Fashion and textile exhibitions are not a new phenomenon in the museum world. What is new, however, is the public new-found admiration and interest in them. The New York Times recently featured an article examining museums that are installing fashion exhibits. (Museums Are Finding Room for Couturiers By GERALDINE FABRIKANT Published: April 20, 2011)
Critics dismiss this cultural shift as a preference for “fluff over fine arts”, or simply a sophomoric obsession fueled by reality TV shows. Tyler Green, editor of Modern Art Notes, believes that fashion exhibitions lack substance and scholarly investigation. Or do they?
Venomous attacks such as Green’s are unfounded, and well, a bit outdated. Curating a museum exhibition on any subject is as scholarly as an investigation could get. A subject is proposed, research is conducted, and curators painstakingly create a written and visual narrative. The written component includes a detailed object list, wall didactics, and an exhibition catalog. (Academic terms for the descriptions of the object and maker, the writing on the wall explaining the exhibition, and the tempting book available at the gift shop) Becoming a curator is academically rigorous; requirements include: conducting original research, lecturing to the public, publishing articles and books, and presenting at conferences. Clearly, curators showcase the best of their scholarly pursuits. So why the rancor? And just why was Fabrikant, a senior writer for the business section at the Times, citing antiquated debates and quotes?
The real contention revolves around defining fashion. Is fashion art? Is fashion a serious discipline? Is fashion worthy of investigation on an academic, social and cultural level? These questions have been addressed by great philosophers including Socrates and Foucault, yet the debate persists. But why?
Fashion exists in a perpetual duality: it is as serious as it is superficial. Creating clothing requires creativity, mathematical expertise for a precise fit, and a continual quest for innovation in fabrication and silhouette. On a micro level, fashion choices communicate individual identity. Non-verbal communication accounts for about 90% of an individual’s message. Clothing, therefore, speaks for you. On a macro level, clothing signifies economic, social and cultural groups. Aside from personal identity, clothing also gives wearers a sense of communal belonging.
Yes, fashion is art. And anyone that is an art aficionado knows that there is a stratification of art. There is highbrow, there is low brow, and everything in between. For many years, graffiti was considered tasteless vandalism. Now, street artists’ work, like Banksy’s, sell for millions of dollars on the contemporary art market.
Fashion also is a subtle indicator of political and social movements. Changes in clothing often predate the movement itself.
Despite the seriousness, fashion can still be fun. The daily choice of self-expression is experimental. It is a creative way to invent yourself, the image you want to project to the world. To a large degree, what people chose to wear is an unconscious act. Most of us don’t wake up wondering what the political ramifications of our outfits will be. This is why fashion, as a discipline, is scoffed at. The very act of waking up and dressing is minimized. For the majority, dressing has become an involuntary act, like breathing. If we don’t think about it, does it make it less important? No! Perhaps the remedy is redirecting the focus to making it fun. Clothes that don’t fit our mode of expression can be discarded. The act of trying new garments to achieve “that look” is what philosopher Foucault was talking about when he said: The task is not to find ourselves, but to invent ourselves. Why leave such an important task to chance or reflex?
When museums’ showcase a fashion exhibit, it is a way for the public to reconnect with the past on a very personal level. We can learn something of our own personal style by reflecting on what has come before. Seeing what people wore makes the past more real, more tangible. We can envision ourselves in the garments. We can literally feel what it would be like in their shoes.
Not everyone will read the didactics and object lists. But they will have a real visceral experience of stepping into the past or mind of the designer. But for the critics and journalists who continually bash fashion as art, I must ask: Have you taken the time to read the curator’s work? If you haven’t, the writing is on the wall.