Musées continued – Fashion as Art

As promised, here is a continued discussion of museums!  A while ago,  I talked about three very different museums in Paris and what I liked about each one.  This time I’m going to talk about another type of museum experience that is becoming really popular right now – fashion exhibits.  This topic is really important to me because I hope to work in that field; researching, designing, and presenting exhibits that will share my view of the many different things clothing can be (fashion is only part of it) and why it is important historically, culturally, and artistically.  I am specifically interested in ‘Clothing as Art,’ which is a pretty controversial idea (you would think that if it’s in an art museum it would be considered art, but then there’s the definition of ‘art’, etc etc…), and I hope to study and create what I consider to be ‘clothing as art’ in the future.

The number of fashion exhibits in museums has been growing rapidly over the past few years, and this article from the Daily Mail credits the McQueen exhibit at the MET, which I mentioned before, for starting this trend.  The MET’s Costume Institute has been doing fashion exhibits for a long time; I remember seeing the ‘AngloMania’ exhibit my first time in New York back in 2006, ‘Models as Muse’ a few years later, and then of course McQueen.  Another notable museum for fashion exhibits is the Museum of Fabric and Decorative Arts in Lyon, France, where I saw one of the most amazing fashion exhibits I have ever seen (Franck Sorbier, 2009).  There are also museums at design schools like FIT and RISD… So fashion exhibits were not non-existent until now, but I guess they are starting to spread to a lot more museums that were perhaps previously too conservative to host a fashion exhibit (although I wouldn’t credit the McQueen exhibit.  It just reiterated that fashion exhibits can be successful, as it had record numbers of visitors).  I’ve found a lot of lists of international fashion exhibits online.  I saw a fashion exhibit in Montreal in November 2010, and the next year the design team Rodarte created the first fashion collection made specifically for a museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  The MFA in Boston had a big year of fashion exhibits in 2010, with the Avedon fashion photography exhibit, then the Scaasi exhibit (which I found disappointing.  One room? seriously?).  They had a big First Fridays event to celebrate ‘Fashion Month’ at the MFA, complete with a Saks Fifth Avenue fashion show.  I don’t know if ‘Fashion Month’ was the MFA’s biggest success, but that event was definitely important for me, since I met the Costume Shop Manager from the American Repertory Theather there, and it led to my first ever sewing job (shout out to the A.R.T!  I miss you guys!).  Basically, fashion exhibits are having a big moment right now, and I really hope it lasts because I really want to be part of it!

I should note that there are museums with fashion and accessory items on display alongside paintings, sculptures, and furniture, like the The new American wing of the MFA and Decorative Arts museums like the V&A, but this is different because the pieces are valued for historical significance rather than the designs, and the pieces are part of the museum’s collection.

Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris

The most exciting thing about the fashion exhibit we saw in Paris (other than the fact that it was in Paris) was that for me, it really represented the idea of ‘clothing as art.’  Most of the well-known, well-publicized fashion exhibits are, as that article says, ‘couture collection as gallery exhibit,’ or a celebration of a specific designer’s legacy or some theme represented by multiple big-name designers.  Some also center around famous photographers or models, but in general they include famous designers who make fashion for the runway, ultimately for (rich) people to buy and wear, even if some of the couture pieces on display are not particularly wearable.  The Rodarte exhibit is an interesting exception, since the clothes were designed specifically for museum display, which I think is awesome (too bad I missed it!).  This is not to say that the exhibits were bad or not ‘artsy’.  Alexander McQueen was definitely an artist, even more than most designers, because his fashion shows were exceptionally innovative, he often used unconventional materials and shapes in his designs, and he definitely used his work to express different abstract themes.  I have also seen some off-beat fashion exhibits that definitely showed how artistic fashion can be, not just in a physical workmanship kind of way, but also in expressing an idea or a message. What made the Hussein Chalayan exhibit at Les Arts Décoratifs unique was that it blatantly presented the idea of fashion as art.  The exhibit was accompanied by a booklet with a paragraph or sometimes even page about each collection, discussing Chalayan’s inspiration and the message he wanted to represent.  I appreciated that it gave viewers the tools to understand the ideas behind the clothes, it hinted at Chalayan’s artistic process, and it made it ok for clothing to not be wearable (in real life, at least.  Most of the pieces were able to make it down a runway).  The wearability of a piece of clothing is I think the most obvious measure of distinguishing what is fashion and what is art; however, I think that wearable fashion could also be considered art if it was presented like art.

parachute dresses

This exhibit was a great way to get people to think differently about clothing, and see how it can be different things.  Not just something to wear, but a form of expression, either of the wearer or of the designer.  The exhibit also included quite a few videos, both of fashion shows and also creative short films created by Chalayan to accompany the display of certain garments.  Some of the films didn’t even feature the clothes, so it was clear that he was presenting an idea through several mediums, rather than just displaying some cool clothes.  The mannequins in the exhibit were often displayed in certain settings, like a garden or a room that looked like it was under construction.  In one case, the setting was the clothing, because the chairs and table of a room actually became clothing for the models to wear!  Other items on display included Chalayan’s technical sketches and notes, a nice peek into the mind of the creator.

Hussein Chalayan is known for being on the forefront of technology and fashion, and one of the most impressive parts of the exhibition was a video of his Spring/Summer 2007 fashion show, which included dresses that transformed from one design into another to show how styles have changed throughout history and also how they can overlap.  Here’s a little sample (there’s a video of the full show on Chalayan’s website):

The table dress was also pretty awesome:

photo from of the art

Other crazy technologically advanced fashions included the first ever LED dress, dresses with lasers coming out of them, and a dress that floated on the model.  The clothing that was not electronic or glowing was equally as impressive, and it all sent a strong message (even if it was often necessary to read the pamphlet to understand exactly what the message was).

LED dress

Unfortunately, the Chalayan exhibit was pretty strict about not taking photos, and the exhibition book was 65 euros, so it’s not as well documented as I would have liked.  But, to make up for it, here is the aforementioned eye candy from Harrod’s in London!  I definitely have a great interest and respect for clothing as art, but commercial fashion is also beautiful, especially when displayed so creatively.  Harrod’s might as well be a museum.  Just think of all the interior designers, lighting technicians, painters, and stylists that went into each of these displays.  It’s amazing!

Harrod's can make even kitchen utensils look fashionable