I went to the Met’s Comme des Garçons exhibition and people really didn’t get it

· Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between at the Met ·

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The Costume Institute’s spring show always creates buzz. The Met Ball is used to celebrate the opening, after all. Not only that, but the exhibition determines the gala’s theme and is even thought to influence current fashion. People from all over the world flock to see the spring exhibitions and they are often talked about for years after (remember Savage Beauty?). The Costume Institute at the Met has one of the most comprehensive costume collections in the world and with leading fashion scholars and curators at their disposal, the spring exhibition sets the bar for fashion in the museum.

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This year, the exhibition focused on Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo. Titled Art of the In-Between, the exhibition explores how Kawakubo straddles the line between various dualities found in fashion. Set in a space with white, futuristic-looking shapes, her designs were categorized into different dichotomies: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Antifashion, Model/Multiple, High/Low, Then/Now, Self/Other, Object/Subject, Clothes/Not Clothes.

Led through the exhibition by the guide (itself simple but cleverly designed and worth mention), the visitor is taken on a journey through Kawakubo’s world. Each duality featured a quote by Kawakubo along with a cerebral contextualization of the pieces in front of you. As the visitor progresses through, reading about Kawakubo’s in-betweenness, the designs on display begin to make more sense and reveal Comme des Garçons’ avant-garde beauty.

At least that’s what I found as a scholar of fashion theory and history.

I’m not sure that’s what the average Met patron found. As I immersed myself in the designs and accompanying explanations, I also noticed an uneasiness among some of my fellow visitors. While many snapped pictures away on their phones, I also found others confused and lost.

I first encountered this confusion in Then/Now. The guide explains how Kawakubo has used fashion history for inspiration throughout her career. The guide read, “In her hands, however, the silhouettes are so radically and profoundly reconfigured as to eradicate history.” One of the themes within Then/Now was life stages: birth, marriage, death. Featured prominently to show this were designs based on traditional Victorian- and Edwardian-esque wedding dresses.

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However, they were a far cry from something you would see walk down the aisle. The guide explains, “These fashions advocate a level of personal freedom that can only be attained in the intervals between a society’s life-stage traditions, thus subverting the ideologies encoded in the birth-marriage-death continuum.” As I was reading this and examining the designs, I overheard a teenager next to me,

“This isn’t even fashion. These are just wedding dresses.”

I’ll admit, at first I laughed to myself. But then I started to wonder if we were seeing the same thing. Because what I saw was very clearly a literal fashion statement on marriage – Kawakubo using fashion loosely based on the wedding dress to say something about marriage itself. Not only had this girl failed to see the design merits, she had completely missed the mark on Kawakubo’s message.

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One of the “wedding dresses” – the darker panels had screen printing on them

But they weren’t the only ones. Further into the exhibition, I heard a woman comment,

“I haven’t seen anything beautiful. Well, except those Victorian dresses over there.”

I assume she meant the same dresses the teenager had deemed not-fashion. This woman, however, was quite a bit older. I don’t know her background and I’m only speculating, but she seemed to be the stodgy, older, regular Met patron who visits the Met for high culture. She probably imagined historical couture gowns from the Costume Institute and instead found the abstract, conceptual Comme des Garçons designs.

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Some more of the “Victorian dresses”

The feeling I got was that there were a lot of people expecting something different from a fashion exhibition at the Met. Other than the few people I overheard, I can only attest to what I observed and felt. Comme des Garçons is perhaps a darling of the high fashion crowd and perhaps this exhibition was meant for the fashion elite. However, fashion exhibitions bring in lucrative and necessary funds for museums, so it seems counter-productive to have an exhibition that alienates a portion of the public.

While I realized the fashion merits of the garments themselves, I did find the exhibition guide helpful in emphasizing the message. But for some, even this didn’t quite hit the target. The last set of patrons I overheard was a couple of millennials. Looking at the Fact/Fiction displays (the final section Clothes/Not Clothes was broken into 8 sub-sections), one woman read the guide’s explanation of the display to the other. She read, “Blue Witch [the title of the design] heightens this surrealism through distortions of scale that create a storybook-like sense of disorientation and destabilization.” True, this statement features a lot of big words and hearing it out loud could make it a bit tougher to comprehend than reading it would. However, the friend replied,

“Well, that is the most confusing thing I’ve ever heard.”

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Blue Witch via British Vogue

I feel this exchange captured the mood I felt at the exhibition: a little outside the average patron’s realm and removed from what’s expected from a storied and traditional art museum like the Met. While I don’t believe it’s a bad thing for museums to branch out, test boundaries and encourage patrons to broaden their worlds, I’m afraid that going too far alienates visitors. As I’ve mentioned, fashion exhibitions bring in necessary income for museums – institutions where funds can be hard to come by anymore. Making these exhibitions so inaccessible that visitors cannot connect or comprehend what they are seeing will distance new patrons. I can’t imagine any of the people I overheard recommending Art of the In-Between to their friends.

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It’s a hard line to tread, however. Simplify it too much and you risk distancing yourself from those looking for a more cerebral experience. This can be especially hard for fashion exhibitions as they are still in the process of proving their place in the art museum through rigorously researched and academic shows.

As far as Art of the In-Between is concerned, I’m afraid it didn’t quite succeed in the balancing act (despite its apt name!). It was undeniably a beautiful and thought-provoking show for the fashion set. However, half the patrons seemed perplexed and dissatisfied while only half fully appreciated the show. Then again, the beginning of the exhibition guide explained,

“Season after season, collection after collection, she upends conventional notions of beauty and disrupts accepted characteristics of the fashionable body. Her fashions not only stand apart from the genealogy of clothing but also resist definition and confound interpretation.”

Maybe those visitors got it after all.

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