“David Bowie Is,” the museum retrospective of the singer that recently concluded its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, featured virtually every artistic medium imaginable. Included works extended to music, film, video, fashion, and, in Bowie’s portraits of his Berlin running buddy Iggy Pop, painting. One display case featured the star’s long-retired cocaine spoon—a redundancy, considering the exhibition’s inclusion of his “Life on Mars?” video.
The show originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and made its sole U.S. stop in Chicago, where it was greeted with the crowds and fanfare of a blockbuster. The outpouring of interest seems sensible: Absent from public performance for nearly a decade, Bowie is pop’s missing man. His mark remains everywhere; he is nowhere. “David Bowie Is,” which was produced with the subject’s cooperation, if not curatorship, made a resounding case for his significance. To view the exhibition’s many rooms detailing his work in the 1970s was to peak into the 1980s. The phlegmatic British vocals that would dominate a corner of ’80s pop and the nervous mutability of music and media that would define Madonna (to say nothing of Gaga) have roots here; arguably, so does Michael Jackson’s cheesy white Thriller suit. In one displayed video, 1979’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” Bowie appears as his own backup singers, garbed in the elaborate gowns and wigs of female drag. What seems shocking about the video, however, is the main image of Bowie ostensibly as himself, clad in the dark suit of a prototypical mid-80s yuppie. It’s this look—which, for the record, predates Bret Easton Ellis’s debut by six years—that appears to be the video’s true act of drag.
A museum show about a pop star inevitably runs into limitations. In an exhibition of a painter, visitors directly confront the subject’s primary source: the painting is the ultimate art. Even for a multidisciplinarian such as Bowie, the true art lies in his records and performances; the stuff inside display cases can seem secondary, if not trivial. But the aim of this exhibit, where headphone-clad visitors roamed as an army of enthralled zombies, was immersion. It was presented with high-minded care and, at least when covering the years that matter, the exhaustiveness of a box set. Over 400 items were on hand: photographs, handwritten lyrics, a monstrous set of keys from the musician’s Berlin apartment, even an old pocket map for the West Berlin subway. There were also more than 60 stage costumes, most fetchingly the pear-like black-and-white jumpsuit that Kansai Yamamoto designed for the Aladdin Sane tour. Even all these years on, we discover new sides to the pop star: Meet Ziggy Stardust, the world’s most glamorous hoarder.
But the exhibition’s showstopper was drawn from nobody’s closet. Rather, it was the famous video of Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Saturday Night Live, in the waning days of the 1970s. The video deserved greater prominence at the MCA, if not an entire museum to call its own; it also would have benefited from the other two songs recorded for the episode. Nonetheless, the clip could move mountains. Bowie is accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, vanguard figures from the nocturnal club world, both clad in monochromatic Thierry Mugler dresses. The men carry Bowie to his microphone as if he is a children’s toy. Wearing a cardboard tuxedo that was designed by the singer and Mark Ravitz under the spell of 1920s Dada, Bowie sings with the bemused detachment of a Martian. Space alien analogies always fit Bowie—after all, we are talking about the Man Who Fell to Earth—but they seem particularly apt for the SNL appearance. At the taping, he was newly returned from self-imposed exile in West Berlin, introducing irrefutably avant-garde notions to a mainstream arena. (Not for nothing did Kurt Cobain cover this song in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set.) The ’80s—which thwarted the world’s rock stars where no drug or label chicanery ever could—were mere days away. Bowie seemed intent on ending his decade of dominance in spectacular style. The appearance is not an act of subversion so much as it is a sterling media performance—pop as art and back again.
Jay Ruttenberg is editor of The Lowbrow Readerand of its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader. He has written for The New York Times,The Boston Globe, and other publications.
Hubert de Givenchy, Winter 1971/72. Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri. Gazar Brodé Chenille, Winter 1971/72. Silk and entamine, shantung appliqué. Abraham Archive.
In1982, sociologist Howard S. Becker published the book Art Worlds, in which he argued that art is not the production of single individuals – artists – but rather the result of a number of interactions among people and materials, together constituting the contexts in which art works can be defined as such. According to Becker, art is not the result of one person’s work, but is a value constructed according to specific settings, or art worlds. This perspective has become hugely influential in art theory while also having an impact in fashion studies, most notably through sociologist Yunyia Kawamura’s Fashion-ology: An introduction to Fashion Studies (2004). Explaining how fashion comes into being, Kawamura aligns herself with Becker by claiming that fashion should not be understood as the product of designers working in creative isolation in their studios, but instead as the effect of an entire system of interactions, based on the negotiations between designers, stylists, magazine editors, PR consultants, retailers as well as a number of other actors.
Currently on view at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp is an exhibition exploring the effects of this theoretical perspective on the textiles, prints and fabrics manufactured by the Swiss company Abraham Ltd. The exhibition was originally produced by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, but the Antwerp version (in the museum’s own words) “recaptures and expands” the original version. Placing the materiality of the fabrics and the print designs at the center of the exhibition, the process of producing prints is explained in detail, not only making for a pedagogical but also for an aesthetically advanced display. For example, the exhibition shows how a rose pattern, which was one of the company’s trademark prints, required nine stencils to print nine colors in nine separate print runs. The fabrics produced by Abraham Ltd. were so intricate that they became – due to the high cost of production – often reserved for haute couture, thus establishing intimate interconnections between the Swiss company and French couture houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. As a result, Abraham Ltd. became one of the key players in the high fashion industry of the twentieth century, their patterns and textiles shaping much of what is otherwise generally assumed to have been designed within the couture houses.
Installation with 20 Abraham scrapbooks, 2010. Abraham Archive
Punk fashion, in its purest form, is a gawky Jew from Queens, resplendent in old jeans, snug shirt, long hair, and a chintzy black leather jacket that, depending on the viewer’s perspective, either masks or accentuates the wearer’s geekiness. Anything beyond this uniform—the safety pins, studs, or those storied Mohawks—has always seemed an affront to the music’s minimalism. Worse, it is cheesy.
Or maybe not. Whereas in New York, punk was a witty music and art movement, in London, it quickly became a deathly serious fashion and media one. The Ramones gave their first concerts at a 23rd Street loft and a not-yet-famous Bowery dive bar; the Sex Pistols began their stage life at Central Saint Martins College, the London fashion hub. Hence, despite existing in the city that both birthed and perfected punk, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibition feels much more a piece of London than of New York. This is probably for the best: London punk never offered a rival to Joey Ramone’s pop persona or Tom Verlaine’s musicality—but then, New York did not produce image svengalis in league with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
Refreshingly, the Costume Institute’s exhibition, curated by Andrew Bolton, devotes itself almost wholeheartedly to the fashion inspired by punk, predominantly womenswear made in the music’s wake. It never attempts comprehensiveness and avoids Hard Rock Café-isms. (Best to ignore the show’s biggest misstep: a dead-on-arrival, by-now-obligatory recreation of CBGB’s bathroom.) Excepting a room devoted to Westwood’s work—the sloganeering t-shirts of old circling the fancier items that followed—most pieces are from designers not typically associated with punk rock: Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen…. Those punk aesthetes kvetching that the mere existence of this show somehow contradicts the music’s mission are missing the point (or, more likely, confusing the exhibition with Anna Wintour’s tone-deaf party). “Chaos to Couture” seeks to celebrate, not dabble in, cultural tourism. It is not about punk, but about fashion’s belated response to punk.
Gallery View, D.I.Y.: Graffiti & Agitprop
Rooms are divided by influence and material. “D.I.Y.: Hardware” represents the sordid mark of S&M, with gratuitous zippers, ominous padlocks, and other metals—bondage gear for the wealthy, basically. A snippet of the New York Dolls’s “Trash” spins in “D.I.Y.: Bricolage,” a room devoted to customization and recycled materials (i.e., a Margiela ensemble featuring foil and metal staples). The exhibition concludes with “D.I.Y.: Graffiti and Agitpop,” with the Clash as muse, and “D.I.Y.: Destroy,” which is inspired by Johnny Rotten and his awing collection of shredded grandma sweaters. For a viewer such as myself, far more schooled in songs than in garments, exploring how the genre eventually trickled into high fashion is eye-opening. In music, the best punk-influenced bands have always been those that channel elements of the genre into unexpected sounds (say, Beat Happening) rather than those producing mere facsimile. Ditto the more interesting clothing: McQueen’s skull and crossbones or a hokey Elvira get-up from Versace seem rote compared to, say, Moschino’s skirt of white plastic shopping bags, whose playfulness might have been appreciated by X-Ray Spex. A series of puffy cream Comme des Garçons dresses, at the show’s finale, reference the layers favored by punk kids only upon a second or third glance. The effect is striking.
As exemplified by that CB’s bathroom—and will some brave soul please take the Met’s bait and use the toilet?—the exhibition stumbles as it gets cute and veers away from fashion. The museum’s decision to identify famed designers laboring under multinational corporations as “D.I.Y.” is laughable. At times, the exhibition tries too hard to create a punkish aura—the “Graffiti and Agitpop” room resembles the menacing punk rock of a Hollywood backlot. And while it is impossible to be discontent while hearing “Blank Generation,” particularly along Fifth Avenue, the inclusion of background music diminishes the clothing it sets out to contextualize.
How this exhibition is received by New Yorkers remains to be seen. The show has yet to open, and already it has given us the cringe-worthy spectacle of insecure celebrities struggling to add hints of leather or metal to their wardrobes in order to qualify as “punk” for the Costume Gala. Perhaps such behavior flies in London; in New York…yeesh! It’s embarrassing just to think about it. For Chrissake, a punk wears what a punk wears.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 19 May 2012-6 January 2013
by Jeffrey Horsley
‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950′ is the first temporary exhibition to be held in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s newly restored Octagon Court, a spacious gallery with a high, domed ceiling, long the home of the Museum’s Fashion Galleries. Curated by Oriole Cullen, Curator of Modern Textiles & Fashion, and Sonnet Stanfill, Curator of Twentieth Century & Contemporary Fashion, the exhibition comprises over 60 outfits by British-based fashion designers from the 1950s to the present day, combining items drawn from the Museum’s holdings alongside loans from designers. The exhibition is staged in two sections; ‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ on the ground floor, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ on the mezzanine level. The press release proposes that the sections evoke respectively ‘the excitement of preparing for a ball in a grand country house’ and ‘the glamour of the red carpet or a couture presentation.’
‘Ballgowns Since 1950’ is staged in a low-ceilinged space defined by large, fixed vitrines. Exhibits are organised chromatically, with cases themed to gowns in black and red, black and emerald, acid yellows, fawn and pinks, blues and ivories. This is a particularly effective strategy, exerting a visual harmony across garments from different periods designed for different occasions. Case interiors are painted a sympathetic pastel tone with either a matching carpet or black and white tile-effect flooring. Several vitrines have backgrounds of photographic reproductions of gilded panelling from the Music Room of Norfolk House, London. Many cases present two-dimensional, cut-out images of furniture and fittings evocative of eighteenth century English town house décor, with rear-mounted LEDs casting a glowing aura around each image.
On the mezzanine level, a floor-plan unencumbered by fixed display cases and circumscribed by an open railing creates a gallery that appears to float beneath the expansive dome of the Octagon Court. Here, ‘Contemporary Ballgowns’ is arranged on three runway-like podia, each set under skeletal metal-framed cupolas clad with white net that echo the architecture of the gallery and hint at the bell-like skirt of the traditional ballgown. Inside each construction hangs an illuminated stylised chandelier, composed of flat, fret-cut panels. The podia are surrounded by strings of giant pearls with slowly revolving mannequins poised on several of the pearls.
Retail-type mannequins, finished in a pale-grey colour, without indication of make-up or hair-style, are used throughout. The mannered poses of the mannequins, often incongruous in exhibitions of more humble attire, appear fitting in the presentation of these extravagant outfits – their affected gestures conveying a sense of artifice that reflects the theatricality of the situations for which the gowns are intended. Notably, a striding mannequin, head held high and arms spread wide spectacularly displays a kaftan-like dress by Yuki, in raspberry-pink silk chiffon from 1972. Two further tableaux (reminiscent of the fashion photography of Tim Walker, who shot the image for the exhibition poster) are particularly effective; a mannequin in strips of red and grey silk chiffon, by Amanda Wakeley straddles a chandelier which has seemingly crashed to the floor; a figure wearing a pink and dark fawn silk satin gown by Hardy Amies languishes over a sofa which is represented as a photographic cut-out, with a pair of similarly rendered greyhounds adding to the chic elegance of the scene.
There couldn’t be a more unlikely exhibition venue than Aux Docks – cité de la Mode et du Design in Paris. At the other end of town from Musée Galliera’s permanent home, which is currently under renovation, this temporary venue sits in a gritty industrial part of town overlooking the river Seine. This contemporary space has exposed concrete walls, punctuated by industrial pipes and has been the temporary home for the musée Galliera exhibition of Cristóbal Balenciaga, collectionneur de modes and Comme des Garçons White Drama. Two adjacent long and narrow rooms served as the exhibition space. Bringing fashion into these blank, cold, industrial boxes must have been a curatorial challenge, since there is an apparent lack of temperature and humidity controls as well as absence of hangable wall space. Nevertheless, Olivier Saillard and his team of the Gallieria rose to the challenge with display techniques that are as innovative as they are creative and the result are two tightly curated exhibitions featuring selected works of two notable designers – Cristóbal Balenciaga, collectionneur de modes and Comme des Garçons White Drama.
Balenciaga Installation Shot by Ingrid Mida
In the first room, Cristóbal Balenciaga’s personal archive of historical garments, print material and other artifacts is presented beside selected examples of his work. This personal archive was recently donated to the museum and includes a range of items from the nineteenth century such as dresses, collars, corsets, shawls, mantles, capes, as well as fashion plates, books and journals. Set alongside Balenciaga’s design work, the reinterpretation of fashion history for design inspiration is made evident. Key to the creation of this link is the innovative display techniques, incorporating modular drawers with clear protective insets, which sit underneath cube-like metal vitrines. The drawers are stacked in fixed position, but open, suggesting links between adjacent pieces. For example, beaded and embroidered black capes and mantalets from the late nineteenth century are shown alongside a Balenciaga cape du soir from 1960, and a 1945 jacquette de soir. The shapes, colours and beading techniques are remarkably similar, and creating links through time and history. Although there is minimal text, none is needed; the objects speak for themselves.
It seemed like it would be an impossible task to match the Costume Institute’s McQueen blockbuster of last summer with an equaling compelling and aesthetically engaging display. Nonetheless, curators Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda achieved the impossible in their latest exhibition called Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. In this witty and provocative installation, they have set a new bar for curation of fashion by their creative use of technology and their innovative juxtaposition of fashion from the past and the present.
Waist Up - Waist Down Gallery
Although Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) and Miuccia Prada (b. 1949) came from different eras, they both challenged cultural norms and expressed their unconventional ideas about beauty and femininity through fashion. Koda and Bolton developed themes that reflected the two women’s shared interests and visual aesthetics, but also identified their different approaches to design by creating imagined conversations between the two designers. It is in this novel approach to animating the exhibition, which reminds us that garments reflect the ideas and attitudes of their creators and are designed for living bodies.
Surreal Body Gallery
Taking inspiration from Miguel Covarrubias’s “Impossible Interviews” for Vanity Fair in 1930s, the imagined conversations are presented in the context of a dinner party with Miuccia Prada sitting at one end of the dining table and Elsa Schiaparelli at the other. The script for their conversations was developed from the text from the 1950s autobiography by Schiaparelli and from interviews with Prada that suggest a real-time response. Schiaparelli’s part is played by an actress and Prada responds as herself. Their imagined conversations seem like good-natured arguments between two friends, infusing the installation with whimsy and a cheeky playfulness.
The exhibition has a modernist, clean aesthetic and includes ninety designs and thirty accessories from the two designers. In general, the rooms are dark putting a spotlight on the video presentations, and creating focal points through selective lighting of the outfits on display. Mannequins act as blank canvases for the garments and are organized in thematic groupings of Waist Up/Waist Down, Hard Chic, Ugly Chic, Naif Chic, and aspects of the Dressed Body. There is an aesthetic coherence to the four rooms, providing a unifying element for what could easily have become a chaotic mess without the tight editing and restraint that Koda and Bolton have demonstrated in this visually appealing installation. Although Schiaparelli’s lobster dress and skeleton dress are not on display, the exhibition cleverly makes reference to these iconic garments and conveys the whimsy, irony and unconventional nature of these important designers.
Exotic Gallery View
In another stroke of brilliance, the curators commissioned Guido Palau to make customized masks for the mannequins. These masks, each unique and exquisitely embellished, add an element of surreal fantasy to the display, as well as unifying the presentation. These masks often play off the design elements within the garments themselves. For example the mask accompanying the gown for the Tear Dress, 1938 by Schiaparelli and Dali, includes a Dali moustache.
Naif Chic Gallery View
As a whole, the exhibition gives the viewer cause to consider the nature of fashion and art. At the press preview Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said “Schiaparelli’s collaborations with Dali and Cocteau as well as Prada’s Fondazione Prada push art and fashion ever closer, in a direct, synergistic, and culturally redefining relationship.” There are also direct references to the two designer’s opinions on the topic and it is clear that this is a point of difference between the two. In the Ugly Chic gallery, Schiaparelli said: “Dress designing…is to me not a profession but an art.” To this Prada responded: “Dress designing is creative, but it is not an art…. But to be honest, whether fashion is art or whether even art is art doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art. Who cares!” The exhibition closes with an animated conversation between Prada and Schiaparelli on the nature of fashion and art, in which the designers conclude by agreeing to disagree. This part of the exhibition caused me to smile. It seemed to provide another connection to my interest in the intersection of fashion and art, and I recalled my conversations with Harold Koda and other curators on this topic. Imagining my own conversation with Miuccia Prada, I would have suggested to her that instead of “Maybe nothing is art”, maybe everything is or could be art. To that, no doubt she would have responded like she did in the installation: “The term [artist] itself seems old-fashioned. It’s a term that does not relate to modern times. And it’s too confining. What I love about fashion is its accessibility and its democracy. Everyone wears it, and everyone relates to it.” And on that point, we would have agreed.
Prada and Schiaparelli: Impossible Conversationsopens to the public at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on May 10, 2012 and will run until August 19, 2012.
Photo credits: All photos provided courtesy of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are subject to copyright.
Ingrid Mida is a Toronto-based artist and writer who is interested in the intersections between fashion, art and history. She has a show called “Constructions of Femininity” opening at Loop Gallery in Toronto on May 26, 2012 and will be speaking at Fashion Tales 2012 in Milan in June 2012 on “The Metaphysics of Blogging”.
Next Tuesday May 15 I will participate in a panel in conjunction with the exhibition “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute. The panel Defining Chic: Then & Now is moderated by Julie Gilhart (fashion consultant) with Leandra Medine (The Man Repeller), Scott Schuman (The Sartorialist), and Lynn Yaeger (Vogue.com Contributing Editor).
Exhibiting fashion photographs in museum and gallery settings has become increasingly common in recent years. Combining two fields that have had difficulty being accepted as ‘fine arts’, fashion photography only moved off the page and onto the wall within the last 15 years — the 2004 Museum of Modern Art show “Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990” was their first exhibition of fashion photography. As iconic fashion photographs have become part of the museum cannon, auction prices for such works have soared with Irving Penn’s Woman in Moroccan Palace (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Marrakech (1951) selling for a record-breaking $409,740 at Christie’s last December. It can be of little surprise that museums all over the world are exhuming the archives of a variety of fashion photographers for retrospective shows.
Jean-Paul Goude’s “Animatronic Grace”
The multi-talented Jean-Paul Goude, whose accomplishments in photography, film and video, art direction, illustration and brand development over his 40 year career have made him an icon of consummate creativity, is the focus of a retrospective exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The first such show of his work, “Goudemalion,” covers many aspects of his multi-faceted career. Opening with elements from his most ostentatious creation, the Bicentennial parade in Paris commemorating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution on July 14, 1989, the visitor is first greeted by a life-size spinning doll and then, in the main hall, a giant locomotive that journeyed down the Champs-Elysées. While the side galleries start with his early fashion illustrations in the 1960s, it is with his increasing interest in photography in the 1970s, when he was working as the art director at Esquire, that his inimitable style becomes solidified. Known primarily for his work with muse and former girlfriend, the Jamaican-American singer Grace Jones, his pre-Photoshop cut-and-paste images of her, which distort her body into impossible, intimidating forms, are shown in both the original (spliced and refigured) and the final (airbrushed into unknown perfection). His fashion photographs are crammed onto the black walls of four smaller rooms — simply mounted and unframed, they range from the overtly sexy images of the ‘70s to the more obviously stylized and surreal photographs of later decades. One wall is given over to the fun series he has been taking since the 1980s of fashion designers — including Azzedine Alaïa, Valentino and Jean Paul Gaultier. Bright and colorful, the images pop against the black walls and low lighting. As this retrospective includes sculpture, performance art, animatronics and television adverts for clients such as Chanel, it goes far beyond just fashion photography – but by incorporating all of these different media, this retrospective helps to show how one singular vision can be adapted and translated across many fields, and also marks his influence in defining the brash, surrealistic photographic style of post-modernism in the 1980s. Read the rest of this entry »
Tuesday April 17th, I am chairing a panel on curation at Parsons the New School for Design. I hope you will be able to attend!
Focusing on curatorial practices that do not fit neatly within discreet categories of fashion, art, and design, the roundtable discusses the process of curation across a variety of platforms and disciplines, from the three-dimensional spaces of museums to the pages of magazines and from the public sphere to online platforms. The panel investigates how the meaning of curation has drastically changed: How the term “curator” went from identifying the keeper of a collection to describing a wider range of activities across a variety of sites. Borrowing W.T. Mitchell’s concept of “indiscipline”—“a moment of breakage or rupture”—it seeks to show how these shifts have occurred across disciplinary boundaries and have questioned such boundaries in the process.
The roundtable participants include Harold Koda (Curator-in-Charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Sarah Lawrence (an academic curator and dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons the New School for Design), and Sabrina Gschwandtner (a New York–based artist, writer and curator). It is chaired by Francesca Granata, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies in the School of Art and Design History and Theory.
The panel takes place on April 17th from 6:30–8:00pm in the Kellen Auditorium at 66 Fifth Avenue (at 12th street). The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited.
Fashion Projects began in New York in 2004, with the aim to create a platform to highlight the importance of fashion — especially “experimental” fashion — within current critical discourses. Through interviews with a range of artists, designers, writers and curators, as well as through other planned projects and exhibits, we hope to foster a dialogue between theory and practice across disciplines.
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