Reproductions in museum collections are gaining more attention these days. This is one of my research interests, so I was excited to hear last fall that an exhibition devoted to copies and counterfeits, Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits, would be organized by The Museum at FIT. I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel to see this exhibition, but I was able to have a telephone conversation with curator Ariele Elia, who generously shared her time to answer some of my questions about the exhibition’s preparation and execution.
This post will not cover every fascinating facet of this exhibition, so I would encourage readers to visit the exhibition website for a fuller picture of the overall themes and specific objects of study.
Jill M: The exhibition description states that the organization and research for the show was motivated by current discussions surrounding fashion counterfeiting and copying. How do you view the existence of these items within a museum collection, or what do you feel is the importance of collecting copies or “knockoffs”? How many copies, authorized and unauthorized, does FIT have in its collection, and will it continue to collect reproductions, copies, and counterfeits, both historical and current?
Ariele Elia: Copies and counterfeits are very important in telling the story of the fashion industry and how it functions. Most of the fashion-interested public cannot afford couture or designer garments, and with copies one can still be in the latest fashion for a fraction of the cost. While the existence of copies and counterfeits has gained major media attention since the “logo mania” of the 1980s and the subsequent rise of fast fashion, copying has been a primary concern for designers since the 19th century–most notably Paquin, Poiret, and Vionnet in the early 20th century–and the establishment of the system of couture.
If a garment is an important piece–something that is pushing fashion forward or capturing a moment in fashion history, such as parodies of designer or corporate logos by Brian Lichtenberg or Jeremy Scott, or a Zara knockoff of a Celine coat–then FIT will collect that knockoff, copy, or parody. These “captured moments” can then have a long life in the museum.
Licensed or unlicensed copies are not actively collected at FIT, and in the past the museum did get rid of counterfeits, as they were considered “inauthentic” and did not fit with the institutional mission of collecting garments of the highest quality. I became interested in licensed copies still present in the collection and wondered how extensive are the holdings. I began to observe that there are many different levels of authenticity present in these garments. Sometimes the word “copy” was embroidered into the label, as part of its manufacture, and other times it would be written on the label, likely by past FIT staff. When a label says “copy”, what exactly does that mean? This question led to the genesis of the exhibition.
JM: Once these garments are removed from the marketplace and are collected and on display in a museum, unable to be purchased and taken home, does this lessen their allure? Or does it heighten their appeal?
AE: The inclusion of copies in a museum collection elevates the counterfeit—they are handled with gloves and treated in the same manner as the original. But the real benefit lies in creating an interesting conversation with the display of copies and counterfeits. The exhibition isolates the object, and people can discuss and consider copies within an environment that is entirely different from experiencing them in the marketplace or on the street.
JM: I am very interested in what you have noted as “the gray areas in authenticity.” Pinning down what makes a garment authentic is sometimes elusive, and is often attributed to ultimate authorship, superior materials and craftsmanship, or corporate authority, for example–especially when the copy is duplicitous in nature. What is your favorite example of a “gray area” garment in the exhibition?
AE: “Gray area” garments confuse authenticity. The”diffusion” line, or the less expensive designer line, provides an interesting example. They can take the place of the counterfeiter and reach a new demographic. Some may believe that, for example, a Calvin Klein Jeans shirt is not a “real” Calvin Klein shirt. The exhibition examines three pairings of diffusion lines: Moschino and Cheap and Chic; Donna Karan and DKNY; and Missoni and Missoni for Target. We looked at material and construction and how closely they follow the original. With some of these diffusion pieces, one could assume without looking at the label that the garment is a direct knockoff of the higher-line designer piece.
JM: Being able to view originals and reproductions side-by-side is a unique and exciting opportunity, and encourages close, careful scrutiny of clothing–something that visitors may or may not do on a daily basis. Were there any particular challenges in presenting close-up and interior details to the audience that translate the differences or similarities from one garment to another in the exhibition space? How were up-close views and comparisons prepared and achieved for the visitor?
AE: Capturing details in a way that would be engaging, intuitive, and visual without being overwhelming was a huge, huge challenge.I wanted to show all the different levels of a counterfeit, but didn’t want to install a long, continuous row of cases in the galleries. Working with a team of conservators, exhibit preparators, photographers, and technology development staff, we decided on a “cabinet of curiosities”-type of display for accessories that would include both still and interactive photos of the original and counterfeit side-by-side,with my notes on similarities and differences digitally transcribed onto the images. A secured iPad on a stand in front of the cases contains very high-resolution photos on which the visitor can zoom in and explore. A video showing multiple interior details was created for the “poster ladies”–the original and copy Chanel suits–that completely explains the exhibition. There were so many interior details of other garments and accessories that I wanted to capture and show, but there was not enough time and resources. Images of all labels are displayed, and are important visuals for reminding the general public and students alike not to take a label at face value, and to encourage good research skills.
JM: Reproductions or reinterpretations are a familiar component of the process of costume design for film, theater, or dance–and fashion design as well–where designers can revisit and reinterpret earlier work, both their own and the work of others. For example, at the Harry Ransom Center where I work, we have a reproduction costume that was transferred from the FIT collection: a recreation of a film costume by Barbara Matera, originally designed by Gordon Conway for the 1929 British science fiction film, High Treason. Is there anything that the copies in the exhibition can tell us about particularly creative perspectives or solutions to recreating a garment, or are the differences mainly practical, cost-saving measures or reflective of a marked difference in construction skill or materials?
AE: Copies can be made for a variety of reasons and can have different benefits. There is the Claire McCardell “monastic dress”–a very popular simple shift that was replicated through licensed copies–which was also reproduced for a McCardell exhibition at FIT in the 1990s, and is the example in the FIT collection. Copies of Charles James’s garments can also be good for study, when the originals are too fragile or complex to handle.
A good example of the quality of couture copies can be found in the work of Stella Haninia. Haninia worked in the custom couture salon at I. Magnin department store, and had come there from Bergdorf Goodman. The few sources I was able to locate on Haninia noted that she was known for great copies and loved to sew everything by hand. I was a bit skeptical about the extensive hand-sewing–could this be true? Examination of a copy of a Dior gray bodice and skirt with belt revealed that the pieces contained only a few machine stitches and had incredible layers of pleating in the skirt. I was amazed and shocked–the copy completely defied and exceeded my expectations.
Another favorite piece is a jacket by Dapper Dan. His reinterpretations of luxury logos just keep telling me things–there are so many levels of authenticity to a Dapper Dan garment. His insistence on and pursuance of high-quality materials led him to work with a Japanese textile company to make sure the colors on the leather wouldn’t bleed. The jacket in the exhibition demonstrates what Dapper Dan described as taking “street looks and bring[ing] them up to the highest level of luxury.” The shawl-collared double-breasted jacket, fashioned from leather printed with the MCM logo, creates a completely new product. Very few of Dapper Dan’s early pieces are still in existence, and FIT is the only known museum to have one in its collection.
Many thanks to Ariele Elia for her time and insights. Faking It: Originals, Copies, and Counterfeits is showing at The Museum at FIT through April 25.
Top image credit: (left) Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, day suit, wool bouclé, 1966, France, gift of Eleanor K. Graham, 73.82.1; (right): Licensed copy of a Chanel, day suit, wool bouclé, c. 1967, USA, Gift of Ruth L. Peskin, 78.179.4, The Museum at FIT.
Second image credit: Unlicensed copy of Madeleine Vionnet’s “Little Horses” dress, rayon crepe, black and gold seed beads, c. 1925, USA, gift of Mrs. J. Mirsky, 76.125.1, The Museum at FIT.
It’s exciting to finally see the dark evenings receding, spot little floral bursts of white, purple and yellow amongst the grassy urban verges and feel like my winter coat’s days are swiftly numbered! To celebrate this arrival of spring, here are some interesting events related to fashion taking place in the capital this month.
Jacket, Alexander McQueen, It’s a Jungle out there, Autumn/Winter 1997-8. Image: firstVIEW
On Saturday 14 March, the V&A Museum will welcome visitors to the eagerly awaited exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which runs until 4 August. I can still remember booking my ticket this time last year for what will definitely be one of the most talked about fashion related events this year. It will be interesting to see what the V&A’s fashion curator Claire Wilcox has done with the exhibition given its new European location.
Fashioning Professionals Symposium, 27th March Gaby Schreiber Industrial/Interior Designer (1916-1991). Photographer: Bee & Watson, 1948. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.
Finally, Friday 27th March is a popular day for fashion symposia here in the city! Competing for our attention is Fashioning Professionals at the Research Department in the V&A Museum and Fashion and the Senses at London College of Fashion. As it was impossible for me to be at both, I decided to attend Fashioning Professionals as this is more closely related to my research interests. I will report back in April, hopefully along with a review of McQueen.
I think I may have already said this here, but what first brought me to fashion was art and more precisely decorative arts and architecture. I was indeed specialized in History of Architecture and Decoratives Arts while I was studying at l’Ecole du Louvre and it is total art movements such as the Bauhaus, Art Nouveau, Wiener Werkstatte…that led me to fashion. Since, I have always tended to consider the relationships art and fashion have developed, should it be through inspiration, commercial and economic links, sponsorship…So when I read about the Villa Noailles’ exhibition, Archimode, I truly wanted to write about it here although I did not (and won’t) get the chance to visit it as the Villa Noailles is situated in the south of France, at Hyères, where unfortunately, I haven’t planned any future trip. Many of you may know the Villa Noailles as a major actor of Hyères Fashion and Photography Festival that attracts a trendy and influential crowd every year.
Chanel Mobile Art, Zaha Hadid
Archimode tends to explore the analogies between architecture and fashion by concentrating on six essential examples such as Chanel’s Mobile Art conceived by Zaha Hadid, the Prada Transformer concept imagined by Rem Koolhaas, the LVMH New York tower built by Christian de Portzamparc, the Isabel Marant and Kris Van Assche shops designed by Cigue and finally, the installations by les Diplomates for Damir Doma’s.With the help of numerous photographies, videos, drawings, material…the display provides many tools that enable visitors to comprehend how architects and interior designers build the identity and “soul” of a brand while they highlight strong conceptual elements that install those architectural projects not only as commercial venues but also as creative approaches, just as reflective as the garments sold and presented within. Interactions between architecture and fashion go way beyond the sole building, it is the design and scenography that help complete the fashion designer’s inventive process. Some architectural projects are more minimalistic than others and tend to help bring the attention on the fashion pieces only while others bring a whole new highlight, launching brands within a new dimension just as Chanel that from traditional and historical fashion house has become a futuristic concept with the help of Zaha Hadid’s UFO-like itinerant exhibition space. And yet, Karl Lagerfeld simply maintained the house’s relationship with avant-garde when Gabrielle Chanel herself had collaborated with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso.
Prada Transformer, OMA-Rem Koolhaas
Prada’s Transformer, installed in Seoul and dismantled in 2009, featured four different sides that could be positioned in various ways depending on the use of the space: an exhibition, a film festival, a fashion show…: one unique building for different purposes and thus different identities. Muccia Prada is renowned for her interest in contemporary art, in all kind of visual and artistic disciplines and she has collaborated many times with the architect Rem Koolhaas. With Transfomer, she wished to unite and yet distinctly separate arts – proving once again that Prada’s intention is not to be considered as a fashion brand only but also as a veritable actor of the contemporary artistic world, a partner that organizes cross-disciplinary shows and calls upon architecture to enhance its conceptual identity.
Isabel Marant Store. Cigue Design
Cigue is an interesting architectural agency that privileges minimalist and sculptural interiors that always respond to the aesthetic of the fashion designers it works with. While Kris Van Assche’s Parisian boutique privileges geometric and sharp contrasts, Isabel Marant’s stores feature warm woods and sleek crafted-like shapes that evoke Asian characters and French designers such as Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand. Finally the French collective, Les Diplomates, has engaged a fruitful association with the fashion designer Damir Doma – imagining dark and mysterious installations for his fashion shows or installations within concept stores such as London’s Dover Street Market. In this case, more than an architectural encounter, comes alive a common and hybrid reflection on creation, an ideal chaotic setting that closely discusses with the occult garments of the designer.
Les Diplomates. Stair Installation for Damir Doma, Dover Street Market
Thus fashion designers, architects and also artists in general walk hand in hand in their creative processes. When they collaborate it is to better fuel their imagination, stimulate their inspiration…Architects and fashion designers find similarities in their discipline: they all build and have to think of the place of the human body and its environment within their designs- Hussein Chalayan likes to repeat how much ‘fashion is the architecture of the body’. And of course, when fashion designers collaborate with architects, they also find a way of being considered for something else than just ‘frivolous’ things such as fashion. With architecture, fashion enters the secluded world of art.
I would be incapable of telling you if the Villa Noailles that is itself such a brilliant example of an ‘archimode’ concept – that avant garde design of Mallet-Stevens that now houses fashion events – exhibition is successful in its discourse but I can tell you how much I appreciate its theme.
Castets, Simon. Louis Vuitton: Art, Mode et Architecture. Paris: Editions de la Marinière, 2009.
Hodge, Brooke. Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Quinn, Bradley. The Fashion of Architecture. New York: Berg, 2003.
There are certain exhibitions that you simply have to resign yourself to never seeing, whether because of time, travel, or other constraints. When the American leg of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hollywood Costume was announced, I had resigned myself to not seeing it since there were no venues on the list in California. And then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced they would be inaugurating the opening of their own museum — in collaboration with LACMA — with a Los Angeles showing of the exhibition. I knew I would be going, and I was excited to see such a well-reviewed international exhibition. I had no expectations other than that I would be seeing amazing film costumes on display, and I suppose I thought this would be simply a more grandiose version of FIDM’s annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. What I didn’t expect to see was possibly the best dress exhibition I’d attended since Fashioning Fashion.
The exhibition is up in nearly pitch blackness, so it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. This is as much to protect some of the older garments — pieces worn by Charlie Chaplin and Carole Lombard — as it is to set the tone for the entire exhibition and make the costumes stand out. The displays are small at first: the initial platform had perhaps five different films featured, clearly separated from each other not only by physical barriers but by the differences between the costumes — from Mary Poppins to Beyoncé as a Dream Girl, to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, to the wedding attire from The Last Emperor (seen above). These displays featured not only the posed mannequins wearing the costumes, but often moving images behind them of the actors wearing the garments in the films. Segments of the screenplays are displayed digitally to highlight how costumes fit into the production from the initial writing right up to the point that the audience sits down to watch the film.
And that rather sums up the entire exhibition: it was essentially a crash course in the importance of costuming in film, and the process of designing the costumes to enhance either the story, or a particular scene, or to establish a character — and often all three.
From the revelations of costume descriptions in scripts, the exhibition moved on to the importance of establishing a character in a particular scene. This was the initial example of how the exhibition integrated advanced technology into the exhibition without distracting from the central message, but instead enhancing it. Using a rather plain, uninteresting, grey ensemble worn by Matt Damon in the guise of Jason Bourne, and showing the scenes from the film in which it was worn, the exhibition demonstrated how costume designers and directors work together to create ambiance on screen – making characters appear and disappear using costume. They did this through showing a scene in which Bourne is supposed to be blending in with the crowd and then superimposing various obvious costumes onto the character using photoshop — demonstrating in a way a text panel never could how even an “uninteresting” costume is vital to the entire film.
From this point, the exhibition moved on to showing how costume creates a character. Through not only the costumes, but copies of the designer’s sketches in the creation process they showed the creation of the various characters from the Ocean’s11 remake. Following the projections onto a virtual draft table in front of the costumes you could see the time, thought, and even collaboration between the designer and the director and the actors, that went into each garment on the mannequins. It was fascinating to watch the other visitors’ eyes follow the notes from the sketches on the “table” back up to the costumes to see how the garments were used to establish each character. This in turn set the stage for the intense analysis of Indiana Jones that came next. As the exhibition was curated by (and the catalogue written by) Dr. Deborah Nadoolman-Landis who created the original costume for Indiana Jones, this was both natural and absolutely fascinating. Dr. Nadoolman-Landis explained not only how she came up with Indy’s color palette — as an archaeologist he works with dirt and underground so his palette, even while teaching, is brown — but the methods and techniques she used to age his hat and his jacket (she borrowed Harrison Ford’s pocket knife for the latter). All of which explained how costume was vital to the creation of a pop culture icon.
Now that the creative process, and costume’s importance had been thoroughly established it was time to explore how different designers could interpret the same basic concept. Rather brilliantly, they did this through the numerous embodiments of Queen Elizabeth I — from Bette Davis to Judi Dench. It was also demonstrated through interpretations of the eighteenth century on screen, from an exact copy of a gown in a painting by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun for a 1940s biopic about Marie Antoinette, to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, to Glenn Close’s costume from Dangerous Liaisons. Each costume had a placard that told you not only who wore it and who designed it, but often had a quote from the designer about their inspiration which gave amazing insight into where each new interpretation of these two eras — Elizabethan and Baroque — came from.
The second room was another interesting combination of technology and physical costumes. The exhibition set up “conversations” between the director and the costume designer — or actress and costume designer in the case of The Birds — through interviewing both for several films (or playing archival footage in the case of Edith Head). They did this for four films: The Birds (modern day interview with Tippi Hedren and archival interview with Edith Head), Closer, Django Unchained, and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (I may have felt like swooning at the chance to hear Colleen Atwood talk costuming no matter what the film). I didn’t spend as much time in this room, but it was still a fascinating insight into the process of creating a look for a character or an entire film and into the designer’s creative process.
The third room explored other aspects of costume design such as “remakes” of popular films — Ben-Hur, True Grit, Superman, and Cleopatra being the most memorable displays. This connected to the previous exploration of different interpretations as well as gave the exhibition the opportunity to showcase costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood alongside modern costumes. This they did masterfully by placing Hailee Steinfeld’s costume from 2010′s True Grit next to John Wayne’s costume from the 1969 original, and by placing Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra costume next to Elizabeth Taylor’s. Having revealed in a previous post that Singin’ in the Rain was my favourite film when I was about four years old, words cannot describe how excited I was to see an original Singin’ in the Rain costume next to similar garments from The Artist and Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby.
The star of this third room — and of so many films – was the display dedicated to Meryl Streep. Featuring costumes from films at the beginning of her career to some of her most recent roles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Out of Africa next to The Iron Lady), this platform showed just how costume can change and alter the appearance of a single actress. It was the final “lesson” of the exhibition, but one that was amazingly done — with costumes from obscure films Ms Streep has been in placed next to roles for which she has been nominated for and even won major awards.
With all the ways costume is vital to film and the ways it transforms not just scenes but actors and characters firmly established, the final room was simply a smorgasbord of costuming history. Liza Doolittle next to Rose from Titanic, Pretty Woman next to a Carole Lombard gold lamé evening gown, Barbara Streisand costumes from the 1960s next to the American Hustle costumes, The Matrix next to Kill Bill — by grouping costumes according to genre (SciFi, historical, pseudo-historical, military) it showed how each theme can be interpreted based on the demands of not just the film but of the intended audience. The exhibition culminated, of course, with Dorothy’s ruby slippers — both the originals that are now fading behind plexiglass and some sparkling recreations.
One thing I was remarkably struck by was the difference in the quality of some modern costumes compared with those of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the photo of the Cleopatra costumes above, there is a costume worn by Delilah in Samson and Delilah that has actual peacock feathers individually sewn into the cape and train; for one showgirl costume the skirt is actually made of mink; this is compared with Rose’s Titanic costume which is clearly printed pinstripe in person, not woven, and the fabric itself is not of the best weave available. It would have been very interesting to find out if this is due to a difference in expectations, budget, or if digital technology makes things appear differently on screen.
I knew it was not just a good but an excellent exhibition when I realized I had lost track of time while viewing it. The only time I felt compelled to look at my watch was as I exited the building. The exhibition was also masterfully laid out. You always knew where you should go next, and the exhibition’s overarching educational point was made succinctly through visuals as much as tombstones and wall text. It did so without preaching or boring its audience with too much wall text, but also didn’t lose their audience through too little wall text, a very fine, difficult line for museums to walk. The Victoria & Albert and Academy walked this line well. Admittedly, since the exhibition takes place in an empty building being renovated by the Academy they had something of an advantage: they could create exactly the space they wanted instead of being constrained by an already existing exhibition space. I will be intrigued to see, as the renovations continue, what the Academy does with the Wilshire May Co. building and how it manages both permanent and special exhibition display spaces when the museum opens.
Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised — astounded, even — by an exhibition I had almost given up having the opportunity to see. It simply establishes further the brilliance of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and whets my appetite for the future Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum. I’m now very keen to see what they have in store for us.
Have you seen Hollywood Costume, either in Los Angeles or at another venue? What did you think? How did it differ from my experience in L.A.? What were your favourite pieces or aspects of the exhibition? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Or if you have an event or exhibition you want Worn Through readers to know about, feel free to contact me so I can put it in my next column!
Hollywood Costume will be open next door to LACMA until March 2.
All images courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Following on from my list of upcoming exhibitions in London at the end of last year, I finally made it to Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House last month. I couldn’t have been more happy. This is an excellent exhibition that not only appeals to those specifically concerned with both the business and study of fashion, but also anyone who has ever been struck by an interesting advert or editorial in a fashion magazine. My sister, who is a midwife, and a friend who manages the secondary schools programming for the V&A came with me and we were all delighted by the content and presentation of what is the largest retrospective of Bourdin’s work in the UK since 2003.
With over a hundred prints, as well as a wealth of other objects such as polaroids, sketches, films, paintings, notebooks and transparencies, the exhibition is huge, spanning Bourdin’s prolific career from 1955 to 1987. This is divided up into eight large display ‘spaces’ across two levels of the Embankment Galleries. The first space focuses on a road trip around Britain Bourdin took in 1979 with his wife, son, some fashion assistants and a pair of disembodied mannequin legs. From London to Brighton to Liverpool, Bourdin travelled up and down the country in a black Cadillac, commissioned by the shoe company Charles Jourdan to take photographs for one of many advertising campaigns he directed. Here, for the first time, you can see them, known as the ‘Walking Legs’ series, in its entirety. While only three were actually published, overall there were 22 images which have been blown up and printed in technicolour glory.
Walking Legs series, 1979
Each image presents us with the mannequin legs exploring the various everyday landscapes of Britain, from the seaside to the pub, from the bus stop to a park bench. These heeled legs engage with their surroundings as they cross roads, lean against fences, walk through doors or even take a bath in a hotel room. As you move between the images, you want to know where these legs will find themselves next, what shoes they might sport and who they might bump into. In a recent interview about the exhibition and the influence of Bourdin on her own work, the fashion designer Mary Katrantzou gives a nice description of how his images draw us in:
“Bourdin’s images are all about the decoration of space. There is a tension between the woman, the space and her position in an environment which might have a prop such as a sofa. The way you see her changes because of the use of space, it evokes a certain emotion. You want to know the narrative: why is she there? What is the image telling us? There is always a story behind it. You become a bit of a voyeur, and that is part of their power. You want to find out more.”
An example of how Bourdin uses the shoes as a McGuffin in order to drive the story forward in this scene Guy Bourdin: Charles Jourdan, Spring 1975
The second space is a large and long mezzanine gallery that again features blown up images of photographs he created while at French Vogue during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as more from Charles Jourdan where he was apparently allowed absolute creative freedom. As you walk from side to side, taking in what are really quite monumental images of clothes and accessories always set within a highly staged scene, it is very difficult not to be seduced by Bourdin’s dark but funny depiction of women’s fashions. It was interesting to discover that one of his influences, besides Surrealism, was Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a McGuffin, which is a prop that distracts us for a moment while we figure out what is going on in the story but has no bearing on its conclusion. My understanding of a McGuffin is that it’s form is unimportant but that its function is to allow us to follow a story, sometimes making us stop to look around at what’s happening. Bourdin often used shoes and accessories as McGuffins in his photographs by drawing attention to the scene so we can follow what is always a suggested or implied narrative.
An unfinished painting; a study for a photograph
I especially liked some small displays, in this second space, dedicated to showing us how Bourdin would research, develop and design his images before executing them on photographic film. His notebooks, sketches, polaroids, even postcards, reveal not only a skilled draughtsman but also a very technical approach in the way that he worked. Bourdin’s notebooks are full of written descriptions and poems that attempt to capture the visual images that were in his head. They reveal someone methodical and exacting, an ‘obsessive formalist’ as suggested by a review of the exhibition in British Vogue. This is further supported by one of the later gallery spaces that feature his paintings and earlier work produced under the watchful eye of Man Ray in Paris during the early 1950s. The paintings are far from emotional affairs but rather they act as research for his photographs, allowing him to better see the colour and perspective of his theatrical images.
1973 double page Charles Jourdan advertisement
His attention to all aspects of his design process is reflected in another room that shows how much editorial control he had over his fashion images in French Vogue. Supported by the editor at the time, Francine Crescent, he often only provided the final image and specific instructions pertaining to its layout. Most of us will also be familiar with the fact that it was Bourdin, along with Helmut Newton, who introduced the double spread editorial to fashion magazines.
A photograph featuring the model Nicolle Meyer
The final three spaces are dedicated to his notable interest in shoes and legs as photographic subjects, his professional work featuring the model Nicolle Meyer, whom he worked exclusively with between 1977 and 1980 and, finally, a display of his polaroids which he often used to test out locations and scene dimensions. These galleries provided further supporting statements for his attempts at perfectionism. In particular, I liked how, with an advertisement for Charles Jourdan shoes, he would stage an elaborate set such as two women spending time in a hotel room and then photograph it from a variety of angles, as if he was filming it frame by frame. Only by doing this did it seem he could explore scale, composition and focus in order to ‘find’ the final image he had in his head.
A polaroid taken in the mid 1950s of Paris by Bourdin
“I think it [the gallery of Polaroids] is the most intimate way of connecting Bourdin with his process. These things were very close to him,” says O’Neill. “He pulled them out of the camera as well as taking the picture, he shook it in his hand waited for it to develop and he kept them for a long time. Contrary to some of the exhibition photographs that have only recently been printed, these are very intimately connected to the photographer.”
This comment also reflects, perhaps, Bourdin’s avoidance of any exhibition or sale of his work. However, his preference for commercial ephemera in which to place his final image is curiously juxtaposed with an elaborate design process that resulted in a range of concrete, diverse forms in order to realise his imaginations.
While I agree that the most successful aspects of the exhibition are those that are more personal, where Bourdin’s practices and influences are revealed, I actually enjoyed how little personal background there was about him. Bourdin was evidently a very private person and yet despite this, he would go to great lengths to create his images. According to one article about him written in 2007, this included dying the sea a different colour, covering models entirely in glue and jewels so they couldn’t breath and having a pylon repainted a slightly different shade of grey. The curator’s decision to avoid speculation about his artistic character, instead emphasising the extent to which he would create a photographic illusion was a wise one, making for a subtle but significant exhibition that I highly recommend.
I had fully intended to write up a review of the Hollywood Costumeexhibition, which I had the good fortune to see this past Sunday. Unfortunately work, job and PhD applications, and jury duty have all consumed my time. So in anticipation of my review to be posted on February 25, here is an wonderful videoto whet your appetites. This exhibition is nothing short of amazing and I look forward to sharing my review with you soon!
I first began to develop an interest in Sonia Delaunay’s work during my early years at l’Ecole du Louvre, studying history of art. It was with the avant-garde movements of art that mingled all forms of creation, from painting to furniture and textile, that I built my passion for the history of fashion. Sonia Delaunay thus belonged to those innovative artists that fueled my curiosity and it is with much pleasure that I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne’s exhibition dedicated to her. The display is an incredible retrospective that features about 400 works raging from her earliest expressionist paintings and drawings to her late abstract pieces and, of course, her experiences in design and fashion. Sonia Delaunay, The Colors of Abstraction perfectly emphasizes the artist’s affection for color and how she used it to build dynamism and unusual forms on any kind of canvas. Her life and work spreading from the Belle Epoque to the 1970s, the exhibition explores how her manner evolved during those years, placing it in a wider historical context thanks to photographies and videos of the periods.
Sonia Delaunay’s son blanket, 1911
From a Russian background, Sonia Terk settled in Paris in 1906 and soon met Robert Delaunay who would become her husband and with whom she would explore a new form of abstract art based on the constructive and dynamic power of color: Simultanism. Promptly, Sonia Delaunay applied these colorful and rhythmic researches to various supports and techniques. Her relationship with textile began at her son, Charles’ birth when she imagined a blanket – presented in the display alongside her early abstract paintings – inspired by Russian folklore: a patchwork of colorful cubes that fueled their artistic concept and her will to apply their art to a new supple canvas. When World War I begins, the Delaunay family settles in Spain and Sonia Delaunay collaborates with Serge Diaghilev for the creation of costumes for a Cleopatra show danced by the Ballets Russes. Her costumes being a huge success, Sonia Delaunay becomes highly popular and thus opens a lifestyle boutique in Madrid, the Casa Sonia. When they return to Paris, the artist and designer concentrates on fashion and creates numerous textiles for the home but also simultaneous dresses, bathing suits, coats with forms dictated by colors and movement built by her intense geometric patterns. At the same time, she also works with the Dutch department store, Metz & Co that sells her fabrics.
Sonia Delaunay- Gloria Swanson coat, 1924
In the display, textiles and fashion - within glass cases – mostly occupy the central room within the sections dedicated to the Factory and the 19, boulevard Malsherbes, the address of their home and dressmaking workshop – a commercial venture far from her artistic ideals but that met with much success at the 1925 International Exposition during which she collaborated with the Parisian couturier, Jacques Heim. Her colorful fashion is the mark of avant-garde personalities who dare to stand out and some of her clients are Nancy Cunard or Gloria Swanson for whom she imagines an impressive art coat presented here. The sections dedicated to Dance and Theatre (and cinema) also feature textile objects, the drawings and costumes she created while she joined forces with literature when she imagined the concept of the poem dress: dresses that bore her colors and the words of poets such as Tristan Tzara and Blaise Cendrars, once again adding a fundamental sense of modernity to her practice. Sonia Delaunay saw color as ‘the skin of the world’, thus no wonder she intended to apply her art to fashion, our very own second skin. With her bold designs, she offered 1920s chic and modern women a daring alternative to couturier’s elegant designs. She enabled them to wear the latest innovative fashion but also the piece of art of an avant-garde artist. Often compared to Italian Futurists, Sonia Delaunay differed from their experiments as she concentrated on the chromatic effects that changed the dynamism and forms of her clothing while Giacomo Balla and the Futurists insisted on the cuts of garments and their movement in action.
Sonia Delaunay – Swimsuits, 1928
After the stock-market crash of 1929, Sonia Delaunay put an end to her fashion venture and remained concentrated on textile design until her husband’s death, in 1941. She then returned to painting and was finally recognized from the 1960s as a major artist and inspired fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Moschino or Jean-Charles de Castelbajac . An artist that broke all the boundaries between arts and was eager to link art and everyday life as well as she announced with much modernism, the rise of ready-to-wear. A bright and airy display, the Musée d’Art Moderne exhibition is beautiful and incredibly complete with its numerous hanging photographies, paintings, drawings, illustrations…It is truly interesting to juxtapose all her creations and look at them via the prism of their original context – the exhibition features important material culture in a way French institutions have rarely done. It is lively and buoyant and never marks any rupture between her painting and her design work. A must-see!
P.S: The exhibition will travel to the Tate in London from April 2015.
Further Resources: The Catalogue: Montfort, Anne. Sonia Delaunay. Paris: MAM, 2014.
Damase, Jacques. Sonia Delaunay - Fashion and Fabrics. London: Henry N Abrams, 1991.
Morano, Elizabeth. Sonia Delaunay – Art into Fashion. New York: George Braziller, 1987.
Timmer, Petra. Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. New York: Smithsonian Design Museum, 2011.
And have a look at Melissa’s review on the Color Moves exhibition: interesting to see that the Cooper Hewitt display had proposed parallels between Sonia Delaunay’s work and that of her contemporaries. Something I would have loved seeing at the Parisian exhibition.
A view of the exhibition from the back so you can see the third section Fashion and Women in the foreground, the second section Power and Fashion in the background.
Over one floor, the curators have chosen to approach the subject by splitting sources into three sections: Women and Power; Power and Fashion; Fashion and Women. The first section, Power and Fashion, presents the visitor with a line up of historical portraits representing well known women in positions of authority including Cleopatra, Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Queen Elizabeth II. The second section, Fashion and Women, invites the visitor to look at how fashion has enabled women to obtain a range of increasing freedoms since the mid 19th century. The final section, Women and Power, is dedicated to a display of 28 mannequins, dressed in a range of outfits lent by women considered to be successful in the fields of fashion, politics, business and culture. Each outfit is accompanied by a photograph of the individual woman and her explanation of its significance in her working life.
A view of the first section Power and Fashion, featuring portraits and descriptions.
A view of the stairwell going up to the exhibition entrance featuring graphics by Lucienne Roberts.
Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong. To begin with, the exhibition is dominated by the second section on Fashion and Women. Covering over 150 years of fashion developments from the corset to ethical fashion, the displays chart how changes in what women have worn are the result of important social, political and economic changes, not just whims of fashion or frivolity. Despite Loveday’s insistence that it is not a history of fashion, it clearly is and this is reflected in the physical layout of sources, which are arranged chronologically. I was met with predictable displays dedicated to eponymous designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Diane von Furstenburg or Coco Chanel and arrangements on the promotion of fashion or couture. Teleological in approach, this section appears to make very simplistic links between developments in fashion and increasing freedoms bestowed upon women in the last century.
‘Feminism’ and the Wonderbra (authors own photographs)
To see ‘Feminism’ reduced to a small display was disheartening, given how much the ideas associated with both the historical movement and theoretical discipline have not only informed women’s dress since but also reframed our understanding of women lives in the past. When I came across a display of the well analysed Wonderbra advertisement featuring Eva Herzigova from 1995 without any explanation, it was difficult not to feel further disappointment. Where were the documented experiences of women at certain historical moments and how they related what they wore to those events? I did manage to find one example of this in a clip from a documentary in 1979 by the BBC called An English Woman’s Wardrobe. It featured Margaret Thatcher going through her wardrobe, pulling out outfits that she had worn and explaining their significance to the presenter. It was absolutely fascinating to see how interested and aware Thatcher was about what she wore and when. If women in positions of power are this highly aware of what they wear, surely the rest of us are pretty conscious of the fact too?
Margaret Thatcher discussing her wardrobe (authors own photograph)
To get to the third section, Women and Power, where I was hoping to find the real women, I had to go to the very back of the exhibition. Given that this was a fashion exhibition that claimed to show how women related to fashion in their work lives, I think the fashion figures were unnecessary; many of them already feature in the second section. Other figures include Camila Batmanghelidjh, Skin from Skunk Anansie and Dame Zaha Hadid. Anyone familiar with those I have just named will know they represent a diversity of shapes, ages, ethnicities and styles so I was very surprised to find that all their outfits had been presented on identical mannequins, thereby diminishing both the status of the wearer and the significance of their clothes.
Camila Batmanghelidjh’s photograph and outfit (authors own photographs)
I felt better when I discovered there are interviews, Q&As, with all the women featured about what they wear and their daily work lives, nicely ecohing the ethos of Women in Clothes and reminding us of their various individualities. Yet, these are presented as printouts within A4 binders so could easily be overlooked. They require time to read, and after having spent too much time trying to negotiate the second section, I was unable to give them my full attention.
Q&As on display at the back (authors own photograph)
Although the selection of women represent important sectors such as business, politics and culture, it was a shame not to see education, health or science included. It is not surprising, therefore, that like many I was drawn to the outfit of Morwenna Wilson, a chartered engineer who has led the Kings Cross construction project in London. Here is a woman whom we might never see otherwise, given what she does for a living. Her decision to compliment a daily uniform of black trousers and white top with a range of interesting jackets, including one by Carven featuring a map of Paris, in an effort to be noticed within her work environment spoke volumes. As a successful woman in a field dominated by men, Wilson drew attention to the subtle but important way clothes can help to define oneself in environments where dress conformity tends to be standardised. Her interest in what to wear reminded me just how much gender roles and stereotypes inform what women wear and how little this is addressed throughout the exhibition.
I probably should have spotted the clue in the title. Women Fashion Power. Not a Multiple Choice. This exhibition is about women and fashion, which is the obvious bit. Power, arguably less apparent but much more fascinating is sort of stuck on at the end. Fashion, power and women may not be about multiple choices but its a shame that the exhibition did not fully explore these limitations or discuss how women could have more choice in the future. A more impactful exhibition might have emerged if the title had been rearranged to become Power Women Fashion.
I would love to hear what you thought of this exhibition, especially the 28 fashion portraits and the Q&As if you had a chance to read them. How is what you wear informed by what you do in your work, where you work and with whom?
Opening image from the exhibition of women wearing beachwear in the 1930s. Image credit: [http://www.byoutifulyou.com]
Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945
Exhibition ran October 26, 2014 – January 4, 2015
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Curator at MIA: Nicole LaBouff; Curator of exhibition Sonnet Stanfill of Victoria and Albert Museum
*First image: Roberto Cavalli Leopard Print Gown
Courtesy of Roberto Cavalli S.P.A.
Recently I took two visits to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the exhibition Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945. In my first visit I was toured through by curator Nicole LaBouff and then did an interview with her to get more background. You can read all about that by clicking here. I also put a number of additional photos in that post.
Before heading into the show I was drawn into the gift shops. I ended up spending a great deal of time enthralled by the vintage Italian designer fashion finds the museum had acquired for sale during the exhibit, as well as current Italian styles such as unique purses and furnishings, and a slew of fashion volumes perfect for holiday gifts or an indulgent self purchase.
HIGHLIGHTS AND DESCRIPTION:
Once entering the exhibition the story unfolds through a series of educational panels, numerous cases and platforms with mannequins and objects, a few video clips and slideshows, some framed wall documents and photos, and varied support pieces such as sketches, log books, fabric swatches, and muslin mock ups.
This enormous exhibition is a beautiful travel through time with room after room of displays. I tend to enjoy shows that canvas a lot of territory and explore many aspects of one theme. When a show dives too narrow it often feels like the viewer is aching to fill in the gaps. However, with a comprehensive show there’s always some challenges trying to encapass so much and do each aspect of the show the justice it deserves. It’s inevitable not all portions will be at the exact same level of quality. Overall, I’d say this show did a solid job at that, and maintained a fairly high level of visual intrigue and comprehensiveness. There were a few weak spots but those were outnumbered by the positive.
This exhibition originated at the V&A and has traveled to the MIA. Panels explained that V&A curator Sonnet Stanfill started devouring Italian Vogue as early as age 10, and took many trips all the way to Italy as a child from Alaska. These early entrances into fashion began her fascination with Italian culture and design. As she became a scholar her research indicated that there was limited study on the rise of Italian fashion; thus the catalyst of this show.
Both times I attended had fairly large crowds, primarily of women of all ages. There were groups of many sorts: students, ladies, and many multi-generational families of grandmother through toddler. All were enjoying the show using different reference points, although shared the same admiration of vibrant colors and eye catching embellishments.
The MIA ran a “living social” coupon for discounted admission, and also did an impressive showing of PR including neighborhood billboards. This was the first fashion exhibition from this museum and they were obviously making a big effort to get the word out. It’s too bad I missed the Italian fashion themed films they showed in support, however I believe those were only for museum members. It would have been an extra treat to see further activities such as an academic symposium or esteemed guest speakers. There are multiple fashion programs in the area, a strong local design and advertising community, and companies such as Target, which all create a community who would attend such events.
The educational introduction starts with WW2 and gives this as a jumping off point to see the quick rise to prominence of Italian fashion. Galleries then focus on this relatively contemporary time period and traces its rise, the shifts in its priority and design/manufacturing styles, the artistry, and name designers/stylists of the region. The entry galleries feature a beautiful array of dresses of the 1940s and 50s representing the first shows that took place at the house of a buying agent entitled Sala Bianca. Letters from buying agents and accessories add to this bright room of detailed ensembles.
A highlight was gallery 3 which was focused on the traditional sartoria or dressmaker
Wardrobe of Margaret Abegg whose husband owned a textile manufacturing company. She had a variety of garments commissioned and this gallery brings you into the world of the personal relationship between designer and wearer, as well as into the details of custom design. Also, Margaret’s clothing is a size and proportions conventional to the average woman and therefore it was refreshing to see the high-end clothes shown in non-runway sizes. I was not the only person in the room commenting on this feeling unique. While her taste was not flashy, and the items didn’t wow the spectator, this was a highlight gallery because of its thorough demonstration of how the items were employed including accessories and also the letter of bequeath to museum from Margaret.
These early rooms explain the development of their fashion shows and individualized market but also show that the informal clothes, such as some of Pucci’s were the key initial success in foreign markets as they spread for vacation use and broader appeal. The museum-goer then travels through a series of galleries such as the lively room highlighting the relationship of Italian fashion with Hollywood. Museum visitors were clustered around the movie clips and were also commenting on the sketches next to some of the garments showing the creative process. my interview with Nicole discusses the Elizabeth Taylor gems that eddie fisher gave her as a pitch to save their marriage. they were beautiful. a Vespa as well as a dress worn to Truman Capote’s black and white ball and other entertaining items.
Italian specialty leather goods are featured throughout and showcased in a slideshow as well as a case of items from 1950′s and 60s. This is a bit drab of a presentation, but the items themselves are masterful. Another gallery focuses on the cult of designer and features those big names many of the guest were excited to see. This is a point that shines.
Menswear will get its due in upcoming exhibitions at other museums, but this was a useful preview as numerous mannequins demonstrated the value of the mens fashion market ranging from Hollywood style to tailoring expertise. In this section I watched many people walked right past the grand log book featuring client details and swatches, but I was fascinated by its oversized pages of fabric choices and measurements.
Embroidery and textile design were of course a crucial element of an Italian themed show and this was a section that was strong with ephemera. The viewer gained insight into Versace’s process of pattern design from inspiration through final product and advertising campaign, and Missoni’s knitwear process takes us from marker colors to yarn dye to final product. Apparently one of Missoni’s grandsons came to the show and reminisced.
Made in Italy as marketing term and less couture
The final gallery features includes some contemporary designers such as Piglisi and Dolce and Gabbana indicating that the quality is still at a very high level. The couture closing the show brings the concepts full circle back to the custom high end dress makers at its start. A final rom focused on the future showed a film about the direction of Italian fashion is going was intriguing discussing positives as well as challenges in the industry. It was hard to hear but still fun to watch because those featured were all significant in the field.
Privé Gown, Spring/Summer 2010
Courtesy of Giorgio Armani
As you can tell, I really liked this exhibition and I am enthusiastic that it will travel further and be viewed by many. This is not to say it is perfect though. I do have a series of notes that nagged at me that I would be remiss not to mention. I’m just going to lay them out. I do realize some would be do to time, space, and budget constraints and the fact it’s a traveling show and not from the institution itself:
There is a narrative from room to room, but it’s a bit hard to follow and doesn’t feel like a story. I had to work to follow along. I think many people use admired the clothes but not the storyline. That’s probably completely normal though. This is exacerbated by some display choices where items are showcased that don’t seem that important (like Pucci lounge wear) and other key pieces are tucked into the crowd.The lighting is dim in some sections, films are quiet, fonts are small in films, and sometimes I entered a room and basically walked into a black corner when the way finding seems like I could have been directed into something more exciting rather than walking around a wall. I did hear complaints from the audience.Some messages are conveyed in panels but then not translated well into the exhibition design. I know a lot of people do not read the data and are visual learners so it is crucial to be visually dynamic. One example was a mention of all the stylish film actors wearing the clothes but there was limited showing of this in objects (not the Hollywood room but a second room). Another is the party atmosphere of Fiorucci but then the design of that display is very skeletal and not festive.People love to be near celebrities, and some of the biggest names and best stories of the show are tucked in almost indistinguishable. There’s a suit worn by JFK but it’s amid a row of other men’s suits with little fanfare. Museum guests were frequently name dropping a wish to see Jackie O’s clothing and there was none, however there was Lee Radziwill’s dress although again, not spotlighted. The curator’s favorite garment that she feels represents the highest craftsmanship is on the far side of one case and easy to walk past. Also there is an Armani suit that is a quintessential style of his career, yet the label does not share the story that designer hand picking the garment for the show (which gives it an extra special feel when that is known; Nicole let me know this story and it gave me a higher reverence for the object). Then there is a small photography section that is a focal point, but seems sort of removed from the core. Overall, this reflects hit and miss choices of which items are under a spotlight and which are quietly in the very large mix.
CLOSING THOUGHTS It’s clear this exhibition was lovingly researched and constructed. I overheard one woman said “Timeless styles” with a smile and sigh. Sure a few spots were awkwardly presented or felt dry, but this is the reality of a comprehensive exhibit as the budget and resources do have a finite point. Overall the display of iconic and lesser known names internationally gave us the fun of seeing beautiful representations of familiar brands and also introduced us to those we may not know. Upon exit there was a cute children’s section with fashion illustration and photography activities, looking at the childrens’ drawing’s left behind it was clear from this exhibition that the legacy will continue.
Exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Presented by Nordstrom and the Blythe Brenden-Mann Foundation.
Major Sponsor: Delta Air Lines
Generous support provided by: Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Topsy Simonson