Exploring Fashion’s Openness: An Interview with Kaat Debo

by Alex Esculapio

 “Patterns,” 2003, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

“Patterns,” 2003, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

Kaat Debo is the director of the ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp, Belgium. She has worked at MoMu since the museum’s establishment in the early ’00s, curating Patterns (2003), Beyond Desire (2005), Unravel: Knitwear In Fashion (2011), and Madame Grès: Sculptural Fashion (2012), among other exhibitions. Through the years, MoMu has developed deep connections with the local fashion scene, playing a key role in establishing and shaping a local fashion identity. Debo has collaborated with several contemporary Belgian and Antwerp–educated designers on critically acclaimed solo exhibitions, including Bernard Wilhelm: Het Totaalt Rappel (2007), Maison Martin Margiela: ‘20’ The Exhibition (2008), and Walter van Beirendonck: Dream The World Awake (2011).

I interviewed Debo at MoMu’s offices in Antwerp’s Mode Natie complex, which, alongside the museum, houses archives, a library, and the offices of the Flanders Fashion Institute.


Fashion Projects: You did not study fashion. How did you get into fashion curation?

Kaat Debo: By accident. I studied literature and philosophy. One of the reasons why I didn’t study fashion theory or fashion studies is that it just doesn’t exist in Belgium. And 20 years ago, fashion curation wasn’t taught in London or the United States, either. My first love was actually theater. I worked for two years on a Ph.D. at University of Antwerp in the Theater Studies department, then I realized that pure research wasn’t my cup of tea.

After that, the story is quite simple: I saw an ad in the newspaper that said they were looking for a curator for the newly opened fashion museum. I applied and somehow I clicked with Linda Loppa, who was then the director. She decided to hire me despite the fact that I didn’t have any experience in the museum field or in fashion curation. So I learned by doing it. At the time, Linda didn’t have experience in the museum world, either. She had been the director of the fashion department at the Royal Academy in Antwerp and director of the Flanders Fashion Institute.

Maybe we were a little bit naïve, but we took the liberty to experiment. We also made a lot of mistakes, but you learn a lot from mistakes. For me personally, the connection was that I specialized in contemporary dance and the body is central in dance just like it is in fashion. Also, the feeling of immediacy exists in both fields. So I felt that my background in theater studies really helped me with fashion curation.

FP: You’ve been at MoMu since 2001. How has the field of fashion curation evolved since then?

KD: It has evolved a lot. When I started, fashion was not very popular in museums. It wasn’t a priority for large institutions. If you look at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] now, fashion exhibitions bring in a lot of money. Back then, fashion exhibitions there were mounted in small galleries and put together with small budgets. There was research, but little attention was given to the way the clothing was presented, exhibited, mounted on mannequins. I think what was missing was the idea that it is very complex to display fashion in a museum. Fashion is not designed for a museum, nor for static display.

In the past 15 to 20 years, a lot of attention has been paid to exactly that issue: how to maintain the dynamics of fashion within the museum context. There’s also a lot of theoretical reflection on fashion curation now, which didn’t exist 20 years ago. That’s very important for the sérieux in the field and also very exciting, because there is no right or wrong way to display fashion. It’s exciting to see how different curators approach their practice.

 “Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

“Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

FP: Here at MoMu, you have a very collaborative approach. You’ve also done quite a few exhibitions with living designers, which of course facilitates this kind of approach. Can you tell me a bit about your experience with collaborations?

KD: It was a very natural thing for Linda and I to do because fashion is a collaborative field. Fashion is teamwork, it relies heavily on networks. Fashion designers work with stylists, photographers, graphic designers, art directors, musicians…. Fashion is very open to other creative fields. That’s what I love about fashion: the openness.

We saw the possibility of collaborating with living designers as a privilege. You can’t necessarily do it when you work with historical work—you can’t ask Rubens what he thinks of an exhibition! It’s also to make sure that the story the exhibition tells is visually as strong as the original story. When we did the exhibition on Dries van Noten, for instance, he designed the different rooms and created the show’s Baroque atmosphere.

It works best when the designer is willing to begin from your research in order to create something three-dimensional and visually appealing. I think some curators are afraid of collaborating with designers because it’s not always easy. It’s about finding a balance and gaining their trust. Of course, they have to be open to your research, which often contextualizes and analyzes their work. Sometimes I feel a little bit like a psychologist! Another aspect is that designers often work with the same team of people for years, people they trust and who understand their vision. So it’s key to involve the designers’ own networks, as well.

FP: It seems like you’re integrating the openness you see in fashion in your approach to curation. I’m thinking, for example, of the Margiela retrospective, where you translated the trompe-l'œil technique he’s known for into the set design and the structure of the museum itself.

KD: Fashion for me is not only about collections, with the garment as the end result. Certain curators or museums have this approach to fashion, which I think is perfectly valid. But I see fashion as much more than garments or collections. It’s also about how they are communicated and presented. There’s a whole world around the collections. In the past years we have also witnessed a shift away from garments and towards accessories and perfumes, so the clothing is no longer necessarily at the center of the creative process for many fashion houses. That’s something that I don’t want to ignore. If you want to present a designer’s vision you need to include all these aspects.

We have worked with Margiela again for Spring 2017 exhibition dedicated to his work for Hermès. And again, it’s about so much more than the garments. It’s about his vision of luxury. It’s about tactility, the body, and comfort. Of course, we show that through the garments, as well. So I think my approach is holistic.

FP: You’ve mentioned the idea of tactility in Margiela’s work. I know that you have a collection of ephemera and a “study collection” that is accessible through the museum’s library. It seems like you’re paying a lot of attention to fashion’s materiality, which is even more interesting given how important the digital has become.

KD: Absolutely. The study collection is something new. We launched it a couple of months ago. We think it’s important for designers, students, curators, and anyone interested in fashion to interact physically with the garments. Often it’s only through touch, smell or by looking at the inside structure of a garment that you really come to understand certain things. You can’t study fashion history only through books. A lot of big museums are not opening their collections to young researchers—I understand why, it’s very time-consuming and you need people to be there. That’s why we started the study collection. You have to make an appointment, but it’s easily accessible through our library. We have 1,000 objects, both historical and contemporary, and we’re still building it up.

 Tabi Boots, “Maison Martin Margiela: 20 years,” 2008 MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

Tabi Boots, “Maison Martin Margiela: 20 years,” 2008 MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

Within an exhibition it is much more complex to deal with tactility. It’s something that often frustrates me, because people can’t really touch the objects. We once did an exhibition on Yohji Yamamoto and the concept behind the exhibition was “the shop.” In the middle of the exhibition, we had actual fitting rooms and there were people who helped you try on garments. Visitors could then really understand the Japanese concept of ma, the space between the body and the garment, and see how you could wear the garments in different ways.

For the exhibition on Hermès, tactility is also central. Comfort lies in the materials: in the high-quality cashmere, wool, silk, leather. You can see how exquisite the materials are when you look at the garments on mannequins. You can tell they are beautifully made garments, but they also look very simple because it’s all about essential cuts in great materials. That’s very hard to communicate. You can do it in writing, but I think the writing in an exhibition should support the visual display. The visual display alone should already tell you a lot. You can have fabric samples, but again, it’s not the same.

I think in this sense fashion curation is also about solving a lot of practical issues. For examples when it comes to mannequins, we wanted to show the Hermès clothes in a dynamic way. Martin [Margiela] wanted mannequins that could put their hands in their pockets, so we had to develop and order arms with flexible wrists. We work a lot on decisions like these. We are very experienced in the mannequinage, which is the mounting of mannequins. I think that if that’s not done right, the final result might end up looking laughable.

FP: Going back to the idea of tactility in relation to the digital turn, I saw the interactive wall downstairs. It’s a huge touch-screen wall that allows you to browse the museum’s archives by keyword, designer and year. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Could you tell me more about your thoughts on the role of digital technologies in fashion curation?

KD: For me, the digital is one of the key issues in the future of curation. We’ve been working on digital strategies for two years. The digital realm offers a whole new way of thinking about the museum. But I think the digital world is not going to replace the physical museum exhibition. It’s about finding a balance. The development of digital technologies moves so fast, and constantly. On the other hand, museums move at a much slower rhythm. So I want to find a way to combine those two rhythms: that of the museum, so that people have the opportunity to look at an object for ten minutes or two hours, to learn how to look at something in depth; and that of the digital, which offers new ways of curating our objects. There are endless possibilities. For me, the issue is to make choices that are relevant.

Other kinds of museums use digital technologies in a very interesting way, but I haven’t seen it used in fashion museums in very inspiring, enriching ways. We also have to engage with digital technologies in order to appeal to younger audiences. Which shouldn’t mean that we offer digital content like you do on Instagram, but that you try to bring them into the museum and its rhythm. This is challenging for younger audiences, because they’re exposed to this constant superficial feed of images. We want to teach them how to look at a single object, to go deeper in that object or in the work of a single designer, and to make connections between that designer’s work and previous eras in fashion history or between fashion and other disciplines.

FP: I had a conversation with [Met conservator] Sarah Scaturro a couple of years ago, and she mentioned the possibility of acquiring the code of an Iris van Herpen’s 3-D printed dress. What are your thoughts on collecting and curating digital artifacts?

KD: Yes, I know that the Metropolitan was considering acquiring the algorithm of one of her dresses. But it’s like asking a designer to give you a pattern.

FP: Which reminds me, you’re the only museum to have done an exhibition on patterns.

KD: Yes, in 2003 and that’s also the one exhibition I wish I could do again. I love patterns, I think they’re beautiful artifacts. They tell a lot about a designer’s philosophy and the garment itself. But at the time, our network wasn’t big enough and we didn’t get a lot of designers we wanted. So we should maybe give it a second try. But it’s quite tricky. For example, Veronique Branquinho recently donated her entire archive and patterns to us, but we had to negotiate an agreement that states that we are not allowed to show patterns to a third party without her written consent until after her death. Patterns are like a recipe—like asking a chef to reveal their secret ingredient. These days it’s not an unusual request considering how much is shared, or that we have open source softwares and so on.

We have also been collecting videos of fashion shows and fashion films for a long time, but it has become difficult for a fashion museum to collect all these digital artifacts because the pace of production has accelerated so much. Designers create extra digital content almost every week, be it behind-the-scenes, fashion shows or interviews, and post it on social media. Fifteen to 20 years ago we collected press clippings and we had a degree of control in that sense, but now it’s impossible to collect all these digital artifacts. You’d need a team of people who only do that.

 “Dries van Noten. Inspirations,” 2015, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

“Dries van Noten. Inspirations,” 2015, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Koen de Waal

FP: From your collaborative approach and collection policies it is clear that MoMu has a strong connection with the city of Antwerp and the Belgian fashion scene. How do you see the relationship between fashion museums and the industry? How has it evolved?

KD: When it comes to collaboration and sponsorship, it’s something that we negotiate differently for every exhibition. The first thing we always do is discuss our curatorial approach with the designer, the management team, or the fashion house. We try to have an open conversation about how we can collaborate together. We are very clear that, at the end of the day, it is MoMu that has the last say. So we curate the show, but often involve designers as co-curators. What we don’t do is include objects for commercial purposes. In our case it’s easier than for larger institutions in London or New York, because Belgian brands are too small to sponsor a show, so it’s never happened that a designer could afford to pay for his or her exhibition. If a fashion house is paying for an exhibition, there’s a different power relationship. Then again, just because designers don’t pay for it, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have these kinds of conversations anyway. It is still about achieving a balance between what you want and what they want.

I personally don’t mind if a designer translates our research into a three-dimensional display, as long as the core of your research isn’t touched. If you want to know if it’s okay for me that fashion houses pay for their exhibitions, the answer is that I don’t mind as long as you have that kind of conversation and a contract that states these conditions very clearly. Just to give you an example, we did an exhibition with the Belgian leather goods company Delvaux to celebrate their 180th anniversary. I didn’t mind doing an exhibition to celebrate their anniversary. Of course, I knew they would use the exhibition for their own marketing strategy, but it doesn’t mean that we have to adapt what’s on display for that reason.

FP: As the curator and director of a fashion museum, what do you think of the proliferation of fashion exhibitions across non-fashion museums and spaces?

KD: A lot of non-fashion institutions underestimate the work that goes into fashion curation. Fashion curation entails interpreting the body into a three-dimensional, static display. I’ve seen a lot of museums and galleries that have done fashion exhibitions because it’s quite cheap. You don’t pay the same insurance you pay for art pieces. They also attract lots of visitors, so it’s quite good for marketing purposes. However, often they settle for the cheap mannequins and end up with mannequins that have completely wrong body shapes, with big breasts or short trunks. A good mannequin, which unfortunately is quite expensive, has correct measurements and proportions.

Last year, the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels did its first fashion exhibition, which I consulted for. The first thing I told them was that they needed to make sure they had good mannequins. We loaned them some of ours, but they had many looks so they ended up buying 40 or 50 new mannequins. They went for the cheap ones. Imagine a look by Ann Demeulemeester, which is designed for an androgynous figure, on a mannequin with big breasts. The clothes didn’t fit and those mannequins were too short, so the clothing looked horrible. The designers were furious.

The cheap mannequins also had faces that weren’t particularly nice, but they only discovered that after unpacking them, which they did only two weeks before the show. You need more time. It’s not like hanging a painting on the wall. Sometimes we work on fitting a single dress on a mannequin for days. Anyway, they ended up covering the mannequins’ faces with plastic bags. It looked quite strange.

Many designers have a body type and for Belgians it is usually an androgynous body for both menswear and womenswear. You have to think about that. You can put a garment on a body in 1,000 different ways and all these different modes of display communicate different things to an audience. That requires experience, which a lot of these institutions just don’t have.

I think it’s disrespectful to designers to show their garments in ways that do not communicate their vision correctly. That doesn’t mean that I’m not open to different ways of curating. I’m aware that we curate in a different way than the Metropolitan, the Galliera, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, or the V&A. I think it’s enriching to see how different institutions curate in different ways.

FP: I generally find the proliferation of curation, or perhaps of “the curatorial,” quite interesting, especially when it happens outside of museums. For example, with a platform like Pinterest it seems like everyone can become a curator, in a way.

KD: The whole concept of co-curating with the audience is a very fashionable one. It’s something that we are thinking about: are we going to embrace it and how far are we going to go with this? I can imagine asking visitors to share images of a piece on display that they happen to own, to understand how they wear it and combine it with other garments. But again, the challenge is to understand if it’s relevant or if it’s just going to be another stream of images that doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

 “Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

“Maison Martin Margiela: '20' The Exhibition,” 2008, MoMu Antwerp. Photograph by Ronald Stoops

FP: You’ve already taken a step in that direction with the Margiela exhibition, where you asked a long-time collector to show how she wore the pieces. That’s a relevant way of communicating designer fashion to an audience that isn’t necessarily familiar with it.

KD: I really like the idea of wardrobes and people’s personal stories, how people combine clothes and how they live with them on a daily basis. We did that for the Margiela exhibition because for me it was important to show that his work is not just designed for the catwalk, but it is ready-to-wear produced and sold in shops. With other designers you have showpieces that are never going to be produced and sold. Perhaps 80 percent of the collection is just for the runway and what you see in stores is completely different. That’s why I insisted that we show this is not the case for Margiela. That’s why I wanted to include people’s wardrobes in the exhibition. People need to understand that this kind of clothing is actually worn.


Alex Esculapio is a fashion writer and PhD candidate and lecturer at University of Brighton, UK. Alex’s doctoral thesis assesses the implications of the concept of emotional durability, a term that describes approaches to product design that aim to encourage, nurture and sustain long-term relationships between users and objects, for contemporary fashion practice and discourse.

 

 

Woman of Steele: An Interview with Valerie Steele

by Lisa Santandrea

 Entry gallery installation view of the exhibition "Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch". Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

Entry gallery installation view of the exhibition "Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch". Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

Valerie Steele returns emails with superhero speed­—a hallmark of life’s true enthusiasts, so determined to avoid being bogged down by the little things—and signs off as “Val.” The first time this appeared in my Inbox, it felt as if Rei Kawakubo had invited me over for pie. The director and chief curator of New York’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Steele has authored more than 20 books (including The Corset: A Cultural History and Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power) and launched fashion’s first scholarly journal, Fashion Theory. She is the mastermind behind many of the most important costume exhibits since the 1990s, including “Paris Fashion,” “Gothic: Dark Glamour,” and the recent “Proust’s Muse, The Countess Greffulhe.” Slight and elegant in black, she exudes a clarity and intellectual enthusiasm that explain her success and her lack of pretense. She has been described as “the Freud of fashion” and “a chick wonk with a hearty laugh.” Both are eminently true.

We met at F.I.T.’s Chelsea campus inside Steele’s office, a simple, book-lined room that has played host to some truly grand ideas.


Fashion Projects: When you were a Ph.D. student at Yale, you were studying fashion when basically nobody else was doing so. What did you imagine you would be doing at this stage of your career?

Valerie Steele: Most people in graduate school then assumed that they would become professors. I was convinced that fashion was a valid topic, so I just sort of plunged ahead. And I was somewhat surprised to realize it just wasn’t possible to get a real teaching job with this kind of specialization.

FP: But you ended up at F.I.T.

VS: I was an adjunct here for 11 years. I was also an adjunct at Columbia and N.Y.U. and Parsons and Cornell. You name it.

FP: Had you done any curation when you started at the museum?

VS: I had done a little bit because I worked on a show about Barbie and fashion. And of course, I’d been teaching in what was then the Museum Studies, Costume and Textiles Department.

 Dresses and shoes from the ARMOR section of the exhibition "Daphne Guinness" at The Museum at FIT. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

Dresses and shoes from the ARMOR section of the exhibition "Daphne Guinness" at The Museum at FIT. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

 

FP: So you knew your history, but what about the process of curation?

VS: Well, in some respects, the process of curation is like the same work you do for a book. You do research, you come up with a hypothesis, you test it. On the other hand, you’re telling a story with objects rather than with words and arguments. Although you’ll certainly have text—labels and wall text and probably a catalog—you really have to tell the story with objects, assuming that people are not going to read the text.

FP: Is there a trick to that?

VS: The organization of the objects is obviously important. The way you get them to speak to each other so that people looking at a group of objects begin to get a sense of what’s going on. The choice of objects and the arrangement of objects is the way you tell a story. It’s not a book on a wall. You’re conveying the message in another way.

FP: Through arrangement?

VS: Through choice and arrangement. I learned a lot from Fred Dennis about arranging and presenting objects. I also learned by looking at the work of other curators, particularly Judith Clark. Her “Malign Muses” show was a real epiphany for me; it was a new paradigm in presenting clothes. She studied architecture and had a very creative and novel approach to organization and presentation. It helped me create a much more theatrical ambiance. It had a real impact, for example, on “Gothic Dark Glamour.” I started seeing even more clearly the importance of creating a mise en scène, of actually having little vignettes that will help tell the story.

FP: You’ve said that “Gothic” is one of your favorite exhibitions. Why?

VS: It was a turning point. I wanted to explore how both [designers and goths] were responding to a whole history of literature, art, and music. For example, there was an open coffin with a vampire-like Thierry Mugler outfit and costumes from the film about Dracula—so you could get that vampirism was something that lead into this imagery of the gothic.

How do you build large sets and have them create a sort of feeling of claustrophobia, of paranoia? Of things about to disintegrate? I worked with a really good art director, Simon Costin, who worked a lot with Alexander McQueen. I’d say [to him], “Well I want you to try to present the ‘psychology in stone,’”—but, as it were, in cardboard. I definitely want a ruined castle. He came up with this idea of huge, disproportionate walls at angles that dwarfed the figures and then had the mannequins looking away from each other, so no one was relating. That was important. I told him I wanted a laboratory. He did this laboratory with rubber walls and faces pushing in through the walls like hallucinations. I said, “Can we do a graveyard?” And he came up with this fenced-in area where we had mannequins inside the fences, again to get the sense of despair, decay, paranoia, and claustrophobia.

FP: Recently, you have done a couple of shows featuring individual collections, specifically those of Daphne Guinness and Susanne Bartsch. What problems can arise when you work on this type of exhibition?

VS: The same ones as when you do a show about a living designer, who may have his or her own vision of how he or she wants to be seen.

Daphne was just pure heaven to work with. I was the one who pitched it to her and she was very modest and said, “Oh, no, no, I can’t have a show.” And then she came to see a show [at F.I.T.] and she turned to me and asked, “Are you serious about doing a show?” I said, “Yes. Look around. There are 80 dresses. You have 80 dresses don’t you, Sweetie?” She opened her closets here and in London.

Susanne pitched the show to me. Normally we don’t take outside shows, but schedules had changed and I needed something I could do quickly. I went to the Chelsea Hotel and she started pulling things out of boxes and out from under the bed. The more stuff she pulled out, the more excited I got.

She had a very clear vision of what she wanted in the show—for one thing, she wanted more. This is always a problem when you’re working with designers. Susanne was still smuggling stuff into the show the morning it was opening! She put accessories in paper bags and tried to smuggle them in. With Daphne, it was really easy—all I had to do when accessorizing was say, “No real diamonds!”

 Bedroom installation view in the exhibition "Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch". Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

Bedroom installation view in the exhibition "Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch". Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

 

FP: Fashion has become a hot topic for exhibitions. What do you think about this emerging popularity?

VS: It’s great that people feel like they’re capable of understanding and appreciating fashion in a way that they sometimes feel intimidated by historical art, contemporary art, or even history shows. Everybody from toddlers to teenagers to old ladies—everybody feels like they can understand it.

On the downside, almost every curator feels like he or she is capable of doing a fashion show, regardless of how much or how little they know about fashion. I remember one person was doing a fashion exhibition and I said to her assistant, “What makes her feel that she can do this show?” Her assistant said, “Well…she wears fashion.” I said, “Well I go to contemporary art galleries, but I wouldn’t say that I could curate a contemporary art show.” And these shows can sometimes be sort of an array of pretty dresses. Literally, there was one [called] “50 Fabulous Frocks.” I’m thinking, Really, this is a show? This seems so idiotic.

FP: What impresses you about the world of fashion curation today?

VS: There are so many people who want to be curators. I remember a colleague of mine saying that one of her students wanted “to be Valerie Steele.” She just laughed and said, “That position is taken.” But people shouldn’t just wait and hope for a job at a museum.

All those years that I was an adjunct I had this little cartoon from The New Yorker that showed a guy escaping from a bank with a bag full of money. He stops to talk to a passerby and says, “I’m only doing this to support my writing.” For a lot of the adjunct work, I was saying, “Well I’m writing my books.”

Nowadays, you can create shows online. Judith Clark rented a teeny little space inside an office and started putting on amazing fashion exhibitions [in London]. Through that people started hiring her to do shows and organize museum collections. So you have to put yourself out there, you have to show what you can do.

 Installation view of the exhibition "Daphne Guinness" at The Museum at FIT. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

Installation view of the exhibition "Daphne Guinness" at The Museum at FIT. Photograph courtesy The Museum at FIT

FP: I’d imagine it’s very different today from when you started.

VS: Well, Mrs. Vreeland was doing theatrical things in the ’70s. They weren’t historically accurate, but they did move things away from a sort of antiquarian specialist interest into something that people could relate to as fashion.


Lisa Santandrea is a writer and fashion historian who teaches at Parsons School of Design. She currently runs the public workshop program at the Soho retail headquarters of The RealReal, the luxury consignment website. 

Showmanship and History: An Interview with Harold Koda

by Francesca Granata

 Harold Koda and Diana Vreeland during the preparation of the exhibition  "Diaghilev: Costumes and Designs of the Ballet Russes," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978.

Harold Koda and Diana Vreeland during the preparation of the exhibition

"Diaghilev: Costumes and Designs of the Ballet Russes," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978.

Harold Koda, the eminent curator of costume who recently retired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, moved to New York in 1974 to study the art of the Ivory Coast. In a sudden change of events, he instead ended up interning at the Met with the ulterior motive of becoming the protégé of the Costume Institute’s legendary Diana Vreeland while immersing himself in the fabled New York of Halston and Martha Graham. But before encountering Vreeland, who was away during the off-season, Koda landed in a socialite “sewing bee,” beginning what would be a lifetime devotion to the study and care of dress. Later, he joined the Edward C. Blum Design Laboratory (now the Museum) at the Fashion Institute of Technology as Associate Curator, before returning to the Met’s Costume Institute, ultimately as Curator in Charge.

At both the Met and FIT, Koda curated together with Richard Martin, working on exhibitions that brought together the showmanship he had learned from Vreeland and the historical accuracy he acquired through his painstaking study of objects. As Curator in Charge of the Met’s Costume Institute from 2000 through 2016, he oversaw the meteoritic rise of relevance—both in terms of audience and scholarly import—of fashion exhibitions. His exhibitions at the museum included “Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed” (2001), “Poiret: King of Fashion” (2007), and “Charles James: Beyond Fashion” (2014). He stewarded the Costume Institute through a time of significant growth punctuated by the renovation of its galleries and 2011’s watershed exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (curated by Andrew Bolton). I spoke to Koda in the living room of his tasteful Park Avenue apartment, opera music playing softly in the background.


 

Fashion Projects: Why did you come to New York originally? You didn’t necessarily move here to work in fashion curation.

Harold Koda: My personal story is relatively eccentric and idiosyncratic in terms of what happens now, because the field was just not as developed and did not require certification or background. It was much more open-ended. I feel like I am the last person who got into the castle before the gates were pulled up and everybody had to be vetted.

I came to New York to study African and Oceanic art at the Institute of Fine Arts. But when I got there, they said, “Primitive art? Robert Goldwater [the primitive art specialist] died two years ago!” I changed my advisor to Colin Eisler, who is a Renaissance expert. So I switched to Renaissance art.

But something happened in my second year. My best friend and I were supposed to go to Saint Thomas. At the last minute, I bailed on her for all kinds of complicated reasons. And then the plane crashed. She died. So that precipitates a really….You know, I was in my early 20s. I had never lost anyone who was so close to me. The guilt, because my friend had just changed the flight to accommodate my schedule…but then I couldn’t go. It was a very complicated, emotional time. For a year, I was really in a state of deep depression but paired with a wild carpe diem audacity. I was so sad, but it made me impulsive. I decided I am not an academic. I am really not interested in all this stuff. I don’t like poring over Renaissance reliquary. What I care about is what life is now. For me, that meant Martha Graham sitting with Halston and Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor and Tennessee Williams all in the same place. That, for me, was what New York was about and what I should aspire to immerse myself in. But I am inherently a conservative person; I am lazy but calculating. So I decided to shift my museum internship, and I told [my advisor] that I wanted to intern with Diana Vreeland. He thought it meant that I wanted to become a curator at the Costume Institute. But in the back of my head, what I was really thinking was, “I am so gifted”—this was the 23-year-old me—“that Mrs. Vreeland will see my gifts and think, ‘My God this young man is the next Issey Miyake!’” That was my thinking. I was throwing myself in front of Diana Vreeland so she could discover me.

 

  “Diaghilev: Cos­tumes and Designs of the Ballets Russes,” 1978,   The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan from Castle Howard Costume Galleries, York England and contemporary Dance Trust of The Place, London. Photograph by Joshua Greene

“Diaghilev: Cos­tumes and Designs of the Ballets Russes,” 1978, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan from Castle Howard Costume Galleries, York England and contemporary Dance Trust of The Place, London. Photograph by Joshua Greene

FP: So you started interning at the Met?

HK: Yes, but my internship surprised me. Because I had heard that it was [with] Mrs. Vreeland—but it was actually with a curator in charge of the department, Stella Blum, and a marvelous woman named Elizabeth Lawrence, who was in charge of conservation. I didn’t realize that once the December show opened, Mrs. Vreeland disappeared until the following fall. So I was there in the Spring and there was no Mrs. Vreeland, instead I worked for Elizabeth Lawrence. The Costume Institute was very, very different then. It was all of these privileged women—there were a few Jewish women, but really it was all social register, married. Not explicitly racist, but clearly there were parameters. The Jewish women who were there were the WASPiest women you could imagine. It was like a country club. As I remember it, there were almost 60 of them, doing the restoration.

FP: Were these volunteer positions?

HK: Completely volunteer.

FP: So these were well-to-do women?

HK: Yes. There was this one woman who was so elegant and she was known for the way she could iron. This is a woman who probably never saw the back part of her apartment. But she would take a turn-of-the-century petticoat—which would have six layers of handkerchief linen and each layer had multiple ruffles, but if you even moved the linen it would crease—and iron every ruffle. It would just be pristine. It was like an Ann Hamilton art piece.

FP: Did you feel you were an outsider?

HK: No. Everybody accepted me very quickly. Because there were so many women, they were split up into groups. It was like a sewing bee, so there were 13 or 15 people a day in this work room. Stella’s first assignment for me was to dress an 1880s dress. I had never taken any patternmaking or sewing classes, which I think is really important, but Liz [Lawrence] realized that I was good with my hand.

FP: So you started out with the installation and dressing of mannequins?

HK: I was a very hands-on person. That was before I met Mrs. Vreeland.

FP: What happened then?

HK: In the fall someone named Stephen de Pietri, who later became the first curator of the Saint Laurent archive, came in and saw me working and dressing. In a way that was very Stephen, he said, “You think you are going to get a job here? You’ll never get a job—they never hire anyone!” And then he left. I thought, “What an asshole!” He ended up being a really close friend. But soon, I was hired to work on a show: “The Glory of Russian Costume” [1976]. The only reason I got hired was that the Russian curators did not want volunteers touching their garments, so for the first time they needed someone who was actually working for the museum. That’s how I got my first job.

FP: What was it like working with Diana Vreeland?

HK: She was really at her peak with the “The Glory of Russian Costume.” In the mid-’70s, she was going full bore. She seemed ancient to me, but I realize I am older now than she probably was then. She was really visual. She was verbal in a kind of fun fashion language way, but she could not really say, “I would like you to do this.” Instead it was, “Empress Sisi had a Hungarian lover who was a gypsy and she would wear her hair down with him in a tight rope like the tail of a horse with a postilion….” What!? The most fun part was that she would describe a mood or idea and then you had to actually materialize it into something.

  Diaghilev: Cos­tumes and Designs of the Ballets Russes,” 1978, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Diaghilev: Cos­tumes and Designs of the Ballets Russes,” 1978, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

FP: When did you first meet her?

HK: We had dressed all of these serf dresses, which were the wealthy peasants in Czarist Russia—those managing the land. And they dressed in a way that was different than the nobility in the city, who were wearing Western Francophile dresses. They wore traditional dress in the richest fabrics. We arranged them in the lower galleries and Mrs. Vreeland was coming in. You could hear her on the terrazzo because she had very heavy footfalls, and there were all these other young women who were her posse—the grandchildren of her friends, very social and privileged. They were coming in and she sees the serfs and she starts pointing and saying, “What is this? What is this? They have no auteur, no éclat.” And she snapped her fingers. They were exquisite. But she came down the stairs and kept saying, “No éclat, no auteur.” I don’t know why, it just irritated me. Nobody was speaking—they were just taking this bullshit. I said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Vreeland, but the Russian curators have said that the hems of the dresses should fall 6-to-8 inches from the ground because they were small women. That is why they are not 6 feet tall.” That is what she had meant, saying they had no presence—I was just addressing why they were small. She turned around and said, “Are you Japanese?” I said “yes” and she said, “Don’t you realize the Russians hate the Japanese? Always have and always will.” And then she walked off. And I thought, What a raving ass! For the first few weeks, I thought all she did was destructive. There would be a beautiful dress of demi-mourning and she would start to touch it and she would leave it like this poor woman had been ravaged. There were many people who met her who would just dismiss her because they would see that side of her. But if you really studied it, which I did, you would realize that she was seeing something that wasn’t quite apparent. It was perfectly fine, but it was not extraordinary. So when the mannequin was redressed, inevitably it improved.

FP: How long did you work with Mrs. Vreeland?

HK: I did four or five shows for her. She kept calling me back for special projects.

FP: So this must have been four or five years?

HK: Yes, but it is only for the duration of the preparation for the show. It starts in September, because that is when she was back, and went through December. It was very, very quick. I loved working on the shows and part of it was teasing out what it was that she wanted. She really had this marvelous way of telling a story. For instance, when I mentioned the Empress Sisi thing, really what she wanted was Hungarian coins made into earrings. It’s so ahistorical, but what she wanted to allude to was the rumor that Empress Elisabeth had an affair with a radical Hungarian national. What I learned from it is that objects have stories, and those stories are what are so compelling to the public.

FP: Do you feel there was a move toward being didactic in the museum experience of fashion?

HK: Well, it had been didactic, and Mrs. Vreeland blew it out of the water. She was criticized for it by her contemporaries, but those were cries in the wilderness, because people really loved it. And the point that I learned from it is that you have to sell what you are doing. You can’t be passive. I remember working on the Diaghilev show [“Diaghilev: Costumes and Designs of the Ballets Russes,” 1978] under Mrs. Vreeland. We were working with a curator of Diaghilev’s costumes from the V&A. I said to him, “You’ll be astonished the first day the general public comes, because it will just be teeming.” He said, “Who wants that?”

FP: He wanted just an elite small audience.

HK: A privileged experience, not the democratic experience. Mrs. Vreeland was as elitist as it gets—but she liked the idea that if you were going to do something, it better blow your socks off and get you off the couch. The end game was how to make a subject seductive enough in the huge cacophony of cultural events in New York City.

FP: So you went from this experience with Diana Vreeland at the Met directly to curating at the Museum at FIT?

HK: It was 1979. Bob Riley was the director, but he needed a full curator. When I went for the interview, I was a dilettante. I had an art history background but nothing to do with fashion. I said to Riley, “For me, fashion history began in 1962 reading my mother’s Vogues and Harper’s Bazaars.” He said, “Well, at least you can read! Just read [Cecil Willett and Phillis] Cunnington.” The great good fortune that I had was that the collection had grown so much that it had to be edited. We were doing an assessment. I went literally through every piece of the collection with Bob Riley. And he was a terrible teacher and I had to be auto-didactic. For instance, we would take an 1870 bustle dress and then two days later we were taking out 1880s bustle dresses. Bob would say, “That is 1886.” And I would ask, “Why? How would you know immediately?” But he could not explain it, he would just say, “You just know.” So I started to examine it: The cut of the bodice is so different…if you looked, all the information was there. Now people who go into Costume Studies are not object-oriented. It seems to me a shame to go into curatorial practice and not care about the tangible object.

FP: So you learned costume history by editing the collection at FIT.

HK: That was my training: reading Cunnington and then going through every single piece in the FIT collection. So from Mrs. Vreeland I got the idea that with any exhibition you fail if you do not get people to see it, but unlike Mrs. Vreeland I wanted for it to be historically accurate. This was inspired by the Kyoto Costume Institute and what they did with historic costume. The Kyoto Costume Institute was called that because it is based on the Met’s Costume Institute, when Mrs. Vreeland was still working there. [Kyoto] took it a step further by keeping the panache, but getting rid of the ahistorical aspect. Once they set that model, we embraced it at FIT. You could still elicit an exciting visual response without getting into something that is not correct. It was basically merging Mrs. Vreeland and the Kyoto Costume Institute.

 “Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, and Rei Kawakubo,” 1987 ©The Museum at FIT

“Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, and Rei Kawakubo,” 1987 ©The Museum at FIT

FP: In the early ’90s, you returned to the Met—you and Richard Martin left FIT to lead the Costume Institute. Your first show was “Infra-Apparel” [1993].

HK: With “Infra-Apparel,” it was sort of a template for something that even someone like Andrew [Bolton, the Costume Institute’s current Curator in Charge] is still doing. What Richard and I realized was that the demographic skews younger when it’s contemporary art—young audiences go to photography shows. It was clear that if you went to a Richard Avedon show, people looked young and sleek. It was surprisingly younger than if you went into a Rembrandt show. So to expand our audience we realized you had to have some contemporary hook. We always cared about the title, we always wanted to include something provocative and contemporary that established a linkage to art historical interest. With “Infra-Apparel,” we wanted to show that the chemise à la reine, which was so controversial when Marie Antoinette wore it because it looked like an underdress, had the same sort of potency as Gaultier’s halter for Madonna.

FP: So there was a parallel to bring the viewers to the past, to introduce the relevance of history to the viewer.

HK: The viewer comes because of the Madonna piece but then they are introduced to all these ideas: “Wait, it’s not something new—this kind of transgression and subversion of something possibly lurid percolating out into wearable attire, something intimate into something more formal. This has happened all throughout Western fashion.” Andrew does that a lot and it started because we realized that if you just do a show on 18th century apparel, you limit your audience.

FP: What was it like returning to the Met after being at FIT?

HK: Because it is a teaching institution with varied disciplines such as merchandising or graphic design, at FIT you could do anything. So we did shows about condoms, because that is dressing the penis. We did streetwear, the East Village….

FP: Did much of your work at FIT have to do with subcultures?

HK: Well, it could be about anything. “Fashion and Surrealism,” for instance, really brought our work to a larger public. “Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo” looked at designers that would be in any design collection. When I was a curator there, there was a gay illustration professor who died of AIDS and his surviving partner had a trunk of his clothes. He had kept clothing from when he was a student in the ’60s. He had a peace t-shirt that was done for the 1968 protest at Columbia, he had gay-clone things from the mid-’70s, all the way through the 1980s. So you had a gay person’s diarist representation of who he was, how he self-represented from when he was a late teen until he was a middle-aged man. It was this capsule of gay New York life. Gay culture now has become so diffused, but then it was so focused on certain tropes, at least dress-wise.

FP: And you acquired his wardrobe?

HK: Yes. It seemed to me that it belonged to the New-York Historical Society at the time or the Museum of the City of New York. But I wonder if any of them would take it. Everybody is focused on design rather than social history and we don’t do social history at the Costume Institute.

FP: When you went to the Met was it a big shift that the social history component was no longer there?

HK: It was more limiting coming to the Met—but they had all the stuff, the great works of art. You were in the context of an art museum, so there was the potential to collaborate.

FP: At some point in the ’90s, you left the Met—and fashion—to study landscape architecture at Harvard.

HK: I had done it for 17 years and I wanted to experience another thing. I wanted something that was interdisciplinary—and landscape architecture was just that. A little ecology, a little engineering, lots of aesthetics.

FP: But before long, the Met got you back.

HK: When I left, Richard was well. By the second year I was in school, I realized he was seriously ill—he had melanoma—and in the third year he died. Richard actually asked me to come back. I told him no—the only reason I stayed so long was because it was exciting for me to work with him. So why would I want to replace him? But Philippe [de Montebello, then the Met’s director] kept calling and asked me to vet the finalists for the position. They were all so different and brought different strengths and so I told him, “Philippe, you really have to decide.” And one day he called and asked what to do about deaccessioning [part of] the collection. Up until then I had been completely dispassionate, but as soon as he said that I was so shocked. I said, “Philippe, there are international standards to do this, but it is a very subjective process. You shouldn’t be talking about it with me—you should hear what each candidate has to say.” And he said, “Harold, you sound really upset! Would you consider doing it?” So we met and he offered me the job. I said I would take it with the idea that I would leave in three years. I could get the process started and I would secure a team. But then 9/11 happened—planning to stay three years, I stayed 17 years. Later I told Philippe, “You were so 18th century French and devious to do that.” 

FP: Your goal was to complete the assessment and partial deaccessioning project? 

HK: Yes—it was not my ambition to do shows. I am a believer in shelf life. Even Mrs. Vreeland by the end, she had a signature. But if you want vigorous interpretation of something, you need a fresh perspective.

FP: And yet your time as Curator in Charge at the Met saw the elevation of the field of fashion curation.

HK: So much of my career has been extraordinary good fortune. As Philippe would say, you have a trifecta at the Costume Institute: There is you and Andrew, there is the collection, and there is Anna Wintour, who was our rainmaker. As for the Anna Wintour part, we always fought against the external perception that she was generating the shows and that it was always predicated on some commercial [concerns]. There is a slight truth to the fact that she would influence our calendar. Like with “Goddess,” it was very hard for her to find a sponsor, so we had to defer it a little bit. But she never said, “Don’t do it.” She just needed time to support us. And if we didn’t have her there would be no Costume Institute, because with costume you need exhibition furniture, you need all the mannequins. To do it properly is extremely costly. We were able to do it because of Anna’s support and all of our sponsors. None of what we accomplished could have been done with money. And that is really part of the triangle: great collection, adventurous curators, and someone who can support their ideas. It was a really fortunate thing—a convergence of elements.

 “The Glory of Russian Costume,” 1976,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The Glory of Russian Costume,” 1976,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

FP: At the same time, did having Anna Wintour and the party of the year put a lot of pressure on you to do innovative exhibitions every single year that could sustain the level of scrutiny?

HK: It’s really good to have somebody with the Taser. Some of the people who attend the party parachute in—they’re clueless—but the interest it generates in the show is fantastic. We want people to be engaged in what we do. We consider a failure if it is just 200,000 visitors. If we did no advertising, if there was no party of the year, we could get 900 to 1,200 people a day. In the general audience there are enough people who are interested in our shows. But we want 2,000 or in some cases 5,000 people a day. And those seem like very crass quantities to aspire to. But if you don’t quantify, you have no way of measuring your success.

FP: In the long span of your career, how do you think the field has changed?

HK: The general public is much more informed. There is a general level of expertise that has been heightened. With the proliferation of many more museums, there is also the requirement to have a distinctive voice. You have to up your game. But that’s a good thing. I don’t think there is ever going to be a surfeit of costume exhibitions. The bad thing would be if all of them are mediocre.

FP: Are you afraid that object-based knowledge is going away?

HK: Connoisseurship is out the window. Costume and textiles people have a problem of access. I was the last one before the drawbridge pulled up. I was very lucky to go through the collection. It isn’t bragging, but just because I have done it for so long, I can look and say, “This isn’t right—the proportion is wrong, it’s been hemmed.” And that’s connoisseurship.

 

Fashion Projects editor Francesca Granata, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons School of Design and the author of the book Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body (I.B. Tauris, 2017). She was a research fellow at the Met’s Costume Institute in 2007–2008.

 


Introduction

by Francesca Granata

The literature on fashion curation has greatly expanded in recent years, as the field has witnessed a meteoric rise propelled by the incredible draw of fashion exhibitions—most famously the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 blockbuster “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” Recent assessments of the field include Judith Clark and Amy de la Haye’s Exhibiting Fashion (Yale UP, 2014) , which traces the history of fashion exhibitions, and Fashion Curating (Bloomsbury, 2017), co-edited by Hazel Clark and Annamari Vänskä, who are interviewed in this issue. These works build on earlier writings on the topic in two special issues of the journal Fashion Theory edited by Valerie Steele and Alistair O’Neill, both of whom are interviewed in this issue, as well as important work on dress museology by Lou Taylor.

Fashion Projects #5 explores fashion curation through dialogical exchanges with working curators from a range of institutions, both head curators at major museum collections and independent curators working in kunsthalle-like spaces. Harold Koda, who discusses his long-term engagement with the Met’s Costume Institute, most closely embodies a more traditional meaning of the word “curator” as a caretaker of a collection. Koda also had a unique vantage point, having entered the profession under Diana Vreeland at the Met in the 1970s, a pivotal moment for the increased dynamism of the field. Similarly, Kaat Debo is closely identified with the ModeMuseum in Antwerp, where she worked first as a curator and now as its director. Debo discusses the collaborative nature of her work, specifically when it comes to exhibiting living designers and the costly nature of exhibiting dress—something that is often underestimated by non-fashion specialists.

She also addresses the difficulty in striking the right balance between the materiality of the object and the digital engagement needed to relate to younger audiences. The centrality of material knowledge is also discussed by Sarah Scaturro, head conservator at the Costume Institute, who addresses the tightknit relation between conservation and curation in the realm of fashion. Alexandra Palmer, senior curator of textiles and costume at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, discusses her own curatorial work for a large public museum, alongside her role as exhibition reviews editor of Fashion Theory, a position that has allowed her a preferential viewpoint. Valerie Steele, editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory as well as director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who came into the field already established as a writer and academic, discusses the points of connection and divergence between museums and academia. Much like Debo, she welcomes the proliferation of fashion exhibitions while warning about the importance of upholding academic rigor and the needed technical expertise in the curation of dress.

Alistair O’Neill and Maria Luisa Frisa, alongside Hazel Clark and Annamari Vänskä, address the emerging figure of the independent fashion curator, a role also pioneered by Judith Clark (interviewed in a previous Fashion Projects issue). The figure of the independent curator is a much more recent development in fashion than in contemporary art, and is certain to shape the field in innovative ways. O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, has explored “alternative modes of exhibition” and curation “not bound by the museum” in the issue of Fashion Theory he edited, as well as in his own curatorial practice. In his Fashion Projects interview, he discusses exhibitions he curated for the Somerset House Trust including “Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!” (2013), which exhibited much of the wardrobe of the late fashion icon, plus shows that eschewed actual dress altogether, such as “Guy Bourdin: Image Maker” (2014). O’Neill also has a word of caution regarding museums’ thirst for blockbuster fashion exhibitions, a practice that might take needed resources away from collection care, particularly at smaller museums. Clark (professor of fashion and design studies at Parsons) and Vänskä (a Finnish professor of art and fashion) discuss their curatorial practice alongside their recent research on the topic, which was jumpstarted by a symposium they organized at Parsons in 2013 and culminated in Fashion Curating: Critical Practice in the Museum and Beyond (Bloomsbury, 2017). Frisa, a pioneer in independent fashion curation, came from a background in art criticism to work on influential exhibitions starting with “Uniforms: Order and Disorder,” which she curated in Florence with Francesco Bonami and Stefano Tonchi in 2001.

In this issue, wanting to turn the tables and upend old hierarchies, Frisa discusses what contemporary art can learn from fashion. Noting how exhibiting fashion “provokes both a visual and bodily experience,” the Italian curator points toward the affective power of fashion in its intrinsic relation to the body. In fact, if fashion exhibitions, with their predominance of lifeless mannequins, have been often equated to a morgue, they can also be understood as a prime site for “interobjectivity,” theorized by film theorist Vivian Sobchack as our ability to engage with the materiality of objects as related to our own (University of California Press, 2004).  

Interestingly, many of the subjects interviewed make reference to one another, thus underscoring the relatively small network of fashion curation. Yet the network is fast expanding—and pushing the geography of fashion curation beyond its traditional Western capitals.

Naturally, one figure whose name is invoked again and again is Diana Vreeland (1903-1989), the legendary Vogue editor and doyenne of the Metropolitan Museum if Art’s Costume Institute. Our cover stars Vreeland—or rather, the sculptural representation of Vreeland as rendered by the late artist Greer Lankton. Fittingly, Lankton’s Vreeland doll now rests in the library of the Costume Institute itself.

A Review of “David Bowie Is”

Jay Ruttenberg reviewed "David Bowie Is" for Fashion Projects in January, 2015, as the show was concluding its run at the MCA in Chicago. On the occasion of the exhibition's takeover of the Brooklyn Museum, here is the review once more….

6033d9bodysuit
6033d9bodysuit

by Jay Ruttenberg

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita. © Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012.

“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.

2d11c1aladdinsane
2d11c1aladdinsane

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photo: Brian Duffy. © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive.