Behind the Scenes: ‘Washed Up’ at Selfridge’s Project Ocean

Lobster Hat by Philip Treacy for Lady Gaga, 2010

I’m sure there are many fans of the 1987 film Mannequin reading this.  Or if not fans, then at least a population familiar with the quintessentially 1980s comedy starring Kim Cattrall as an Ancient Egyptian who travels forward in time to become a store mannequin in New York City. A twentieth century take on Pygmalion, with plenty of camp, musical montages and shoulder pads.  If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it as both a fashion scholar and former ten year old with dreams of someday being a window dresser at a glamorous department store.

Selfridge's entrance, Oxford Street

This weekend over two all night sessions at Selfridge’s installing Washed Up, an installation exhibition by curator Judith Clark, my long-held dream of being in a retail mecca long after closing time came to life.  And over the course of many long hours and last minute decisions, some mannequins were brought to life as well – although not in quite the same way as Kim Cattrall back in ’87.

All humour and frolic aside, Washed Up is an eloquent, haunting and beautiful exhibition that privileges viewers to consider ‘fashion’s debt to the ocean’ and in turn to act in ways that respect the ocean’s importance to human life.  As part of Selfridge’s storewide Project Ocean, it is one of many creative projects taking place instore that bring social consciousness into the sphere of consumer excess. The exhibition features clothing and accessories both historic and contemporary that were inspired by or evoke the ocean and its denizens.  For Judith this was  ‘a rare opportunity for a curator of dress to be able to draw attention of such great political importance and urgency,’ and for visitors Washed Up provides a space for meditation and education about ocean ecology.

Hussein Chalayan bubble dress SS2006 in the corner window installation

The exhibit comprises both a series of Selfridge’s store windows on Oxford Street, and the interior space known as the Concept Store, adjacent to the Wonder Room, an enclave of fine jewelry and timepieces.  Overall, Washed Up appears as an aberration in space and time: a 19th century scientific museum on a beach of dead bleached corals. Visitors journey along a vaguely spiralling boardwork of weathered timbers amidst a labyrinth of “antique” museum showcases.  In the cases mannequins seem suspended as in aquariums, donning a rich array of ocean inspired fashions. A series of historic bathing and walking garments greet us at the foot of the boardwalk, and look out over a treasure chest of fashion. From Alexander McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis, to Lady Gaga’s lobster hat to a remarkable octopus dress entirely created via 3d printing, the exhibit intrigues and delights. The garments are presented conceptually as an homage to Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German naturalist known for his engravings of ocean life.

Sea anemones from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Art forms of Nature) of 1904

Each dress is accompanied by a text panel relating the imagery to Haeckel’s research and the concept of the invisible made visible with which his work engaged.

19th century beach walking dresses awaiting installation

As an assistant to Judith Clark, I was invited to participate in the research and installation of Washed Up, and thus had an insight into the invisible worlds of department stores overnight, and of a fashion curator at work. While teams of set builders fabricated and installed the boardwalk and fixtures, Judith’s team of students and emerging fashion curators assembled, dressed and arranged the mannequins, and laid down thousands of corals on the temporary beach on Oxford Street.

Mannequins awaiting installation, with custom hemp rope wigs by Angelo Seminara

The experience was surreal and yet extremely logical.  With precision and skill the tasks were carried out, in all instances carried aloft by the strength and beauty of the idea behind the project and the exhibition.  Like Tove did with her post on shoes, I must admit bias. As an “insider” to the project, I inevitably sing its praises.  But in this case, who can deny that fashion is exhibiting its power to be a thing of both beauty and intelligence, with the voice of the curator turning the message into a siren’s call, both irresistible and alarming.

Installation view of exhibition in progress

Project Ocean runs storewide at Selfidge’s until June 12, 2011 with a calendar of events including film screenings, cooking tutorials, art installations and talks. Selfridge’s has partnered with more than 20 environmental and conservation groups to ‘celebrate the beauty of the ocean, highlight the issue of over-fishing, help us all understand the threats to the ocean and make positive choices about the right fish to buy and eat.’ The project heralds Selfridge’s policy not to sell any endangered marine life in their foodhall and restaurants, and proceeds from related merchandise benefit the Zoological Society of London.

As more images and the Washed Up catalog become available I will update this post.  If you visit the exhibition or other events during Project Ocean, please do post your comments!

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1 Comment

  • Sarah May 12, 2011 05.23 am

    Judith Clark always does such amazing exhibitions! I always look forward to your posts Jenna – thanks for posting on this and can’t wait to see photos of the final install.


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