The role of the museum in mapping out a new fashion system

In 2015 trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort released her manifesto bravely announcing ‘the end of fashion as we know it’ in which she outlined ‘ten reasons why the fashion system is obsolete’.

Taking this statement as a springboard, the End of Fashion Conference at Massey University proposed that we consider the causes and implications of this shift and asked where to from here? What follows is the paper presented to the conference by New Zealand Fashion Museum Director, Doris de Pont.

Today fashion is fast. The latest styles from the runways of Paris, New York, London or Milan are circulated around the world in an instant. They are copied and available in stores within weeks of being shown. Celebrity, being famous for being famous, is the quality that attracts the greatest media attention and celebrities now style themselves as “fashion designers”.

Fast fashion retailers like H&M, Topshop and Zara (who have all recently opened in New Zealand), make clothes cheap and disposable, and send the message to consumers that fashion has no cost and no value. Today the most important quality of clothing seems to be newness and it is the activity of shopping that has replaced the pleasure of the feel of the fabric, admiration for the cut of a garment and appreciation for the craft of the making.

We no longer have the time to develop a relationship with our clothes. They are here today, passé next week and on their way to the landfill as soon as the season changes. It appears to me that today’s fast fashion has forgotten about clothes and the power they have to speak to us – and of us.

As a lover of clothes and a former fashion designer I feel strongly about advocating on their behalf.  As the initiator of the NZ Fashion Museum I believe that fashion exhibitions can provide a valuable lens through which we can view ourselves and can help us to reflect on what we see.

The queue outside the Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty, at the Metropolitan Museum in 2011. There was a wait time to enter of an hour and a half but still 650,000 people visited in just 3 months.

Fashion and its material culture have long been a part of social history and textile collections in museums as part of decorative arts or applied arts, but recently fashion has become fashionable in its own right and fashion exhibitions are proving to be a big winner for cultural institutions. They attract valuable media attention, draw huge audiences, and importantly, generate revenue through entry fees and the prestigious sponsorship opportunities that all this attention affords.

The relationship between fashion and the museum can be symbiotic. Because Fashion epitomises “newness”,  the fashion exhibition has been harnessed to reinvigorate a somewhat dull and dusty image of the museum and give its brand new “cache”.

Fashion brands, whether they are the subject of an exhibition or the exhibition sponsor, in turn benefit from being associated with the cultural prestige of art galleries and with the public perception of museums as the guardians of an impartial canonical knowledge.

While on the surface this may appear to be a win/win scenario, there is huge potential for a conflict of interests. Both “brands” are seeking to be seen in the best light, but they are different lights; the fashion brand needs to advance its commercial business which relies on being seen to have contemporary currency, so it will want its history to reflect the aesthetic of today and look “now”. And the museum needs to advance its “business”, which is to preserve and share our heritage with independence and scholarly rigour. Reconciling these two opposing demands can be a delicate and fraught balancing act.

These tensions are most apparent with a monograph of a living working designer. A curator must negotiate the competing realities of both invested parties. As a monograph is often dependent on the archives of the designer it relies on their own curation in the first instance (what they have chosen to keep and what they have discarded) and also their goodwill. The challenge to curatorial independence can be further compounded when an exhibition is also supported by funding from the design house, as was the controversial 1999 Giorgio Armani exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

A $15 million donation to the museum by the brand seemed, according to Patricia Bickers in an Art Monthly article, “to suggest that the museum itself was for sale.”  And since the show primarily emphasised the designer’s recent work there were also questions raised by Bickers and others about curatorial integrity.

An alternative museological strategy is to simply declare your vested interest and make it transparent — like the Mode Museum [MoMu] in Antwerp, which was established in 2002 specifically with the mandate to participate in the world of contemporary fashion. MoMu’s director, Kat Debo, sees no conflict in collaborating with designers on curating their monograph or in accepting sponsorship. However, fashion critic and commentator, Suzy Menkes, remains sceptical, and says “it is difficult to imagine how a deep critical appraisal — suggesting, for example, that the most creative years of a famous designer were far behind them — could possibly appear in an exhibition sponsored by the brand”.

The fashion exhibition, like fashion itself, is often criticised for being more concerned with looking good than with criticality; for placing emphasis on the aesthetic design and beauty in the display without accommodating conflict or challenge. While it is true that an ugly and confrontational show would struggle to draw an audience and hence defeat its opportunity to communicate, hard truths can be delivered within a beautiful show.

Blue Jeans, 350 Years of Denim at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht in The Netherlands in 2012 was a large scale exhibition of the most popular and iconic garment in modern history. The blue jeans were analysed in every which way, from the first traces in a 17th century painting, to modern day street wear and fashion. The exhibition did not shy away from including a substantial section with confrontational images that highlighted the consequences of the highly polluting production process, while also showing current innovative sustainable alternatives, such as ‘zero water waste’ and ‘ozone’ treatments.

The need to look good (in order to draw an audience) can have another unintended consequence: the delivery of empty nostalgia. The uncritical indulgence of nostalgia is a danger that can have far reaching consequences. The sentimental idea of some idyllic and idealised past society has resulted in some radical (and unimagined) political upheaval in the world, with two notable recent examples; Brexit — predicated on a nostalgically remembered elysian British Britain before it joined the EU, and the Trumping of America predicated on some mythical, movie world, bygone era when America was Great.

Fashion exhibitions can easily fall into the trap of simply indulging nostalgia for some golden age in the past. In part because the clothes that were acquired by museums tended to be prestigious examples chosen for the designer label, the quality of the material and the make, aesthetics, glamour, or the association with someone or something that was socially or politically important. This makes it difficult to paint something other than the picture of a rarefied existence — not of life as it was actually lived by ordinary folk.

Fabulous fifties fabulous fashion, at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague in 2013, looked gorgeous but in effect simply celebrated the fashion and lifestyle ideals of the 1950s. It sold this to today’s audience in exactly the same idealised and glamorised way it had been sold to consumers back in the day through the Hollywood movies, television programmes and advertising.

But this scenario is not an inevitability, and there are strategies that can make a fashion exhibition engaging and keep it real. The modus operandi of the New Zealand Fashion Museum demonstrates one such strategy.

As a museum without a physical collection of its own, its exhibition content is largely sourced from the general public. This means that garments come with a life history — and often the wear and tear to prove it. While not precluding nostalgia and sentimentality, it does mean that our fashion stories are shared in the vernacular and the personal. At the Beach; 100 years of summer fashion in New Zealand (currently on at The Dowse) shares authentic New Zealand beach fashion, and through real life stories and garments it offers a picture of our unique New Zealand beach-going experience for consideration.

This use of a timeline to trace developments in influence, materials, modes of making and distribution, societal organisation and value is a common form of exhibition. 200 years of Australian Fashion, on at the National Gallery of Victoria, Ian Potter Centre this year, is another recent example.  

While this format might seem to give an objective or neutral view, it does not. Rather it is a salient reminder that what we are talking about, when we talk through fashion collections, is an ethnocentric representation of society. What is on display are objects of value within the western fashion system, while items of clothing from non-western cultures are relegated to the ethnographic collection in the museum as “costume”.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, MAAS (previously known as The Powerhouse) is consciously trying to tell more inclusive stories.

Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim women’s style in Australia, their 2013 exhibition and now touring other cities in Australia, showcases not just Islamic fashion but also draws attention to the cultural diversity of Islam as it exists and is lived in Australia. MAAS fashion and dress curator Glynis Jones recognised that Australian Muslims were adapting fashion to suit them, they were, she says, “garments that express their faith but also allow them to explore the nuances of fashion and trends”. Together with other curators, such as Tasneem Chopra, she worked directly with the Muslim community and attended their social functions to understand how they wanted to be represented. They interviewed designers, fashion bloggers and the women who wear fashion, and this exhibition tells their story.

This year at MAAS, another exhibition, A Fine Possession: Jewellery and Identity, created a framework where pieces from across different cultures and time periods can be displayed side by side without the imposition of a western hierarchy of value. Although not strictly speaking a fashion exhibition, it is an exemplary model that could be applied to other exhibitions. Themes such as Love and Death, Men and Adornment, and Modernity and Change, engage with the central place of jewellery in our lives and make it possible to juxtapose a shell neckpiece from the Pacific with a piece of hip hop bling.

Even with just these few examples of different styles of fashion exhibition you can see some of the inherent limitations and pitfalls of the form, but you have also seen that by a successful negotiation of these limitations exhibitions can provide a valuable tool for interrogating the state of our society through the lens of fashion. Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art says that, “fashion responds to current events quickly acting as a mirror of our time”.

Fast fashion then is a reflection of the world we live in. Our consumption and discarding of new clothes is no different from our consumption and disposal of other consumer products like food, cars, the latest gadget or electronic technology.

But is the current popularity of the fashion exhibition just a fad, or can it help us to reflect on our world and consider our future in it? Tapping into the intrinsic human connections that all garments bear, the fashion exhibition provides a platform to canvas ideas and to experience relationships in a visual and concrete way. A good exhibition is a speculative proposition and it can deal with quite complex ideas.

The New Zealand Fashion Museum exhibition Black in Fashion: Wearing the Colour Black in New Zealand serves here as an example. The exhibition arose from the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the prospect of a sea of black filling the nation’s sports stadiums. It sought to be the catalyst for a conversation that would shed light on questions like: why is wearing black so ubiquitous in New Zealand today and has it always been so? Is it prevalent across all sectors of society; who wears it and what does it signify?  Is it a deliberate choice? Does it say something essential about what it means to be a New Zealander?

The garments we brought together for this exhibition provided a window through which the audience could view our history told through everyday personal experiences of life and these stories invited consideration of the multifarious reasons we wear black.

An exhibition can be enriching on many levels. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is a monograph with potential for the pitfalls I outlined earlier (produced by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and realised in collaboration with Maison Jean Paul Gaultier), but it has overcome them to stand on the strength of its content. It is a comprehensive expose of Gaultier’s 40 year career. It records his inventiveness when faced by the limitations of his budget in the early years with an ensemble made from woven table mats from the market and the application of a tulle skirt to a pair of old jeans.

The exhibition delivers abundant evidence of his exploration of ideas; of identity, gender, eroticism and humour. It celebrates and honours the fine crafts and skills of the artisan embroiders, lacemakers, tanners, jewellers, milliners and cobblers who have contributed to the realisation of Gaultier’s imaginings.

The exhibition design has also surprised and delighted the audience with its technical innovation and its cheeky animated mannequins and commentary. Staged initially in Montreal in 2011 it has since travelled to 12 cities and been seen by 2 million visitors.

There are fashions in fashion exhibitions too and the latest fashion is inspired by a call from Suzy Menkes (International Vogue Editor and fashion critic) for museums to return to curating exhibitions based on in-depth research of their own collections. This has given rise to new exhibitions that valourise the object, with 3 examples from this year. Catwalk, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was selected entirely from the 10,000 items in the museum collection. It presented the fashion of the Dutch from 1625 to 1960, reflecting on aspects of the sartorial choices, social lives and stories of the people who wore them.

This year’s exhibition at Palais Galliera in Paris is titled Anatomy of a Collection and comes in 2 parts; the second just recently opened. It is the anatomy of their own collections, also spanning some 400 years and offering a survey of fashion through pieces that still carry their wearers’ memory — with both garment and wearer affecting each other and contributing to a wider cultural dialogue of dress. Curator Olivier Saillard says  “whether it is illustrious, notorious, celebrated or anonymous, the body modifies each chosen garment – it adds soul and sensitivity to a composition of textiles”. Meanwhile, at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion has just opened and is about reflection, focusing on seminal pieces from their collection and why they are important in the history of fashion. Espousing a participatory role in fashion-making similar to MoMu in Antwerp, Andrew Bolton says “our mission is to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art”.

By drawing our attention to our personal relationship with what we wear and highlighting the cultural importance of fashion, exhibitions of fashion can provide inspiration to help us re-establish our relationship with real clothes. They challenge us to re-acquaint ourselves with the power of clothing to stimulate the senses, the emotions and the intellect. They reminds us to appreciate the intrinsic worth in fashion’s materiality, and to delight in its power of expression; to value garments for qualities that endure, to afford them a long life because we have chosen them for their power to address our imagination — as well as to dress our body.

And it is in the imagination that a future for fashion will be found.