As Fashioning Winter draws to a close, I was pondering what has made it such an interesting and inspiring exhibition for me. Comparing it with other exhibitions I’ve loved, they have all placed fashion into a broader social, artistic, artisanal or historical context. We all get dressed in the morning but taking the time out to think about what we put on our backs, why we put it on and what it says about us is a worthwhile activity once in a while. The best fashion exhibitions cause us to do this whether we are fashion enthusiasts or not. Here are a few that really inspired me in the last few years.
Madame Gres, La Couture a l’Oeuvre, Musee Galliera/Musee Bourdelle, Paris, 2011. This one was the best I’ve ever been to. Musee Galliera, Paris’s fashion museum, was in enforced exile while their building was refurbished. Madame Gres had originally wanted to be a sculptor so what could be more natural than to hold the show in the house of a sculptor, now a museum itself? The dresses appeared alongside the paraphernalia of the sculptor – tools, stonework, workbenches – and this perfectly brought out both the sculptural nature of the dresses and their similarity in draping and pleating to ancient statuary. Walking around, it encouraged the viewer to connect the dresses with the workroom environment, their historic and artistic inspiration and the life and ambitions of the designer.
Balenciaga, Fashion Collector, Musee Galliera/Les Docks Cite de la Mode et du Design, Paris, 2012. Also during Galliera’s exile, this exhibition focused on Balenciaga’s collection of historic Spanish clothing, including eighteenth century coats and nineteenth century jet-encrusted mourning dresses, many including artisanal embroidery. Pieces from his personal collection were displayed alongside work from Balenciaga’s own archive and showed clearly the inspiration he derived from his collection for his couture of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It brought a whole new perspective to the work of one of the most innovative designers of the twentieth century, showing his roots in Spanish traditional and artisanal dress.
Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Somerset House, London 2014 and Daphne Guinness, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York 2011. By contrast these exhibitions showed the perspective of the fashion collector and the surroundings and people who helped to define their style. What was interesting here was to see a broad spectrum of the wardrobe of a person for whom fashion was an essential element of their personal expression. Of course there was couture but in many ways the most engaging aspect was seeing, close-up, that these pieces were love-worn, bearing the scars of use. It also gave an interesting insight into the motivation of the collectors – the artistic value of the clothes certainly but also the personal “performance” in displaying them and combining them with other pieces, using the original designer’s inspiration but bringing their own personality and artistic expression to bear. To a greater or lesser extent, and with varying success, we all do this.
Hermes Leather Forever, Burlington Gardens, London 2012. This show offered a glimpse of the atelier behind the most luxurious leather goods in the world and the hand-crafting and artisanship that create them. Scenes from the workrooms, raw leather samples and tools were set alongside a large collection from Hermes’s own archive of bags, shoes and other leather goods. The time, care, raw materials, training, and functionality of design together make the case for taking pride in making and using artisan-crafted items, knowing that as they bear the marks of wear and use they will only become more completely our own. I left thinking about where the things we buy come from and the responsibility the consumer shares with the creator.
So what next? I’m planning on checking out a few other exhibitions in coming months – first on the list is the Fashion and Textile Museum’s soon-to-close knitwear show, Chanel to Westwood.