Fashioning museums

By Doris de Pont, New Zealand Fashion Museum

Hosted by the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, 1-3 February 2016, the Fashioning Museums Conference provided a platform to explore and discuss the tensions and opportunities arising through the increasing popularity of fashion exhibitions and the collection of fashion heritage. While fashion and its material culture have always been part of social history and textiles collections in museums, there is no doubt that it has recently become a big winner for cultural institutions, attracting valuable media attention, huge audience and, importantly, revenue through entry fees and the prestigious sponsorship opportunities that all this attention affords.

This popularity coincides with an era when cultural institutions are increasingly expected to attract new audiences, reach ambitious visitation targets and remain ‘relevant’. The conference examined current fashion museology practice from a number of theoretical, critical and practical perspectives, including papers by Dr Marie Riegels Melchior, Assistant Professor, University of Copenhagen, who sketched a history of the musealisation of fashion and how it is currently deployed to offer a sense of ‘newness’ and fashionability to museums; Professor Jennifer Craik, Professor of Fashion at Queensland University of Technology, who highlighted the ambivalence inherent in the fashion exhibition – presenting spectacle or content, reinforcing stereotypes or inspiring new narratives, attracting new visitors to museums or cultivating a long term museum audience; and Dr Alexandra Palmer, Senior Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, who presented a practical perspective highlighting the real life of the fashion object, from its creation through to the life it has lived. With 25 presenters in a single stream conference there was much to absorb, digest and reflect on, more than can be successfully represented here.

Doris Dior Reddingcote at ROM 1

Image: This Dior Reddingcote from their 2011 collection was purchased by Royal Ontario Museum and the complete process of the making of it was filmed. The garment and film became part of the exhibition BIG and opened November 3, 2012. This wide-ranging ROM exhibition, curated by Alexandra Palmer, showcased textiles and costume that are each in their own remarkable ways BIG… BIG in size, BIG in historical importance, BIG in the news, perhaps created by a BIG name, and often carrying a BIG price tag as this piece did.

As a working curator, exhibition maker and fashion museum director it proved to be a rare and valuable opportunity to engage with a broad range of international practitioners and theorists in my field; to share our work and to discuss important issues for fashion museology, specifically those in play for the New Zealand Fashion Museum as an evolving new model museum without a physical collection or a physical building in an increasingly multicultural country. There were a number of presentations that canvassed the what, who, how and where of the fashion exhibition.

Fashion’s current fashionability in the museum and gallery sector is evident linguistically, with categories once called costume and dress being re-labelled as fashion. The Costume Museum in Bath epitomised this when it changed its name to the Fashion Museum in 2007. ‘Fashion’ however tends to be understood as white and western, so what place is there for the other; Islam, Pacific, Aboriginal, First Nations, Chinese – where does their fashion story fit and how can it be told without exoticising? Two case studies – Faith fashion fusion: Muslim women’s style in Australia at the Powerhouse (2012) and now travelling, and Identi-tee: My T-shirt, My Story at Auckland Museum (2012) – were presented as illustrations of alternative models of curation that successfully worked with their originating constituency, but they did not achieve the blockbuster status of China Through the Looking Glass at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2015), an exhibition that claimed to propose a ‘positivistic examination of Orientalism’ but failed to take off its western lenses.

And what of the everyday, the vernacular fashion, the everyday success stories of design, garments that have been loved, worn, repaired, altered and kept (in contrast to the garments in best condition collected by museums) where is the value in their story being preserved? Dr Alice Payne, Kay McMahon, and the team at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane recorded 60 years of history through the living wardrobe of an ordinary woman from the town of Beaudesert in regional Queensland, Australia. The ‘Beaudesert collection’ has been used to provide insight into fashion and social history, to teach pattern making and materials technology and as inspiration for student collections. While these garments will likely never find a home in a collecting museum, this everyday ‘fashion’ life has been revalorised and shared through small exhibitions at the QUT and in the Beaudesert library, ensuring that an ordinary history is legitimised, elevated and used to make meaning in and for the present.

Doris Beaudesert Collection

Doris beaduesert1 Doris DETAIL beaudesert collection

Images: In February 2015 Alice Payne from the Queensland University of Technology visited Beaudesert, Queensland to look at a large collection of clothing – pretty much everything owned by one woman over her whole life; crimplene trousers, printed frocks, tartan acrylics, nylon dresses and all manner of homemade and shop bought clothing from the 1940s to today. There were six or more wardrobes of clothing.

We see that museums and galleries are increasingly recognising the power of the visual language of fashion and that blockbuster fashion exhibitions are helping to make museums more fashionable. I wonder if fashion curators and exhibition makers can harness this interest to enable the audience to look deeper than the superficial glitz and beyond considerations of whether or not they would wear what is on display. Can we take the audience to a place where we enhance understanding of history, society and culture through the lens of what we wear?

Doris de Pont attended the Fashioning Museums Conference, 1-3 February 2016, at the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia with the assistance of a Professional Development Grant from National Services Te Paerangi, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.