COS­TUME DRAMA

Mak­ing sense of the blurred line be­tween fash­ion and art

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Bazaar -

Once upon a time, few mu­se­ums took fash­ion se­ri­ously. Cos­tume de­part­ments were rel­e­gated to a dusty back­wa­ter; their cu­ra­tors ranked low on the aca­demic peck­ing or­der. Clothes were seen as a sub­sec­tion of so­cial his­tory, ad­denda to a big­ger, more in­ter­est­ing pic­ture. Many ar­gued, and still do, that art is about cre­ativ­ity, while fash­ion is about busi­ness; so art be­longs in a mu­seum, fash­ion in a shop. The cre­ation of a work of art is an essen­tially pur­pose­less act; the mak­ing of an item of cloth­ing is prac­ti­cal. Art is free to ex­ist out­side mar­ket forces; fash­ion is a pris­oner of eco­nom­ics.

Au­di­ences, how­ever, have voted with their feet; frocks rock the box of­fice. The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art’s show ‘Alexan­der McQueen: Sav­age Beauty’ was the fourth most at­tended ex­hi­bi­tion world­wide in 2011, with more than 661,000 visi­tors. Last year, the V&A sold a record 67,000 ad­vance tick­ets to its ‘David Bowie Is’ show, a fu­sion of fash­ion and pop­u­lar cul­ture, and around 300,000 peo­ple poured through its doors. In Colorado, the Den­ver Art Mu­seum ex­tended the hours of its ex­hi­bi­tion ‘Yves Saint Lau­rent: The Ret­ro­spec­tive’ to cope with de­mand. In 2012, there were more than 44 cos­tume shows in ma­jor mu­se­ums world­wide.

This re­clas­si­fi­ca­tion of fash­ion pieces as mu­seum-wor­thy works of art makes many ner­vous. The art busi­ness de­pends on keep­ing art ex­clu­sive, rar­efied, and oth­er­worldly. “Fash­ion is fash­ion and art is art,” says Damien Whit­more, di­rec­tor of pro­gram­ming for the V&A. “Art is about mean­ing; fash­ion is a craft.” The V&A, with an es­tab­lished tex­tile and fash­ion depart­ment, puts on ex­hi­bi­tions that ex­plore the sto­ries and skills be­hind cos­tume. As Whit­more says: “We’re not just about ‘wow’, we’re about ‘why’ and ‘how’.”

Yet the hard lines that sep­a­rate high and low cul­ture have blurred; and the roles of fem­i­nism and mi­cro-his­tory have also el­e­vated fash­ion’s sta­tus. The art his­to­rian Richard Martin ob­served that fash­ion­able at­tire was de­val­ued in Western cul­ture be­cause it was seen as the prov­ince of women. “While the fem­i­nist move­ment of the 1960s might be cited as a rea­son for the re­assess­ment of fash­ion,” says Harold Koda, the cu­ra­tor in charge of the Cos­tume In­sti­tute of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, “I think it has more to do with a

broad­en­ing of the def­i­ni­tion of art in the 20th Cen­tury.”

Tra­di­tional clas­si­fi­ca­tions of what con­sti­tuted a work of art ended a cen­tury ago when Mar­cel Duchamp signed a uri­nal with ‘R Mutt’. “Art is not about it­self but the at­ten­tion we bring to it,” he said, plac­ing the lava­tory on a pedestal for in­clu­sion in an art ex­hi­bi­tion. Since then, an artist’s hand only has to hover near his or her work. When Charles Saatchi com­mis­sioned a pick­led shark from Damien Hirst for £50,000, most thought the col­lec­tor had gone mad. Yet, armed with a lofty ti­tle and a lot of at­ten­tion, “The Phys­i­cal Im­pos­si­bil­ity of Death in the Mind of Some­one Liv­ing” sold for a re­puted $12 mil­lion. If a box, a shark or a lava­tory qual­i­fies as art, many might ar­gue that a shoe, hat or bra should too.

There is, af­ter all, a rich in­ter­play be­tween fash­ion and art. In por­trai­ture, clothes are a re­flec­tion of char­ac­ter and sta­tus. Velázquez was care­ful to put Philip IV in far more im­por­tant, be­jew­elled clothes than his sub­jects. Queen El­iz­a­beth I’s portraits were full of sar­to­rial mes­sages: dresses dec­o­rated with vine leaves demon­strat­ing Eng­land’s love of the nat­u­ral world; clothes dec­o­rated with pearls to de­pict vir­gin­ity and pu­rity; com­plex ruffs of the finest lace, avail­able only to a rul­ing monarch. The early Im­pres­sion­ists shocked so­ci­ety by paint­ing the mid­dle classes in their ev­ery­day garb. Jean-Au­guste-Do­minique In­gres lav­ished so much at­ten­tion on the de­tail of his sit­ters’ clothes that their faces be­came the sup­port­ing act. De­spite be­ing famed for his nudes, Lu­cian Freud painted his mod­els’ ap­parel with as­ton­ish­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail.

Mass pro­duc­tion and del­e­ga­tion are noth­ing new for artists. Canaletto had a stu­dio to crank out views of Venice to sell to tourists; Andy Warhol his ‘fac­tory’, whose am­a­teur em­ploy­ees made screen prints. Mean­while, an haute cou­ture dress is a one-off cre­ation need­ing many hours of skilled labour to re­alise a par­tic­u­lar fan­tasy. Many cost more than works of art. Even high-end ready-to-wear looks are man­u­fac­tured in smaller edi­tions than Damien Hirst’s “Spot” prints. So which ob­ject is more de­serv­ing of in­clu­sion in a mu­seum? How do we judge?

Some – though not all – de­sign­ers as­pire to be pro­moted to the first di­vi­sion of fine arts; be­ing ex­hib­ited in a mu­seum el­e­vates a garment and adds to a brand’s al­lure. La­bels gain ku­dos by as­so­ci­a­tion with mu­se­ums and, in­creas­ingly, the lan­guage of art suf­fuses the lex­i­con of fash­ion. Prada, Trus­sardi, Cartier, Sal­va­tore Fer­rag­amo, Ba­len­ci­aga, Prada, Mont­blanc, Louis Vuit­ton, Her­mès, and Gucci have all cre­ated foun­da­tions that col­lect and show art, of­ten along­side their prod­ucts. LVMH spon­sors ex­hi­bi­tions, as well as pro­vid­ing classes for chil­dren and a young artists’ award; Marni col­lab­o­rates with artists on its cat­walk shows. And the over­lap con­tin­ues else­where – in Paris, de­sign­ers show the new-sea­son col­lec­tions in venues tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with high arts: Ver­sailles, the Grand Palais, the Jeu de Paume, the Musée Rodin, and the Lou­vre. Con­versely, the Gucci Museo in Florence re­cently showed work by the Amer­i­can artist Cindy Sher­man, and Gucci’s owner François Pin­ault, who also counts Christie’s auc­tion house and two mu­se­ums in Venice among his many as­sets, has one of the world’s most im­por­tant art col­lec­tions.

It was for­mer fash­ion ed­i­tor of this mag­a­zine, Diana Vreeland, who in­vented the block­buster fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tion. When she left pub­lish­ing, Vreeland joined the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, where she cu­rated 14 shows be­fore her death in 1989 (“I was only 70; what was I sup­posed to do?

A cou­ture dress is a one-off cre­ation; many cost more than works of art.

Re­tire?” she said about tak­ing the po­si­tion). There had been a Cos­tume In­sti­tute at the Met since 1946 and an an­nual gala since 1948, but th­ese were dusty, ma­tronly af­fairs. Vreeland in­jected the pro­ceed­ings with glam­our and piz­zazz; more than 150,000 peo­ple saw her first show, ‘The World of Ba­len­ci­aga’. Another Vreeland mas­ter­stroke was to ap­point that doyenne of style Jackie Onas­sis as co-chair; to­gether they made the Cos­tume In­sti­tute Ball a mus­tat­tend event. One critic ac­cused her of cre­at­ing a “thinly dis­guised PR cam­paign for depart­ment-store re­tail­ing”, and it’s true that Vreeland put the­atri­cal­ity be­fore ac­cu­racy. For her ex­hi­bi­tion of ‘ The Eigh­teenth-Cen­tury Woman’, she or­dered the wig-maker to use con­crete blocks to ex­ag­ger­ate the size of the hair­pieces, as it would be ‘more amus­ing’.

With Anna Win­tour join­ing as co-chair in 1994, the Cos­tume In­sti­tute scaled new heights. One show, ‘Dan­ger­ous Li­aisons’ in 2004, was the first to in­te­grate the clothes of 18th-Cen­tury France into rooms adorned with fur­ni­ture and ob­jects of the pe­riod. In her first year, Win­tour raised $1.3 mil­lion for the ball; in 2012, she cor­ralled cheques for $11 mil­lion. Thanks to a mas­sive gift from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, the Cos­tume In­sti­tute is be­ing re­vamped; from this year it will have a 4,200-square-foot ex­hi­bi­tion space, an up­dated con­ser­va­tion cen­tre, a li­brary, and ex­panded stor­age fa­cil­i­ties. Koda ex­plains one of the new gallery’s many tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions: “We will be able to in­tro­duce iso­lated zones of sound – say, of the drag of a mourn­ing en­sem­ble’s heavy satin train and the glassy crackle of jet fringe in move­ment, or the dry abra­sion of an 18th-Cen­tury court gown’s over­dress against its pet­ti­coat.”

Putting on a show de­voted to fash­ion does not al­ways guar­an­tee suc­cess. 2013’s ‘Punk: Chaos to Cou­ture’ was crit­i­cised for a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the pe­riod. Punk was about ug­li­ness, dis­cor­dancy, and anarchy. Gwyneth Pal­trow, who turned up in a pink ballgown, said the show “sucked”. But Koda is san­guine: “Ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to their opin­ion. We thought it was amaz­ing how el­e­ments of a provoca­tive, even ni­hilis­tic, street style could in 30 years come to be re­flected in the cre­ative strate­gies of prêt-à-porter and haute cou­ture de­sign­ers.”

Leav­ing the ‘Punk’ show, visi­tors could buy a $565 silk-screened T-shirt that would have set Sid Vi­cious off on a spit­ting fit. The show’s spon­sor, Moda Operandi, an online re­tailer, had ex­clu­sive mer­chan­dis­ing rights. On its web­site you could buy a pea­cock-blue Mo­hawk for $1,500, or a Thom Browne wool zipped kilt for $3,820. The V&A says it would never ac­cept such spon­sor­ship. “Our brand, rep­u­ta­tion, schol­ar­ship, and in­tegrity have to re­main un­blem­ished,” Whit­more says. “We keep a crit­i­cal dis­tance.”

Yet, in an era when pub­lic fund­ing is be­ing cut and spon­sors are even harder to find, mu­se­ums are un­der pres­sure to come up with prof­itable ex­hi­bi­tions to en­tice new au­di­ences. There are only so many Da Vin­cis, Lowrys, and Hock­neys. Big names and pow­er­ful brands are im­por­tant to help sell shows. The Saatchi Gallery had a run­away suc­cess with its ex­hi­bi­tion of Chanel’s ‘Lit­tle Black Jacket’, pho­tographed by Karl Lager­feld. Alexan­der McQueen’s clothes are ob­jects of ex­tra­or­di­nary beauty and crafts­man­ship in their own right; few could deny, though, that his sui­cide and tragic story helped to cre­ate a fris­son around the Met show.

Another prob­lem mu­se­ums face is how to at­tract new and younger au­di­ences. The wide avail­abil­ity of cut­ting-edge de­sign means that ev­ery­one, what­ever their shape, size, and bud­get, can be part of this once el­e­vated and elu­sive world. No won­der that a newly en­fran­chised fash­ion-buy­ing pop­u­la­tion is in­ter­ested in the sto­ries be­hind the brands. “Fash­ion in mu­se­ums has an in­creas­ingly knowl­edge­able and crit­i­cal au­di­ence,” Koda says. “To­day, ev­ery blog­ger has more in­for­ma­tion eas­ily at hand than a cos­tume cu­ra­tor did 20 or 30 years ago, when I was start­ing off. It is ex­cit­ing to have a more fash­ion-savvy au­di­ence to ad­dress ideas to.”

My prob­lem with th­ese shows is that gar­ments need to be an­i­mated by a wearer; hang­ing on a rail or on a man­nequin, out­fits lose their char­ac­ter and be­come pieces of ma­te­rial. Clothes are made to be worn. The great­est out­fits are re­alised by the body they en­case; by the shimmy of a seam across a hip or breast, the flick of a hem­line, the ar­row of a dart, the slip of a stitch and the sug­ges­tion of form lurk­ing be­neath fab­ric. Like a great play or piece of mu­sic, clothes lose out with­out that el­e­ment of in­ter­pre­ta­tion or per­for­mance. Fash­ion needs the in­put of an in­di­vid­ual. “How many his­toric houses have we been to where the glass-eyed man­nequin has her wig faintly askew and her eye­lashes de-lam­i­nat­ing?” asks Koda. “Be­cause of con­ser­va­tion re­stric­tions, we can never an­i­mate a skirt or a sleeve.”

A fash­ion ex­hi­bi­tion is just part of the story. How­ever, pro­vided that the ex­hibits are based in their so­cial con­text, and staged with wit and imag­i­na­tion, and so long as spon­sors don’t com­pro­mise the cu­ra­tors, their pop­u­lar­ity will en­dure. There are many to look for­ward to in the near fu­ture. Few doubt that ‘Cartier: Style and His­tory’ at the Grand Palais in Paris (till Fe­bru­ary 16) will be a suc­cess. In Lon­don, the Brits are bound to like ‘Hello My Name Is Paul Smith’ at the De­sign Mu­seum (till March 9) and, for the more ad­ven­tur­ous, there is ‘The Fash­ion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Side­walk to the Cat­walk’ at the Bar­bican, (from April 9 till Au­gust 17), and ‘Club to Cat­walk: Lon­don Fash­ion in the 1980s’ at the V&A (till Fe­bru­ary 16). The most im­por­tant thing is not to throw your old clothes away; to­day’s cast-offs might be tomorrow’s works of art.

In­te­rior overview of the ‘Alexan­der McQueen: Sav­age Beauty’ Cos­tume In­sti­tute ex­hi­bi­tion at The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York

The “Star­man” cos­tume from David Bowie’s ap­pear­ance on Top of the Pops in 1972 on dis­play at the ‘ David Bowie is’ ex­hi­bi­tion at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, Lon­don

The Met’s Fash­ion Ball in 1960

Vivi­enne West­wood at the V& A

From top: Diana Vreeland and Pierre Cardin at the Met’s Cos­tume In­sti­tute Gala Ex­hi­bi­tion of ‘ La Belle Epoque’ in 1982; Bianca and Mick Jag­ger at the Met; Gwyneth Pal­trow at the ‘Alexan­der McQueen: Sav­age Beauty’ Cos­tume In­sti­tute Gala at the Met in 2011

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