In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1971 exhibition “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” attracted more than 90,000 visitors, making it one of the most well attended shows in the museum’s history. While Beaton acquired examples of historical dress from some of Britain’s most fashionable women, he placed particular emphasis on recent fashion—a largely unprecedented idea. Also important was the exhibition’s experimental installation, created in part by professional store window dressers to give it a “retail” feel. “Fashion: An Anthology” marked a critical turning point in the way that clothing was perceived in collecting institutions and received by the public.
In 1972, Diana Vreeland, the legendary fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, began work as a special consultant for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Vreeland was both a colleague and a friend of Beaton, and her dynamic exhibitions followed his lead. They drew in many visitors, but their tendency to favor theatricality over historical accuracy also made them controversial. Vreeland’s 1983 show, “Yves Saint Laurent,” was perhaps her most criticized. Not only was it the first devoted to a single living designer, but it also included some of his most recent work. Deborah Silverman reports that one critic found the exhibition “curiously indistinguishable from [Saint Laurent’s] displays at fashionable department stores.” Nevertheless, Vreeland’s focus on the designer’s lavish haute couture creations, rather than his popular ready-to-wear line, underscored the rise of overt luxury in 1980s fashion.
Amy de la Haye’s groundbreaking exhibition “Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk,” held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1994, examined the influence of subcultures on high fashion. While this concept was especially common during the 1990s, de la Haye’s comprehensive research stretched back to the 1940s. She juxtaposed high-end clothing by designers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Jean Paul Gaultier with authentic styles worn by groups like zoot suiters, Beatniks, surfers, and Goths. In addition to acquiring original examples of subcultural dress (an arduous task), de la Haye set her work apart by providing visitors with information about the garments’ provenance, listing their affiliated subculture, when and where they were worn, and who owned them on the exhibition labels.
In 2011, the Costume Institute opened “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” which became one of the most widely attended exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum’s history. Organized by Andrew Bolton shortly after McQueen’s death, the retrospective featured an installation that echoed the designer’s sensational runway presentations, providing context for the spectacular clothes. A look at McQueen’s oeuvre also highlighted that many of the designer’s innovative styles, such as low-cut “bumster” trousers and bold, digitally printed fabrics, anticipated mainstream fashion trends.
“The Corset: Fashioning the Body,” curated by Valerie Steele for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, in 2000, offered a thorough examination one of fashion’s most controversial items of clothing. Through approximately one hundred objects, the exhibition traced the history of the corset from its role as an essential foundation garment to its adoption by high-fashion designers. Based on twenty years of scholarly research, Steele dispelled numerous myths about corsetry. The infamous iron corsets from the late sixteenth century, she determined, were likely used for orthopedic purposes rather than as torturous beauty devices, as many people presumed.
While there were numerous beautiful and decorative corsets on view, the exhibition also featured such fascinating examples as maternity corsets, corsets worn for sporting activities, and “health” corsets. Steele’s curatorial approach united object-based scholarship with what she describes as “greater emphasis on analyzing the meanings of cultural objects and practices.” Steele showed that corsets should be understood as more than instruments of women’s oppression, revealing that, in the past, they were often associated with positive qualities such as self-discipline, social status, and beauty.
In addition to a historical overview, “The Corset” reiterated how prominent the garment had been in contemporary fashion, including examples of corset-inspired designs by Azzedine Alaïa, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, and Vivienne Westwood dating from the late twentieth century. Educational and entertaining, the exhibition was a resounding success. The Corset was “amusing and sociologically significant,” wrote Grace Glueck in The New York Times, who also noted its “knock-out display.”
Collecting and exhibiting contemporary fashion can be both exciting and challenging for curators. While the aesthetic, historical, and cultural significance of an object is important to express, its physical condition must also be considered. Therefore, close dialogue between curators and conservators becomes crucial. Whether or not an object is stable enough for display can usually be determined by eye, but the long-term preservation needs of many garments are uncertain. Today, fashion designers and museums alike have embraced clothing created with or incorporating innovative technologies, such as 3D printing—but no one knows how these new materials will stand the test of time. Some plastics used in fashions from the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, have already deteriorated so much that they can no longer be shown.
Many museums are focused on strengthening their fashion collections through the increased acquisition of contemporary clothing, particularly as exhibitions of more recent designs have grown in popularity. While each museum has a distinct collections policy, certain labels such as Comme des Garçons and Alexander McQueen are widely coveted for their visual and cultural impact. Curators must also learn to identify important emerging talent, such as the avant-garde designer Iris Van Herpen.
Lately, fashion exhibitions have become as fashionable as the clothes they exhibit, and some museums have started relying on them as a guaranteed box-office draw. Successful fashion exhibitions, however, should not only be visually appealing, but also intelligent and informative. As the curator Alexandra Palmer notes, “The challenge is … to move the visitor beyond a visual shopping excursion and to encourage them to look and think critically about what is on view.” This challenge can be overcome in large part by placing objects within a broader aesthetic and social context. In recent years, curators have positioned fashion as a way to think about compelling themes such as consumption, gender and sexuality, globalization, subcultures, sustainability, and technology. “Clothes are shorthand for being human,” wrote the curator Claire Wilcox, and their place in museums offers the chance to prove just why fashion is so important.
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