Lingua Franca: The 2014 D-Crit Conference

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Exhibiting Fashion: Between Culture and Commerce

Sandra Nuut

The central focus in a fashion exhibition is dress: a design object that reflects era, place, class, and gender. It shows for whom and by whom it was designed, sewn or manufactured, and worn. Although dress was collected in European museums’ textile and costume departments in the late eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, it did not mean that collecting fashionable European clothing was regarded highly. Museum officials saw dress—mainly historic costume—as a product of the textile industry. Fashionable dress had negative connotations, and was seen as “vulgar commerciality, valueless, ephemeral, feminine style” by the mainly male museum staff.1 It was only in the 1950s when women became part of the decision-making process at museums, and attitudes about showcasing fashionable garments began to change in Europe as well as in the United States, that what we might recognize as examples of fashion design was collected.2 Real change came with Cecil Beaton’s curatorial work in “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton,” an exhibition staged in 1971 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, for which Beaton showcased significant design work and contemporary garments. Beaton’s practice differed from Diana Vreeland’s curatorship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, since he was not interested in including celebrity costumes, or celebrating the lives of women who wore elite fashion. Cecil Beaton was concerned with selecting the finest examples of contemporary fashion design (haute couture)—rather than responding to what was merely offered—and in reflecting the making of these designs.3

It was not until 1993 that counter-culture clothing entered the institution, when the Victoria & Albert Museum, under Amy de la Haye’s curatorship, put on a show titled “Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk” in 1994.4 The exhibition showcased objects that the public could relate to. Material objects take on another quality when exhibited in a museum: they become removed from their conventional everyday context, are seen as an exemplar of the culture from which they derive, and therefore serve a new function. These examples of dress objects stand between being appreciated as a culturally significant specimen on display and a common item that might be worn by an exhibition visitor. Pierre Bourdieu wrote that, “Cultural objects, with their subtle hierarchy, are predisposed to mark the stages and degrees of the initiatory progress which defines the enterprise of culture.”5

The garments exhibited within today’s exhibition spaces reflect the diversity of our cultural climate. Aspirational mainstream exhibitions which feature well-known designers include “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (2011) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From Sidewalk to the Catwalk” (2013) at the Brooklyn Museum. Research-based exhibitions include those by Judith Clark at the Simone Handbag museum in Seoul, South Korea. In August 2010, Clark started collecting for the museum, and since its opening in 2012, she has displayed historical handbags held by reconstructed mannequin hands that imply the gestures of the era in which they were worn, and therefore push the boundaries of curatorial practice. More radical experiments, where a fashion object is used as a device to communicate a message, can be found in Marit Ilison’s “70 Cotton Smocks,” a 2011 fashion show performed at the Design Night Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, that critiqued the contemporary fashion runway, mass media, and production.

The fear of commercialism, a common reaction to most mainstream fashion exhibitions is indicative of our socio-economic and cultural environment. Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, contrasts the current attitudes with those of the design exhibitions from the 1960s such as the 1962 “Design for Sport” exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art: “Catalogs in the 1950s and 1960s had prices of the showpieces and also detailed information, where you could buy the exhibited cars. This was not critiqued the way it is today. Cars were sculptures on wheels. Commerciality did not have a negative connotation.”6

Today the museum appears to function like the late nineteenth-century department store which, when it was introduced in France, had a significant impact on culture. The French bourgeoisie identified with, and expressed themselves through, the available fashionable goods. Objects gained value because they represented the material form of their owner’s values, attitudes, and aspirations.7 Today the very act of going to the museum is fashionable. Our capitalist economy influences museums as much as other institutions that compete for their survival. The museum is not solely a cultural archive, but a cultural center open to large audiences, that maintains itself by organizing lectures, conferences, film screenings, and programs, with educational as well as promotional motives. Museum objects are valued intellectually as well as physically, and the museum visitor, eager for knowledge, constructs a fashionable identity through being part of the “elite” crowd.

Exhibiting commercially available objects enhances our tendency to fetishize commodities. Karl Marx observed over one hundred years ago that we never own commodities, but we own the commodities’ value.8 Today, according to art curator and writer Joshua Simon, “nothing can be owned―only looked after […] we also require new ethics for using objects―for taking care, looking after, and watching over them.”9 We buy into materialistic values through the very acts of displaying and viewing objects. The high numbers of exhibition visitors reflect a collective desire to grasp prestige. The consumer, like the exhibition goer, seeks to define his or her personal identity and status by owning and using commodities that signify something desirable, but also by consuming the exhibitions in which they are displayed.10

The fashionable object that was once seen as irrelevant, not worthy of being part of the museum collections, or not part of our cultural legacy, is now made visible by an expanded and enriched exhibition practice.

  1. Lou Taylor, “Doing the Laundry? A Reassessment of Object-based Dress History,” Fashion Theory: Journal of Dress, Body & Culture Volume 2, Issue 4 (1998), 342.
  2. Ibid, 339-343.
  3. Amy de la Haye, “Vogue and the V&A Vitrine,” Fashion Theory: Journal of Dress, Body & Culture Volume 10, Issue 1/2 (2006), 129-130.
  4. Lou Taylor, “Doing the Laundry? A Reassessment of Object-based Dress History,” Fashion Theory: Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 351.
  5. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction – A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (London: Routledge, 1989), 231.
  6. Paola Antonelli, seminar for “Exhibition Curation”, The Museum of Modern Art, 31 Jan. 2014.
  7. Yunija Kawamura, Distribution Through Department Stores, Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. Volume 10: Global Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 201.
  8. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I (New York: International Publishers, 1867), 83.
  9. Joshua Simon, “Neo-Materialism, Part One: The Commodity and the Exhibition,” e-flux, 2010, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/neo-materialism-part-one-the-commodity-and-the-exhibition/ (accessed 25 Feb. 2014).
  10. Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (New York: Random House, Inc., 2005).

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