It’s always intriguing to observe past scandals when our contemporary eyes have become accustomed to much more outrageous! The Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent has decided to look back into its archives to propose an exhibition dedicated to the French designer’s Spring/Summer 1971 “Libération” or “Forties” Haute Couture collection. At the time, the show had instantly caused much discussion and shock as the six models had nonchalantly and insolently presented the 84 outfits inspired by the war years and in particular, the style of women living in an occupied Paris. ‘It is with the arms of elegance and fashion, perfect manners, a cold kindness that the French woman has resisted’, had written Curzio Malaparte, in 1947, yet to 1970s commentators, the allusion was this time described under the terms ‘hideous’ or ‘tragic reference to the nazi years’.
Jacket and Trousers. Fondation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent
Thus short fluid dresses, Platform shoes, square shoulders, turbans, tight waists and exaggerated make-up were some of the explicit citations Yves Saint Laurent had decided to highlight, influenced by his muse, Paloma Picasso who had promptly adopted a retro look inspired by the glamorous film stars she admired in 1940s productions and that suited better her voluptuous figure rather than the pop androgynous fashions of her time. Indeed, Yves Saint Laurent had not really invented anything, he had simply observed the outfits of his entourage – many Parisian teenagers would then rummage thrift stores to mingle 1920s, 1930s and 1940s pieces of clothing as they tended to evoke the glories of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as they rediscovered classic films. The French designer had also met Andy Warhol and his Factory within which individuals like Candy Darling had also adopted a nostalgic allure without ever provoking any scandal.
View of the Exhibition
So why did Yves Saint Laurent’s provoke so much controversy? Let’s look back at the period. Cristobal Balenciaga had closed his house in 1968 at a time when France was facing drastic social changes and Gabrielle Chanel had died three weeks before Yves Saint Laurent’s show. The young designer’s presentation resonated with the end of a certain aristocracy of couture and it seemed as though, by creating that infamous collection, he was letting go of the heavy burden his mentors had left him and had refused to be considered haute couture’s prodigious child. Rejecting classicism and conventions, Yves Saint Laurent also refused the futuristic aesthetic proposed by such designers as Pierre Cardin or André Courrèges. To him, innovation laid in the past and the revival of a dramatic glamorous and sexualized allure. Thus, although the reference to World War II and occupied France was brutal and considered disrespectful to many clients and journalists that had experienced the moment, it appears that the scandal had more to do with Yves Saint Laurent’s new take on haute couture rather than the sole historical evocation. Actually, the inspirations for the show were much more diverse. One can only recognize a hint to Elsa Schiaparelli in the embroidered lips and cigarettes on a velvet coat while evening dresses ressemble Greek classic tunics. Of course, the narrative is more sensual thanks to the audacious transparency, the slits and the erotic prints.
Detain of an evening coat. Photography: Courtesy of Sophie Carré for the Fondation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent
Surely commentators focused on the 1940s references to emphasize their scorn but didn’t the scandal have more to do with his aim to consider a younger generation – a project initiated with the opening of the ready-to-wear Saint Laurent Rive Gauche shop, in 1966 – the mocking of the bourgeoisie and the introduction of an overtly sexy and eccentric silhouette? And most of all, how Yves Saint Laurent audaciously invited, in a highly provocative way for the time, street fashion on couture catwalks? He had declared to the French Elle: ‘What I want? Shock people, force them to think. Haute couture is now only about nostalgia and taboos. Like an old lady. What counts is that young girls that have never known this style, would want to wear it. The others, will obviously want to imitate them afterwards.’ With the help of the (only) 28 models exposed and wall blow ups of all the show’s drawn silhouettes, we can observe how boldly, Yves Saint Laurent had indeed completely repudiated the boundaries that had until then been clearly established between ready-to-wear and haute couture. We read the condemning articles and observe the cutting-edge films proposed by a younger generation that had understood and accepted the designer’s aesthetic. We also identify Francine Crescent’s radical judgement and how as the editor of Vogue Paris, she was a rare journalist to admire the new style and feature it in the pages of the magazine, through the lens of a certain Helmut Newton: who better would have captured the sulfurous silhouettes and their sensual wearers? 1971 became a shifting year: the collection, a manifesto and the designer, the mediator of a new liberated generation – the same year, Yves Saint Laurent posed nude for Jeanloup Sieff to promote his new perfume. He introduced an aesthetic that now dominates the industry, that of the retro, but also established fashion into the world of marketing and spectacle. And thus contributed to the creation of the sophisticated scandal, the one feared and desired at once, the one that brings the attention on the brand…
Here Hedi Slimane clearly evokes the archives (a 1971 dress) of the house he now designs for. Remember how scandalous his first collections for Yves Saint Laurent were considered? Nothing new!
How ironic to see Yves Saint Laurent become a public enemy just as his mentor, Christian Dior had with his New Look when that now classic style is exactly what the young designer rejected. What are Yves Saint Laurent’s sensual evening dresses compared to Alexander McQueen’s bumsters, Hussein Chalayan provocative burqas or Vivienne Westwood’s revival of the oppressive corset? The French couturier simply initiated what would now become classic: the spectacular show: from Thierry Mugler’s blockbusters to John Galliano’s dramatic yet provocative narratives. How poorly scandalous may Yves Saint Laurent’s arrogant models appear compared to Rick Owens’ naked masculine models or Jean-Paul Gaultier’s antipodean mannequins.
With a very small display, much is said although I must admit I would have loved to be given a greater angle with a better comprehension of the context: a comparison of Yves Saint Laurent’s collection to that of fellow designers of 1971 and also, why not an opening on the greater theme that is the fashion scandal. Nonetheless a bright and pedagogic exhibition worth seeing!
The display is on until 19th July at the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent
After my last column rather exhausted the fashion exhibitions up this summer (though if I missed anything, don’t hesitate to tell me what I missed by emailing me or leaving a comment!!), this week I am visiting the Met’s China: Through the Looking Glassfrom my own home. Like many of you I cannot possible visit all of the exhibitions I would like to, and being in California it is unlikely I will get to see this year’s Costume Institute exhibition.
Thankfully, we live in the digital age and the Met has provided the video below through which people like me can still experience the exhibition!
What do you think of the video? For those of you who have been, how does it compare to actually being in the exhibition? What other exhibitions are you visiting vicariously through interactive, online, or other resources? What do you think of technology and exhibitions? Great? Need improvement? Please share your thoughts!
Pyjama suits popular in the 1930s, part of the Cling, Bag, Stretch 1920 – 1939 section
Billed as a celebration of clothing worn in and by the sea, the exhibition displays a huge range of garments lent by Leicestershire County Council, which is also the county where many of the swimwear manufacturers were based. As a result, most of the items on display reflect UK and USA manufacturers and tastes. The guest curator is Dr Christine Boydell, a design historian from Leicester’s De Montfort University, who has an interest in twentieth century fashion and was previously involved in the FTM’s 2010 exhibition on Horrockses Fashions as well as the author of Horrockses Fashions'; Off-the-Peg style in the ‘40s and ‘50.
The exhibition is an effort to tell several stories and I think some are told more successfully than others. The first charts the role of design and production in the developing styles of swimwear during the last century. The second is the relationship between shifting notions of the fashionable human form and design, while the third is the increasing emphasis on holiday locations, whether they be at home or abroad, for the display of swimwear styles. While the first and second story are more obvious throughout the exhibition, the third story is less consistently told, and the visitor has to work harder to find the narrative amongst the displays.
Early twentieth century swimwear, 1895 – 1919, opening the exhibition
The exhibition is arranged by the way in which swimwear has attempted to address the human form with the application of textile design and technology during the twentieth century. This is reflected in a chronological order of display, organised by five sections: Bathing Beauties 1895-1919, Cling, Bag, Stretch 1920 – 1939, Mould and Control 1940 – 1959, Body Beautiful 1960 – 1989 and Second Skin 1990 onwards. In case you are not familiar with the layout of the FTM, it is essentially one large ground level room that can be divided up into smaller sections, overlooked by a horseshoe shaped mezzanine that provides relatively narrow corridors of exhibition space. For this exhibition, the first two sections occupy the ground level, where the designers have recreated a fictional lido setting, literally placing the early twentieth century swimwear into a recreational context. The last three sections are to be found upstairs, with increasingly less emphasis on a literal context and more emphasis on the quantity of items on display.
Lido recreated on ground floor for the first two sections of the exhibition
The initial impact of the exhibition is strong as the visitor finds themselves walking past bathers and swimmers enjoying the benefits of a fictional lido. Here, the visitor learns about early twentieth century swimwear, with its shifting emphasis on modesty against the backdrop of increasing demand for seaside holidays. The visitor sees garments in-situ, whether they are swimsuits for swimming or pyjama suits for lounging by the pool, sipping on an apres-swim cocktail. The entire lido scene is supported by some beautiful blown up promotional images from the 1930s of resorts in the UK, as well as a range of fantastic prints from British Vogue showing models wearing swimwear in a range of holiday locations. Literal recreations of places where swimwear might be worn and seen continue upstairs with the third section, which focuses on the relationship between underwear and swimwear. Here, the curators have displayed the mannequins as if they were taking part in a beauty contest held in a seaside town, each one sporting a rosette with their respective number and placed upon prize giving blocks.
The immersive approach to the exhibition’s theme is followed through with associated summer songs played through speakers and heard across the entire space, as well as plenty of smaller displays focusing on accessories and some specific events related to the display of swimwear, in particular the Bathing Beauty Queen context held in Morecambe, Lancashire between 1945 – 1989.
Body Beautiful 1960 – 1989 section; note popularity of the two piece suit
What I find the FTM does well when it comes to their exhibitions is the sheer number of garments on display, often reflecting a diversity that is just not possible to see in more permanent displays of dress favoured by bigger museums like the V&A. Walking through an FTM exhibition reminds me just how important it is to see real examples of clothing, and not to just rely on two dimensional representation for further understanding. This is perhaps even more critical when it comes to swimwear, where the form can often be misunderstood until it is seen on an actual body. This exhibition does not disappoint the visitor who wants to see a hundred years of swimwear design with real examples. It is also fantastic to see so many examples of clothing worn by, and not just in, the water, ranging from day dresses to sarongs, playsuits to burkinis.
Pyjama suit, 1920s, rayon, designer/maker unknown
I thought the recreated lido and beauty contest displays worked very well because they best represented the development of resort life, which is really only dealt with in the written summaries for each section. I think having most of the explanation presented in this way meant there was sometimes a tendency to display objects without any labels. Corresponding images could either be too small or in awkward places, making them difficult to read for further historical context. Also, upstairs, there are almost too many examples shown and the displays teeter on the brink of becoming glorified shop windows.
Examples of swimwear from 1990 onwards
I particularly enjoyed the British Vogue prints because it is here in fashion magazines that we often imagine ourselves into clothes and situations. They give us opportunities to fantasise about what a particular swimsuit might look like in our imagined holiday or for us to pragmatically assess whether it will suit our particular body shape. Although swimwear is clearly a staple of designer collections, is associated with specific manufacturers and, arguably, integral to the planning of our holidays, for many of us, it is something we spend very little time actually wearing. However, we do seem to spend a lot of time imagining ourselves in swimwear and possibly buying it, often with little success (well, in my experience, this is certainly the case!) It would have been nice to have seen the exhibition embrace this more, perhaps with the addition of soundbites from people talking about their own experience of swimwear, whether it be buying or wearing it. I was curious to know whether people would try to make their own ‘telescopic’ swimwear in the 1940s, given that they were expensive to buy at the time.
1920s swimming cap made from rubber and reminded me of The Philadelphia Story
I also think more representation of swimwear in popular visual culture might have been included, beyond magazines and postcards. In particular I was thinking about the brilliant scene from The Philidelphia Story (1940) where Katherine Hepburn’s character gets changed into her swimming outfit or the scene from Shag (1989), where Bridget Fonda’s character takes part in a seaside beauty contest.
Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story
I think the choice to present the exhibition chronologically, which the FTM tends to do, is problematic because it fails to make thematic connections that might otherwise engage a wider audience with their displays. I rarely see diversity amongst the visitors at the FTM, which is a shame, given that the garments on display are often of fantastic quality and make critical contributions to our understanding of the past and present.
Fashionable wear by the water 1920 – 1939; note the outfit in the foreground very similiar to Chanel’s designs which can just be seen in the book in the bottom left hand corner
To conclude, this is an enjoyable exhibition in parts but you do need to read the written summaries while looking at the objects in order to see the various stories being told, particularly the social historical narrative of holidays and resorts. Perhaps go with friends so you can contribute your own social history to this exhibition – send FTM a postcard of your swimwear in situ!
All images are authors own except for opening image.
I remember reading an article recently about the increase in popularity of fashion and textile exhibitions. Considering I did an entire column on upcoming Summer exhibitions a month ago, and still didn’t cover everything, I would definitely say that’s true!
In Los Angeles, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), African Textiles and Adornment: Selections from the Marcel and Zaira Mis Collectionhas been open since April 5, and will be on view until October 12. Featuring 35 textiles and headdresses, this exhibition explores the concept in many African cultures of the body as the “seat of intelligence, spirit, and identity.” I very much hope to get down to LA to see and review this exhibition before it closes.
Another exhibition I hope to see is opening this week at the FIDM Museum.Inspired Eye: The Donald and Joan Damask Design Collection at the FIDM Museumwill be on display from June 12 until December 19 at the downtown Los Angeles campus. This exhibition is a showcase of a new donation to the museum by Donald and Joan Damask of historic avant-garde fashion and world dress, limited edition art books, and several historic fashion photographs by photographers such as Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Erté and Willy Maywald.
Also on display at the downtown FIDM campus is Opulent Art: 18th-Century Dress from the Helen Larsen Historic Collectionwhich I reviewed here a few months ago. This latter exhibition is particularly important because the FIDM Museum is on a deadline to raise the funds to acquire the entire Helen Larsen Collection in an attempt to keep this stunning collection together. Since the FIDM Museum is open free to the public, it is difficult to overstate how important it is that they acquire it. For more information you can visit their blog and read their “Fundraising Friday” posts. On display at the FIDM Orange County campus, by appointment, is an entire exhibition on millinery! A Century of Millinery Style: Hats from the Helen Larsen Historic Collectionhas been up since March 9 and will be on display until August 14. The exhibition features hats, bonnets, toques, and a general overview of millinery fashions during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In Texas, at the Dallas Museum of Art, Inca: Conquests of the Andeshas 120 objects, including several Incan textiles, exploring the effect of imperial expansion on the arts of the Andes before the Spanish conquests. The exhibition opened May 15 and will be up until November 15.
At the Phoenix Art Museum, in Phoenix, AZ, Pattern Play: The Contemporary Designs of Jacqueline Groaghas been open since April 4 and will be on display all Summer until August 9. The exhibition explores the desire for color and playfulness in fashion in Britain in the years following World War II through the work of the Czech-born designer, Jacqueline Groag. Featuring works on paper alongside the actual garments depicted, this looks like a wonderful exploration of fashion design immediately post-war but just before the launch of the New Look.
Also in the Southwest, at the Albuquerque Museum, Killer Heels: The Art of the High Heeled Shoe is entering its last months on display. Closing August 9, the exhibition features loans from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto among others, the exhibition was organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Costume and explores the history of elevated shoes from the 16th-century chopines worn by Venetian courtesans to the modern stilettos or even heel-less shoes favored by Victoria Beckham and Daphne Guinness. The exhibition even explores the pointy boot craze sweeping Mexico and the Southwest, and features several Southwestern designers!
On the topic of shoes, at the Bata Shoe Museum, they have just opened Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels. The stated purpose of this exhibition is to “challenge preconceived notions about who wears heels and why.” Probably of no surprise to Worn Through readers, this exhibition explores the development of high heels as a shoe for elite men and heeled footwear for men through the history of fashion and will be on display until June 2016. Also on display at Bata, Beauty, Identity & Pride: Native North American Footwearis on display until January 2016. Drawing on the Bata Museum’s extensive collection — one of the largest in the world — this exhibition explores the regional designs and craftsmanship found in footwear produced by multiple Native American peoples of North America from several different regions of the continent. It features designs from the 18th century through to the 20th century.
At the Hillwood Estate Museumin Washington, DC, their exhibition, Ingenue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion from the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Postopened this past weekend and will be on display until December 31st. Billed as the “first exhibition at Hillwood to present Marjorie Post’s full range of style,” the exhibition charts Marjorie Post’s style evolution and is a wonderful catalogue of her lifelong dedication to fashion. This is one of those exhibitions where I wish the Star Trek teleporter was a real thing so I could go without the jet lag.
Last but not least, in New York, there are a couple exhibitions outside of the Met‘s China: Through the Looking Glass on display. At the Museum at FIT, Global Fashion Capitals just opened and is already receiving extensive praise from places like New York Magazine. The exhibition features pieces from the “emerging” fashion capitals of the world such as Tokyo, Stockholm, Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Mumbai and Istanbul, and through these pieces explores how globalization has given rise to these new fashion cities.
Also in New York at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Yinka Shonibare MBE: Colonial Arrangementsis on display until August 31. Shonibare is a textile-based artist and this exhibition was designed exclusively for the mansion and to fit with its 18th- and 19th-century interiors.
Are there any exhibitions or events happening in your area that you feel Worn Through readers should know about? Have you been to any of the exhibitions mentioned here? What did you think? Please feel free to share your thoughts and impressions, or any information about other exhibitions in the comments below. Or feel free to email me the details and I will be sure to feature the event in my next column!
Hello! It’s nice to be back, and be able to bring you a summery round up of fashion related events and exhibitions in the UK over the next few months. My last Worn Through contribution was in early spring and I must say a massive thank you to our Managing Editor Brenna Barks for covering in my absence with some great videos; that last one certainly sets the seasonal tone!
The third event I want to mention is actually two, insomuch they are both shows based in universities. At Goldsmiths University, the BA Fine Art/History of Art students have drawn upon the Goldsmiths Textiles Collection to create Reconstructing Textiles. This exhibition, only open until 23 June, is an attempt to draw connections between contemporary practices and archival material. For me, any opportunity to see the Goldsmiths Textiles Collection is a golden one and it is great to see students engaging with previous students work in the archive.
Image taken from Fabric of the City website. Unknown source.
At The Cass, part of London Metropolitan University, staff and students have invited textile and fashion designers to celebrate the local history of Spitalfield’s 17th century silk weavers for an exhibition entitled Fabric of the City. This is part of The Cass’ contribution to the festival ‘Huguenot Summer 2015’, organised by the Huguenots of Spitalfields in partnership with the City of London. The Cass is where I teach so it is great to share what they are up to, especially as, due to health reasons, I have not been there these last couple of months. The exhibition runs 10-25 July.
Morecambe and Wise presenting Miss Great Britain 1965. Photograph: Fashion and Textile Museum
Moving on, summer is that time when we panic about swimwear in the UK, especially because the opportunity to wear it, given our climate, is so very small. However, this does not stop us fantasising about the ideal bikini or one-piece nor us purchasing something new each year in the hope that this time, it really will be perfect! Seeking some kind of perspective then, it may be helpful to catch RIVIERA STYLE Resort & Swimwear since 1900at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London this summer.On until 30 August, this exhibition, in association with Leicestershire County Council Museums, focuses not just on swimwear style but also technological developments in fabric and the role of retailing in making those design innovations popular. I hope to review this later on in the month but be great to hear from anyone who has already visited in the comments below.
Camper advertising, SS 1977 and SS 1992 Source: Design Museum
While on the topic of summer sartorial concerns, shoes are also perhaps a major obsession as we dare to bare our pale pieds. Last year, I was obsessed with clogs. I thought they were the perfect summer shoe because, unlike most sandals, they kept my toes out of sight. However, after realising I cannot walk in clogs – too many years wearing flats – I am now still on the lookout for my ideal summer shoe. Along with my ideal swimming garment, come to think of it. Perhaps then it comes as no surprise to see two major London design museums dedicating their summer exhibition space to what we put on our feet. In east London, the Design Museum focuses on the Spanish footwear brand Camper inLife on Foot while in west London, the V&A Museum looks at the extremities footwear has gone to in Shoes: Pleasure and Painife on Foot, open now until 1 November, is the use of archival material from Camper to tell the design story of their products from the drawing board to the concept store. Meanwhile, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, open 13 June until 31 January 2016, draws upon the V&A’s historic collection to present over 200 pairs of shoes in considering how technology often provides opportunities for extreme wearability.
Detail from United States market advertisement, 1947. Courtesy of Jamie Mulherron.
Lastly, I noticed an exhibition about Pringle of Scotland knitwear at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh entitled Fully Fashioned and open until 16 August. Marking the company’s 200th anniversary, the exhibition charts the history of what is now an international fashion brand with the use of archival material and knitwear garments. I would love to hear from anyone who has visited it or whether it might be travelling to other museums later in the year.
120 years ago, cinema was invented and 120 years ago, the Gaumont company was created. With the help of a free exhibition, at the contemporary art space, le 104, Gaumont not only celebrates its birthday but also cinema. I must say I am a huge fan of cinema and belong to this category of people that are highly emotionally involved when they watch a film. From the actors to the music as well as the décors and costumes, everything fascinates me. Pedagogic and playful, the exhibition 120 ans de cinéma highly fulfilled my taste for film with numerous artefacts belonging to the company’s archives or the Musée des Arts Forains alongside the obvious film abstracts and, finally, interesting evocations of contemporary art.
When Léon Gaumont discovered the Lumière brothers’ revolutionary invention in 1864, he decided to design his very own film objects such as cameras and spotlights. Under the pressure of his customers, he promptly understood he needed to imagine films and thus launched his production activity. At that moment, the story of the French company coincided with that of an avant-garde woman, Alice Guy who became the world’s first film director and a specialist of comic fictions and imagined the first ‘peplum’ when she directed a ‘blockbuster’ dedicated to the Bible. In the meantime, Léon Gaumont pursued his inventions and proposed the first example of image and sound synchronization while he invented the Thrichromie – Technicolor’s ancestor. From the 1930s, the firm focused on production and thus established its global success.
The Fifth Element by Luc Besson – Costume by Jean Paul Gaultier – Musée Gaumont
Built around a tent – cinema, in its early days, did not belong to dark rooms but to fairgrounds – that shows numerous early films, various spaces invite visitors to comprehend but also interact with film. The main space, entitled the Trésor, indeed delivers the precious and rarely seen treasures of the company, from posters designed by Andy Warhol to Luc Besson’s Fifth Element special effects moldings as well as intriguing instruments and marketing objects. It also presents stunning costumes and drawings.
Costume-wise, the room that completely caught my breath was the Gaumontrama space in which dozens of suspended screens feature films abstracts along arrays of costumes installed on Stockman mannequins. Interestingly I didn’t find any labels for the costumes: I don’t know whether there were any and if I had simply missed them or if it was a voluntary choice. Although, it did upset me at first, I soon appreciated the challenge, realizing how many of these costumes were imprinted in my mind and needn’t any description. It is very difficult to express here the overwhelming feeling I had within this room. Imagine the various screens with their films, each attracting the eye alongside the tumultuous noise – each abstract delivering its own speech – and the fantastic costumes…It was all like a magical spiral, the head turning from so much to observe and hear…An incredible sensation leaving all reality aside and convincingly inviting you in the chimerical world of cinema. A spectacular way of recreating all the emotions one can experience when watching a film.
I was enthralled by another space called Les Etoiles and imagined by the artist Alain Fleischer who invited visitors to create their very own glamorous casting. With a mirror and playing with spotlights, spectators could make the photographs of legendary actors and actresses appear on the space’s black walls, in a playful and collective manner that clearly mentioned the composite identity of film that mingles the makers and the spectators. Finally, I appreciated the confrontation of Annette Messager’s art works with the Gaumont’s primitive films. Her Histoire de Robes, created in 1990, to express the different events of a woman’s life – a feminist memorabilia – is used here to echo film costumes and their impact on the imagination and how, once taken off from the bodies of the actors or actresses that have worn them, they nonetheless continue to bear the full identity of the character and film they were linked to. They reflect on presence but also absence while they stand as interpretations of memory and personality.
Annette Messager – La Robe Blanche
120 ans de cinéma is not solely an exhibition about film costumes and, thus it does lack in educating visitors on the making of these costumes and their place within a broader fashion context, it does deliver a dynamic and interactive concept. By juxtaposing film abstracts and still mannequins, the display does invite us to analyse the difference between the costume when it becomes ‘flesh’ thanks to the actor that gives it movement and humanity and the costume as a relic.
Finally, preparing this post, I had a look at Jill Morena’s post from February 2014, in which she questioned our perception of ready-to-wear like costumes. Well I was glad to discover that the Gaumont exhibition did combine dramatic costumes and ordinary outfits that, obviously, nonetheless carry a character’s identity.
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 fabricswith 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.
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 Styleat 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 Beautyexhibition 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.