New York diary, day three – fashion moments

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(Psst… you can add pizzazz to this post with a fashion mix playlist from SHOWstudio. Go on.)

Not even in New York are the streets swarming with Anna dello Russos or Daphne Guinesses. Not as much as a wannabe Carrie Bradshaw in sight, or at least on this early spring day the dominant look was more Copenhagen conservative than cutting edge. And yet there is no doubt that this is a fashion capital and a city that takes fashion seriously, not only commercially but culturally as well, as indicated by the fine selection of fashion focused exhibitions on offer.

Museum at FIT

So today I was on a mission, starting with a visit to the museum at Fashion Institute of Technology. First up I joined a tour of the brilliant ‘Fashion and Technology’ exhibition led by curator Ariele Elia (what a luxury to have the curator do the guiding and share her great knowledge). The exhibition showed how technological advances have shaped and inspired fashion both in terms of construction and design – from aniline dies over jaquard looms, zips and drip dry nylon to 3D printing and holographic catwalk shows. Through a variety of displays and artifacts it spanned a wide and varied field and was both well researched and well presented, with some absolutely beautiful examples of succesful marriages of artistic vision with technological wizardry. Quite literally so in this stunning spring 2007 collection by Hussein Chalayan in collaboration with special effect technologists from the Harry Potter films. The real magic begins at about 2:30:

After the tour, Ariele was kind enough to show me the FIT reference library, where I can arrange to visit to study their collection. With the NY public library card I also managed to get today I’m all set to make use of the wonderful ressources on fashion and museology available in this city.

I was less impressed by the institute’s ‘Shoe obsession’ show, with glass cabinet after glass cabinet showing off elegant footwear currently on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue (sponsor of the show) as relics, even if this way of staging the exhibition was well in tune with the point about the current obsessive focus on designer shoes. To be fair, the exhibtion also showed a great number of unique pieces from private collections (Imelda Marcos eat your heart out) and some fantastic ‘installations’ by avant-garde shoemakers like Masaya Kushino, but to really get the significance of all the Louboutins and Blahniks as more than mere eye candy I think you would need to refer to the accompanying catalogue edited by Valerie Steele.

I actually went to Saks later one to see their shoe department – a shrine to shoes taking up a whole floor. Here I managed to sneak a photo of the shoes I was not allowed to photograph in the exhibition (pictures of this can be found here, or googled), but really I should have gone one further and tried them on, as this is the part that you always wish you  could do in a museum! Might have to go back and start obsessing a bit myself.

Fortuny at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute

A very different kind of fashion exhibition was the beautiful display of dresses and textiles by Mariano Fortuny de Madrazo, one of the great designers of the first half of the 20th century, currently on show at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute. Although the design of his signature pleated ‘Delphos’ gown barely changed over the course of forty years it was interesting to see so many together, along with the artfully printed oriental style jackets worn on top. It was a real exotic jewelry box of an exhibition and one that gave me a better perspective on one of the great masters of fashion history.

As luck would have it, I also managed to speak to the curator of this exhibition (or co-curator, as the exhibition was conceived by Oscar de la Renta) and learned even more about Fortuny’s work and the private collectors who had leant their robes to the exhibition. As an added note, I couldnt’ help noticing that here too, as had been the case at Museum at FIT, and unsurprisingly I guess, the visitors were almost all women.

Unfortunately the Met was already closing when I got there, and so I will have to come back for the ‘Fashion and Impressionism’ exhibition currently showing there.

NY fashion moments

Going back to the present and to the fashion encounters in the urban space, as this is what I’m looking at in my project, I must say that I was at a bit of a loss. Hesitant to take my phone out for touristy snapshots (thereby revealing myself to be a tourist, which, for unfathomable reasons, is experienced as shameful), I couldn’t help wonder if it wouldn’t be even more unlikely that I would use it to ‘scan’ my bypassers in order to understand their sartorial choices. What’s more, as I was walking between institutions, I was trying to do the sort question mapping suggested by Proctor (albeit somewhat distractedly, as I was also busy gazing around (discretely, of course)), that is, thinking about what sort of questions I would like to have answers to, what sort of tool, mobile or other, that would help me appreciate and understand the fashion I would see on the streets. And the thing is, nothing really came to mind. Which of course calls into question the whole premise or focus of my project. Or perhaps makes my continued research and continued questioning of my research questions all the more relevant.

Still, I did have a couple of genuine fashion moments, which were also distinctly New York. Like the amazing hairdo worn by an elderly librarian at the NYPL, who was kind enough to let me take her photo and happily turned round to show me the elongated French twist at the back and explained how she could maintain the style by sleeping on her side. And the Lichtenstein styled photo shoot taking place just outside the library, featuring some clever makeup and attracting a host of amateurs capturing the shoot on their camera phones. Including myself. So certain things will trigger this impulse, and actually I did find myself curious about where these images will feature. Even if this level of fashion extravagance is not common fare, not even on Manhattan, this still counts for something.

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