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Fashion

Savage Beauty
On Friday, I went on a pilgrimage, no less. To see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the V&A in London. The exhibition was originally shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2011, and ever since, I have been reading about, and dreaming about seeing, this perfect fashion show. A former fashion student, I have long had a thing for McQueen (how could I not?), and as a proper fan-girl, I booked my ticket as soon as they went on sale last year. This time, I was not disappointed.

Exhibition view, from V&A's Instagram profile

Exhibition view, from V&A’s Instagram profile

It was beautiful. Painfully poetic – and provocatively political – visual narratives, perfect tailoring, couture at its most sublime. And really really interesting to see the garments I had hitherto only seen in print, up close, and being able to inspect details in construction and finishings. Moreover, the exhibition design perfectly augmented the experience of the couture pieces, offering different settings and ambiences for each curatorial theme, and adding video clips as well as smoke and mirror technologies (literally – do check out the link) to the mix to give a feel of the (significance of the) original fashion shows. Even the wall texts and object labels were just right. Overall, the exhibition was both informative and evocative, exhaustive without being exhausting (i.e., for the exhibition format; of course both the aesthetics and cultural significance of McQueen bears further exploration, but such in-depth studies are better left for literature) – even my sons, aged 8 & 10, were enthralled and engaged for the full two hours we spent in the galleries. Much more than just a been-there-seen-that-got-the-tote-bag (which I did, of course) kind of experience, this was every bit as awesome as I had hoped.

Photogenic museums (Or: Observing primates at the Natural History Museum. Or: Say ‘Cheese’!)
Sadly, if understandably, photography was prohibited in the Savage Beauty exhibition. Or perhaps this was just as well. At least, when visiting the Natural History Museum, next door to the V&A, I was struck by how much the museum space inspired people to take photographs. First of all, though, I was simply awestruck by the space itself (despite having worshiped at the V&A, my temple of choice, so many times over the years, this was my first visit to the cathedral of natural science): the grandeur of the entrance hall made even the centrepiece diplodocus seem rather pedestrian. (But then the real focal point may be the Darwin-as-deity statue, elevated on the stairs at the far end.)

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Entry hall at the Natural History Museum, London (Apparently, the hall has now been renamed Hintze Hall, following a large private donation – a big phenomenon already in American museums, but hitherto not so prominent in Europe. Looks like that’s the future. Will the whale exhibition in the new national history museum in Denmark be named after Maersk? Will Lego fund the Danish Architecture Centre? And what will that mean? But that’s another story).

The exhibition galleries (the ones we visited!), however, were not that impressive. There’s this certain style of natural history exhibits (found also at e.g. the Field Museum in Chicago, and parts of the upstairs Fra pol til pol [From pole to pole] exhibition at the zoological museum in Copenhagen) which is all garish colours, busy interactives and overloads of didactic information that just leaves me really tired and perplexed instead of curious or enlightened. Rather than giving you the time and headspace to contemplate the specimens, and by extension, evolution, diversity, ecology and other wonders and critical concerns of natural history, they command your attention only to fill you with tit-bits of information. Too often, these exhibits also feel outdated – here, for instance, children were offered information about the daily milk-intake of a baby whale using the analogy of a milk float, even though these went out of service long before the kids were born. To be fair, we only saw parts of the museum (the dinosaurs (lurid) and mammals (tired)), as we were already a bit museumed-out post V&A, and I suspect that other galleries and newer exhibitions had more to offer, (by attempting to offer less, perhaps). And yes, I guess it’s also a matter of taste and of didactic principles and convictions, so I should probably not be so harsh. I just had a much more engaging, exciting and enlightening time at Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. And I suspect that even my kids prefer exhibitions that also cater to unaccompanied adults. Therefore, for me, the choice of an aesthetic, almost art museum-like style for the new(est) Precious Things exhibition at the Zoological Museum, DK, bodes well for the coming national museum of natural history.

#museumselfie
Anyway, back to the photography thing. As evident above, I also photographed the beautiful building, and often attempt to capture particular details as a keepsake, that is, when I’m not too self-concious to even get my phone out. So I get the urge to take photos in the museum (even though it also reminds me of that quote from Kafka in Barthes’ Camera Lucida: “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes” (2000:53) – Is that what we do? Take a photograph to avoid engaging our minds and memory?).

Whatever the subliminal reasonings and effects, it was quite interesting to observe how people posed or moved around to get just the right shot, and to see the selfie stick phenomenon in action. Because it just hasn’t been that big a thing in Denmark, yet. But then again, big enough for the National Museum of Denmark to greet visitors with this sign:

Sign welcoming guests at Nationalmuseet, Denmark

Sign welcoming guests at Nationalmuseet, Denmark (& a subtle #9 kind of museumselfie http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/01/19-types-of-selfies-at-museum-selfie-day.html)

Actually, I’ve been saving up links for a post on this subject for months, the-one-about-museum-selfies, and started a draft for it on ‘#MuseumSelfie day‘ in January. Because it is an interesting mobile/social/museum-media issue, one that provokes fervent reactions and counter-replies, battling over issues of the cultural meaning and value of selfies, of appropriateness, and of who gets to decide what is appropriate. Should museums encourage or ban photography? Should visitors be free to enjoy artworks and artefacts in whatever way is right for them, or does one person’s freedom to take photos hamper another visitors freedom to enjoy the same objects without being disturbed by the cameras? Is the issue as big as it’s made out to be? It really is all very interesting. But my head’s too full, too tired at this stage of my thesis to really engage with this question, so I’ve simply opted for a ‘live and let live’ attitude (which might be where I’d end up after much deliberation anyway). Besides, Ed Rodley has already written a string of really good blog posts on visitor photography, so rather than wasting more time on my 50p’s worth, go and read his considerations here, here and here.

Anti-social media?
Visitor photography and gallery etiquette aside, the #museumselfie matter, of course, also relates to social media conventions and user behaviour online, which has its own issues. Actually, mastering the jargon of social network sites is pretty tough. Take Twitter: Knowing how to banter in 140 characters, how to twist and dose your hashtags, understanding what the acronyms and formatting tricks are all about (luckily, there are helpful guides out there for those of us who are still not quite sure when to put a full stop in front of the @handle). Not to mention cadence, selection and timing (on Facebook, for instance, working out whether or not to enter into an already waning debate, or how to assess the sell-by-date on a popular link or meme). Keeping up. Curating your profile. Building your network. Sorting out your settings. Working out the different formats and protocols for different platforms. Minding your digital p’s and q’s.

Some people get it, either because they have a knack for it, because it’s their job to knuckle down and work it out, or because they make it a priority. Others don’t care whether they do or not, they just do it. Some dabble, hesitate. Come on, sing the digerati, there’s no right or wrong, just jump in and swim! No need to overthink it, doggy-paddle will do just fine. Still, it’s an element that some people feel comfortable in, and others don’t. Just like other social elements.

My point is that social media can feel pretty anti-social if you’re not quite sure how to participate. Even if the party’s open, it’s not that simple to crash into a conversation, especially if its outside of your personal nexus. You need social capital, in a digital currency. You need time and effort. You need to have something to say, which is often the hardest and most daunting part. Or you may just be introvert (which is getting kinda cool, only in a very understated way), or simply not inclined to share your thoughts and whereabouts with everyone. (Over on Facebook and Twitter, I’m one of those lurkers, mainly).

For museums, this means two things. First up, professional communication is a job, also when it takes place on social media platforms. Judging by all the slick and quirky museum profiles out there, many institutions have now caught on to this. However, these cool social media museum communicators also set the bar high. Therefore, secondly, it’s worth keeping in mind that just as some people feel excluded from the museum space, because they don’t really know how museum-going is done, so others may feel excluded from/by the smart banter online.

Just sayin’. (Or maybe, I’m just bullshitting – as argued by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, social media “confront us with epistemological problems and are hard to understand. [Meanwhile], there is a large demand for knowledge about what they mean, a powerful political economy that generates a lot of statements about social media, including substantial amounts of bullshit.” (2015: abstract) Do read the full article).


Fashion on the Ration

Display in Imperial War Museum's 'A Family in Wartime' exhibition - this time, I was really sad that I could not take photographs in the brillant 'Fashion on the Ration' exhibition

Display in Imperial War Museum’s ‘A Family in Wartime’ exhibition – sadly, I could not take photographs in the brillant ‘Fashion on the Ration’ exhibition

If Savage Beauty was our reason for going to London, and #DancingMuseum at Tate Modern the scoop event to coincide with our visit (which I will leave for another post, however, as I hope to tease out an epilogue from this), then Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style exhibition was the most wonderful bonus. I didn’t even know it was on when we decided to visit the museum our last day of visit, but this was actually one of the best fashion exhibitions I’ve seen. Compared to the extravagance of both content matter and exhibition design in Savage Beauty, this exhibition was pretty prosaic, as the austerity fashion on display was matched by fairly unassuming display formats, which were, however, doing just the right job. This exhibition too was beautiful, informative, and evocative, and conveyed many interesting aspects of wartime fashion, from ‘siren suits’, factory fashion and gasmask handbags, over make-do-and-mend campaigns and ration measures, to patriotic prints and Utility designs from England’s finest fashion designers. Most importantly, perhaps, the importance of fashion, even in wartime, was brought to attention. (Here, I wish I had been allowed to use my camera to aid my memory also in the future, but luckily it’s possible to find images from the exhibition itself online, to complement the museum’s well stocked online subject hub.)

But the most significant difference between the two exhibitions is of course that whereas Fashion on the Ration focused on fashion in cultural history context (or as cultural history), thereby shedding light on the aesthetics of Utility style and 1940’s street style, but also on the austerity and creativity of life during the second world war, Savage Beauty showcased couture as an art form, which is actually pretty distinct or far removed from fashion in a more general sense. Thus, they represent very different takes on what a fashion exhibition is, a difference that can perhaps be seen as analogous to the difference between metonymic representation (the cultural history artefact documenting an era, class, issue or other) and metaphor (the abstractions of art). Hmmm. Need to ponder that proposition a bit more, to see if it sticks, and leave it at this for now. After all, I still have a thesis to complete.

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So, over on Twitter, apparently it’s #NationalHandbagDay. Which calls for a celebration, thinks Europeana Fashion.

@EurFashion tweet 1:00 PM - 10 Oct 2014

@EurFashion tweet 1:00 PM – 10 Oct 2014

Me, I’m not so sure. OK, so it’s an excuse to feed something into the Twitter stream, like #FossilFriday (also today, as every Friday), the recent #MuseumCats day a.k.a. #MewseumMonday, and other initiatives of that ilk. But come on. It’s also more than a bit silly, isn’t it, jumping on a hashtag like #NationalHandbagDay? (Which nation, btw? Says who? But no, that would be pendantic to ask for such clarifications from ‘a best practice network co-funded under the CIP ICT-PSP program* and composed of 22 partners from 12 European countries, which represent the leading European institutions and collections in the fashion domain’ (http://blog.europeanafashion.eu/about/ * the CIP ICT-PSP program is run by the EU commission)).

Feeding into the Twitter stream of course garners attention for the network, makes it visible in the public eye. In the blink of an eye, at least, before the stream moves on. But the risk is that with such a feeble excuse for sharing an image of this bag, on this day, the lasting image is negligible, or could even be undermining the institution’s ethos and mission.

At least that’s the impression I’m left with. Blinded as I am by seething annoyance, I struggle to see how this promotes an understanding of the significance of fashion heritage.

But OK, I’ll try to snap out of it, give it a go. Say it loud: Happy National Handbag day!

There. Better now?

A revised version of the paper I presented at the Museum Metamorphosis conference in Leicester last year, has now been published in the latest issue of Museological Review.

Abstract:
Museums are steadily changing. Yet analogising this development with biological or mythological metamorphosis could imply an elevation or naturalisation of events, which is potentially problematic. This paper therefore suggests a supplementary perspective, arguing that certain changes in modern day museum practices correspond to the logic of fashion. Where Foucault once described museums as heterochronias; places representing an ’other-time’, museums now strive to be both of their time and in time with the Zeitgeist. As a consequence, they must keep up with the speedy cycles of technological advancements and cultural change, and not only deliver, but also stoke the desire for, novel experiences. The paper explores the current vogue for fashion exhibitions as a case in point, arguing that this trend serves to promote the museum as fashionably current, but can also support novel formats for cultural reflection. 

Thursday, I attended a public lecture by Valerie Steele at 92Y in relation to the current exhibition Shoe Obsession at the Museum at FIT. As mentioned in an earlier post, I found the exhibit itself to be a little under-communicated, so it was very interesting to hear the curator and fashion historian talk about why fashion is suddenly all about the shoes. She gave insights into the linking of the stiletto heel with fetishism, a topic she has previously done extensive research into; into the concurrent rise in the height of the heels and in retail prices over the last few years; into the private collectors who had lent shoes to the exhibition, and into the impact of the TV show Sex and the City and specifically the episode ‘A woman’s right to shoes’ on the collective craze for Manolos.

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Valerie Steele lecturing on shoes – it’s an awful photo, I know, but as she is a bit of an icon in this field, a personal snapshot from the session still makes for a keepsake.

Attending this lecture also gave me a chance to ask her to elaborate a little on the curatorial considerations on displaying fashion objects from the current collections on sale a few blocks from the museum, which she gladly did:

’Well I think that what we were aiming to do was focusing, as I said, on this contemporary moment of shoe obsession, ten or twenty years of it. One problem with museum exhibitions is that of course you can’t touch things, and you certainly can’t wear things, so it’s an interesting idea that you could actually go up town and try on many of the exact same shoes, that’s something that you could almost never have in an exhibit. I did go to one exhibit of contemporary fashion in Vienna, where they actually had the clothes there hanging on a rack, and you could try them on. But that was in Europe, I mean, in New York at five o’clock there would be nothing on that rack! So, I see museums as being another medium to display fashion. You see fashion in stores, you see it on the runway, if you go to runway shows, you see it on the internet and in magazines, and it provides a particular take on it. And what can be interesting is when you push that, to try to get people to look at two things side by side, and so, I really wanted to push it by having the case – because that was my idea, that wasn’t Saks, they’re our sponsor – I said, I want to have a case of things from Saks now, because I want people to understand that these are things, not every shoe here, some may be five or ten years old, but many of them are things that are on sale now, this is a current phenomenon. And I think a lot of the audience members did, from their comments, you can get a sense of that, one woman, I overheard her saying ’I’ve died and gone to shoe heaven’, and that’s kind of the thing that you say when you’re shopping for shoes, not when you’re in a museum.’

Only later did I think that it would also have been interesting to hear more about the choice not to include any of the high street rip-offs or similar styles, that are also part of the same cultural trend, and the more attainable variant for the common girl. Although these cheaper variants do not have the same quality in terms of manufacture or design, and cannot be said to hold quite the same sculptural qualities as the iconic high fashion pieces, it is still interesting how this trend, which, in its trickled down version, is even more clearly aspirational, has developed. And not least, why a museum of fashion does not see it fit to include such examples in what is also a cultural exhibition.

Walking back from the lecture, I revisited the exhibition, and yes, the displays did make a lot more sense – rather than simply being visually stunning – after learning about some of the thoughts behind the exhibition. I also bought the catalogue (I had meant to buy it at the lecture and get it signed, but was too late as I got talking to some learned ladies after the talk) and can now study the research behind the show in more detail.

More importantly, I plucked up the courage to go and try on some designer shoes at the rather splendid shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue, the kind of shoe heaven some people would either die or kill to be in, as per the above comment. Now, I’m not personally all that obsessed about shoes (a confession which actually at this moment is almost a little bit like admitting that you’re not that into sex). I mean, what’s not to like, but I just can’t get to the obsession stage, which is probably a good thing as it would be very costly hobby to pick up. So it was actually from a fashion museological point of departure that I felt compelled to do this, and even though I had dressed up for the occasion, so as at least to look a bit like a potential costumer, I still felt like a total fraud asking for assistance, knowing that I was never going to buy anything. So this whole question of accessibility of design products in the public space is actually not all that straight forward.

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Shoe display in Saks Fifth Avenue. Sadly, photography was prohibited in the exhibition at FIT, but there were similarities.

I opted for a pair of spiked ‘Pigalle’ Louboutins, given that his red soles are some of the most lusted for items in the current fashion economy, and because this ‘classic with a punk twist’ design had stood out in the exhibition (as well as in the promotional material), even if it wasn’t by far as adventurous as some of the other designs. Apparently, this particular shoe had even been voted the sexiest of 2012 (the stuff you find on Google!). And finally they had got me wondering whether you would end up scraping you own feet with those spikes when you wore them, which would make them exceedingly uncomfortable. In other words, they were the perfect example of a museum object that you wish you could experience physically, as well as having the whole cultural significance, fashion system references and semiotic readability thing going on at the same time. Oh, and they were cool.

So it was really interesting actually being able to inspect these shoes more closely, check out the inside details, the finishings, feel their weight and how they were to touch. There really is a difference between high fashion and low fashion items, albeit perhaps not as great a difference as the prices sometimes warrants. And wearing them of course, walking around in those 12 cm heels. And realising that they were actually great to wear (with some of the other styles it was more hit and miss, and the really high platform stilettos would take a lot more practice and came with a high risk of ungracious collapses, but this particular design actually sat really well on my foot), and that no, you don’t scrape yourself, and yes, they were definitely walkable. IMG_0638 In other words, they were great, they made me feel great, and just for a moment there, I thought that maybe I could actually… Which is absolutely insane, as they cost $1295! And some women have hundreds of pairs, which just brings home some of the more repulsive aspects of fashion. But it also illustrated so well the allure and the transforming power of fashion, even if only in a short lived dream. (I don’t mean to come across all Cinderella here; I’ve already got a few glass slippers of my own (and the prince to boot), so I could handle waking up and smelling the roses).

So really, the combined experience or juxtaposition of the display of design and creativity, the cult of the shoe, in the museum, with the material and economic reality in the department store, was very interesting, even if the bridging of the two was not explicitly suggested by the museum.

And yet, of course there is still the problem about mixing curatorial aims with the interests of the fashion industry. Marie Riegels Melchior, in a very insightful conference paper on ‘Fashion Museology: Identifying and contesting fashion in museums’ (2011), does not ask for museums to give up these collaborations with the industry, but calls for the development of a fashion museology that is in keeping with the new museological aim for reflexiveness towards cultural heritage:

The way that fashion is currently displayed and communicated in a museum context, as a means to strengthen visitor orientation, neither stimulates a reflexive world view nor an understanding of the complexity of fashion, the industry, celebrity and consumer culture, ethics and the environment, etc. At least the exhibitions that build on this aim are limited in numbers and do not reach the major art museums’ display of fashion. Fashion museology has therefore future potential. As fashion is a subject that engages non-standard museum-goers, it can become a lens through which our past and present can be told and explored in a much more nuanced way. However, it can also very easily risk the corporal sponsorship of museums, if a more critical interpretation of fashion discourages new museum-goers or fails to interest them in more critical matters concerning fashion production, distribution and consumption. The challenge is to find the right balance – to sustain the interest of visitors and corporate sponsors while maintaining the objectives of the new museology paradigm, strengthening critical reflection and understanding our contemporary world and cultural heritage. (Melchior 2011 p. 8)

In other words, an exhibition such as Shoe Obsession, in dealing with a current phenomenon, could have adressed the complexities surrounding this subject more clearly – the psychology, the production and consumption cycles, the mechanics of fashion, the aspirations – rather than simply celebrating the wonderful creations of the master designers and the women who are privileged enough to be their costumers.

In my first week at the BGC, I was hoarding a huge pile of articles from online resources such as the journal Fashion Theory (which had a couple of special issues on fashion curating back in 2008)  and Berg Fashion Library, including entries in Berg Ecyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion  and from their fine collection of E-books, as well as taking out stacks of books from the library. Oh, and reading some, of course. Which has been very inspiring and informative, as the wealth of material that is available to me here means that I can truly delve into a select subject, and get some feel of the breadth and depth of the field, following the sources cited rather than stopping short after the first article.

My main focus thus far has been fashion museology, which, inevitably, spreads into both fashion theory, material culture studies and general museology. The challenge, of course, is that the chain of references is never-ending, so I must remember not to get too carried away, but what also emerges is a network of articles referencing each other or the same sources, meaning that I can start to identify central discourses and actors in the field. I’m still very much in an absorbing stage, although my supervisors would be pleased to hear that I am trying to start writing, very tentatively, but still.

I will therefore not go into details here on some of the interesting things I have learned, such as the parallel movements within ‘new’ museology and ‘new’ fashion studies towards a less object centered, more concept or theory based approach, as pointed out in Fiona Anderson’s 2008 paper ‘Museums as Fashion Media’. This movement is not absolute however, as witnessed in the still existent divide within fashion museology between the traditional approach of dress historians, focusing on detailed descriptions and historical accuracy in exhibitions of period dress, and new approaches to curation that are more inspired and reliant on academic discourse and on interpreting current and historical fashions in relation to current cultural phenomena. Often, though, the two approaches merge (Taylor 1998, McNeill 2008)

Valerie Steele, whilst declaring her admiration for Diana Vreeland (former editor of Vogue and curator for the Costume Institute (in)famous for her glamourous, yet historically inaccurate exhibitions), thus argues for the value of the object centered or material methodology approach, using her own research into actual measurements of victorian corsets as an example of

’the importance of artifact study, since the written sources tend to be so polemical. I still recall my outrage when I saw, at an exhibition of Victorian dress, a placard quoting one of the more preposterous letters in the notorious corset controversy in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine as though it were a probative and impartial piece of evidence. I wanted to shout at the curator, “Measure the corsets and dresses in this exhibition before you talk to me about 13-inch waists!” ‘(Steele, 1998 ‘A Museum of Fashion Is More Than a Clothes-Bag’ p. 332  )

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Metropolitan Museum

Steele’s words came to mind when this weekend I went to visit the Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibition currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum. It is an extensive and thoroughly enjoyable exhibition produced in a collaboration between Musee d’Orsay in Paris, Art Institute of Chicago and the Met, showcasing an impressive selection of impressionist masterpieces. Clearly first and foremost an art historical exhibit, the curatorial twist is a juxtaposition of the artworks with dresses of the time mirroring those depicted in the paintings, as the focus of the exhibition is how fashionable dress features so strongly in work of the impressionist movement, as a strong signifier for modernity.

As Ulrich Lehmann has shown in the book Tigerspung, the literature of the time shared a similar fascination with the sartorial. I’ve never actually managed to read the book though, although it’s been sat on my shelf for years, but today I got through an article of his by the same title, but with a focus on fashion as historical narrative, building strongly on Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk (Lehmann 1999).

Although it wasn’t a theme of the exhibition, repeatedly I heard people commenting on the tiny waists and sharing with each other perceived truths of the extremes of tightlacing, which, as Steele has shown, was actually not as extreme as common knowledge has it, still, this misconception is very persistent. And a couple of observations made me think of how the exhibition of dress may sometimes serve to uphold such perceptions rather than challenge them, as also pointed out by Steele above. In an exhibit of the paiting In the Conservatory by Albert Bartholomé alongside the dress actually worn by the artist’s wife in the painting (what a scoop!) it seemed to me as if the the dress was presented in a way that actually made the waist seem even slimmer than it did in the painting. This could of course be the posture. Still, on all the dress displays, the waist was notably slimmer when seen from the front than when viewed from the side – whereas a normal slender torso will look wider from the front than from the side. So was this the effect that corsets actually had on the silhouette – or perhaps in part a result of the design of the mannequins? Maybe I should ask Dr. Steele. Then again, it could be just a trick of my imagination, brought on by a desire to be a clever sausage museologist.

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Albert Bartholomé. In the Conservatory, c. 1881. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image source http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/impressionism-fashion-and-modernity

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Summer dress worn by Madame Bartholomé in the painting In the Conservatory, French, 1880. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Ibid.

That people were more willing to comment on the fashion than on the painting style (admittedly, my ears were pricked for these conversations so I cannot say for sure that the other was not happening) illustrated well the point often made about fashion’s easy accessibility. Whereas we may be fazed by art, not sure if we’re getting it right or feeling that we don’t have enough of an art historical knowledge to assess what we’re seeing, fashion feels straight forward, something we can understand and relate to in terms of class, taste and (dis)comfort.

A similar hierarchy was also apparent in the exhibit design, where dresses were styled to look just like the paintings by combining articles from disparate collections, or in one case by adding bows of yellow silk to a white dress in order to make its likeness to that worn in paintings by Tissot more obvious to the viewer. Whereas touching up the paintings to make them look more like the dresses is unthinkable (imagining that you could do that in a way that was similarly unharmful and completely reversible) historical or stylistic accuracy when it comes to fashion is seemingly treated more casually. (Actually, on this point, there has been some controversy about the upcoming exhibition of punk fashion, also at the Met, with McLaren’s widow claiming that the show is full of inaccuracies and fakes.)

It would seem, then, that Vreeland’s spirit, as expressed in her famous statement “Never worry about the facts, just project an image to the public” (quoted in Stevenson 2008)  still lives on at the Met. Perhaps rightly so – as Steele comments on current curator-in-charge Harold Coda’s assertion that “you have to engage the eye before you can instruct or communicate”: 

People need to be seduced into really seeing and identifying with fashion before they can begin to learn about it. Museum visitors are also becoming ever more visually sophisticated, and exhibition design is increasingly important. At the same time, I believe that a significant percentage of museum visitors really want to learn something when they see an exhibition. (Steele 2008, ‘Museum Quality: The Rise of the Fashion Exhibition’ in Fashion Theory vol 12, 1, p. 14)

Spectacular as it was, in terms of traditional museum education, the information on fashion history in this exhibition was however very limited. As for other types of learning, well, that’s another kettle of fish. But I’ll save that for another post.

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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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New York Fashion Week, just ended, saw a merge of fashion and technology with models sporting Google Glass eyewear on the runway for Diane von Furstenberg. The #DVFthroughGlass project/stunt caught the attention of both tech community and the fashion world, and will result in a short film of the runway show as captured by the model’s augmented reality glasses.

Is this the must have accesssory for SS13, or at least the near future, and how will that affect museums and mediation?

Social media was also playing a central part during NYFW, with Fashion’s Night Out (a night of ‘shopping and celebration’) offering lots of ways to take part via Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr etc., in order to win prizes (and create hype and spend money, of course).