· Trends in fashion exhibitions and what that says about fashion and society ·
Fashion exhibitions, like fashion itself, come in trends. Close followers of fashion exhibitions tend to see patterns as museums that traditionally – and sometimes even not traditionally – host more and more fashion exhibitions. Those who watch closely tend to see similarly themed exhibitions pop up around the same time.
Just as fashion trends provide insight into Western society at a given moment, fashion exhibitions also offer insights. They say something about current fashion, current scholarly work, and also something about the current culture. What, then, are some of the recent and current trends in fashion exhibitions, and what might it say about society today?
Of course, the first places to look for fashion exhibitions are the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Both these institutions have long histories of showing the most ground-breaking and beautiful fashion exhibitions. On the surface, their 2017 fashion exhibitions may not seem to be connected. However, upon visiting each, it’s easy to see a link.
The Met’s fashion exhibition this year was Rei Kawakubo: Art of the In-Between, an exhibition focusing on Comme des Garçons’ Kawakubo and the dualities found in her work. Inevitably, the exhibition demonstrated the structural quality of her designs: a dress with a stuffed bear attached to it, dresses so large they completely subvert the shape of the human body, wedding dresses formed through layers upon layers of frills and fabric. Indeed, the construction of the designs was omnipresent on top of the theory behind the design.
At the V&A, their main fashion exhibition of 2017 focuses on Balenciaga (look out for our review of it next month!). Titled Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, this exhibition looked at Cristóbal Balenciaga’s craft and design, working through his entire career demonstrating both the popularity of the garments themselves, but also their construction. Of course, just as the CDG show came to focus on structure and shape, no Balenciaga exhibition could be complete without a similar focus. That’s why as I examined the structures of Balenciaga’s fifties and sixties designs, I couldn’t help but think of Art of the In-Between. This feeling was confirmed when I went upstairs to the section about Balenciaga’s legacy. It showcased designs from a multitude of designers who have taken inspiration from Balenciaga throughout the years. There, on prominent display, was a design by Rei Kawakubo herself.
What, then, might these exhibitions say about fashion and society today? We’re living in an age of disruptive technology, and that disruptiveness has found its way into fashion. Both Balenciaga and Kawakubo’s designs were regarded as disruptive in their distortion of the body. Their designs allow wearers to occupy more space than traditional dress allows and perhaps these exhibitions are commenting on how we occupy space today – with social media, this idea has been broadened and expanded over the past few years.
Perhaps, also, these exhibitions were commenting on the fashion cycle and fashion’s relationship with the press. Both designers were/are notorious for their reluctance to speak to the press and Balenciaga went so far as to ban the press from his shows in 1956. Kawakubo, on the other hand, is herself a recluse and tries to avoid the press. Zio Baritaux wrote for i-D, “Since 1969, when she founded the fashion house Comme des Garçons in Tokyo, Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo has rarely spoken about her work. Even when she does talk about it, her answers are flinty, brief, or obscure.” Again, perhaps this is what speaks to society, today. The press has grown increasingly important for fashion houses and perhaps the focus on two designers who shied away from such a presence is challenging visitors to think about fashion’s sometimes toxic relationship with the press.
The Met’s exhibition found parallels in other exhibitions, as well. One section in Art of the In-Between looked at the cycle of life: birth, marriage, and death. At Chatsworth House’s House Style, a room was also dedicated to this cycle, this time termed: christening, wedding, funeral and showcasing clothes worn by various members of the Cavendish family to these events. Could this be a reflection of today’s reluctance towards such formalities?
These kinds of trends can be seen throughout the world of fashion exhibitions over recent years and even into the future. Some trends are more straightforward: two Yves Saint Laurent museums opened this month in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of his death next year; Dior’s seventieth anniversary is marked by exhibitions in Paris and Melbourne right now. Last year, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Met both had exhibitions on fashion’s relationship with technology (#techstyle and Manus x Machina, respectively). It’s not hard to understand the link there. Bodies have been the subject of recent exhibitions including Utopian Bodies in Stockholm in 2015, one coming up at the Museum at FIT (MFIT) in 2018 and a short exhibition in London this November called Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion. MFIT had The Women of Harper’s Bazaar, 1936-1958 in 2016 while London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is about to open an exhibition on Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Harper’s Bazaar’s prominent fashion photographer of the period. The list goes on…
It’s interesting to think about these trends in fashion exhibitions and how they reflect society and are attempting to influence it. Unlike the subtlety of Kawakubo and Balenciaga’s relationship with the press, perhaps the trend in one topic covered currently by MFIT and upcoming at the V&A has an explicit agenda: Force of Nature at MFIT and Fashioned from Nature at the V&A. We’re reminded of how nature influences almost everything, even fashion. What a timely reminder.