhouettes from 1900 until the eve of the First World War. There is also the subtle detail, elegance, and exquisite workmanship that illustrates in a way no wall panel or catalogue could the expertise that goes into the creation of an haute couture garment.
From these three, the exhibition led visitors into what I have always thought of as an awkward, random room in the temporary exhibition space. You go into it, you can even exit from it, but it often disrupts the flow of the exhibition even when it’s not intended to. For High Style FAMSF made it what I think of as the “Accessories Room.” It was in this awkward space that the millinery and the glorious shoes and shoe prototypes were displayed. Again, this was brilliant exhibition planning because these objects were extremely interesting — you can see a fashion student in my photo below sketching one of them — but they didn’t quite fit anywhere else in the exhibition. And since so many of them were from the period between 1900 and 1930 that the entrance room focused on, the time frame fit: this is how (posh) people bought shoes before online shopping or chain and department stores. This is something that has long interested me: how fashion was disseminated and consumed in previous eras, so to have the design and marketing of shoes so prominently explored was absolutely wonderful.
As you exit the room the mastery of the topic becomes particularly clear to those of us “in the know.” Instead of leaping straight into the 1920s, which you couldn’t blame the museum for doing with the post-Gatsby/Downton Abbey Season 5 fever upon many visitors, you are instead treated to four mannequins in Liberty & Co. and Callot Souers garments, all dating from 1900 t0 circa 1913. This is pure brilliance on the part of the exhibition. Through seven mannequins the exhibition managed to show the breadth — including the socio-political issues — of the pre-WWI fashions without drawing so much attention to the topic that it became the only subject of the display. This may or may not have been the point at which my mother texted me to “STOP” sending her pictures because the 1910s are her favorite era and she hasn’t had a chance to visit the exhibition, yet. I neither confirm nor deny anything.
As you can guess, the exhibition followed a strict chronology from this point on. There were the gorgeous 1920s evening and presentation gowns from the beginning to peruse again — viewing the amazing detail at the backs — as well as other glamorous garments from the era and one day dress that was arresting in its exquisite, delicate, simplicity amidst the glitter and embroidery.
The next section was suitably “shocking.” I won’t apologise for the pun. The next five garments and three pieces of jewellery were all dedicated to the eclectic brilliance that was Elsa Schiaparelli. There isn’t much need to explain further, since I’m sure most if not all readers of this blog already know Schiap’s contributions to fashion history. What I will say is that seeing Schiaparelli pieces in person was a bit jaw-dropping as someone who had only ever seen them in photographs until Saturday.
I was most amazed, being able to see them in person, by the detail on Schiaparelli’s accessories. Only three necklaces were featured, but those that featured leaves were beautifully articulated to properly mimic the imperfections of color you often find in leaves. This again underlined what the true meaning of haute couture meant, even if it was executed with a sense of art and whimsy.
I was stopped dead in my tracks, however, by a Madame Grés and a Madeleine Vionnet gown in the same display. These two women have long been my favorite French designers. So, to see not one, but two gowns by each woman was nothing short of a dress historian’s dream come true.
The rest of the room rather naturally focused on post-World War II European fashion. Again, through excellent curation, FAMSF selected pieces from Dior, Givenchy, Balenciaga (swoon), Yves Saint Laurent (swoon again), and 1960s Chanel to show the breadth of silhouette, technique and elegance that Europe revitalized after the depravations of World War II.
It was from here that the exhibition diverged into American fashion design and couture. This was a brilliant contradiction — if you will — in style. As you enter (as you can see below), the main image is that of austere, classical elegance, a logical extenuation of the constraint seen in the post-WWII European fashions. But as you move about the room, first behind you and then in a counter-clockwise path you notice the differences: American freedom but innovation in shape, and overwhelmingly the sense of fun especially as concerns use of fabric and color. This is not discussed in the wall texts or tombstones at all, it is simply a visual impact that speaks for itself.
The exhibition ended as fabulously as it had begun, with Charles James. Again, this was not simply a catalogue of James’s accomplishments but a true exploration of his genius. It emphasized that while American fashion can be trendy, ridiculous, and fun, that does not preclude elegance. Featured was a wide array from James’s career, from muslins for his most famous dress silhouettes beside the actual finished garments, to trouser skirt-suits for women who married into the Hearst family and his famous clover-leaf ball gowns.
Even more spectacularly, the final “room,” if you will, was a “design studio” that featured some of James’s most complex designs below which were animated screens that dissected and demonstrated how the garments were constructed. I thought this was a phenomenal way to end the exhibition, which had emphasized the craftsmanship and couture, to show how much engineering and ability went into these incredible gowns which can only be described as works of art.
As you exit the exhibition to enter the gift shop (an evil place full of temptation), the walls are lined with original Charles James design sketches. Having done my master’s internship working with a collection of works on paper, this seemed the ideal way to end such a phenomenal exhibition.
The exhibition was unsurprising as a dress historian. It was “simple” in that it merely followed the trajectory of high fashion from 1900 through to the 1980s. However, the execution was absolutely marvellous, and I have to confess it was wonderful to simply go through an exhibition without having my “critic” hat on, or keen to learn anything earth-shatteringly new, but simply to admire the garments and the execution for what they were: the very reason I became a dress historian.
Have you seen High Style? What were your thoughts? Do you have any comments or critiques to offer? If so, please feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments below! And if you know of any upcoming exhibitions or events happening in your area, please feel free to mention them or to email me so that I can feature them in my next column!