Truly FABULOUS!

‘Dress is at one and the same time a science, an art, a custom, a feeling.’

– Honoré de Balzac, 1799 – 1850[1]

I own a number of exhibition catalogues, most of them pertaining to fashion and textile exhibits. It is a joke among my friends that I own more books and catalogues about clothes than I own actual clothes. Catalogues are tricky things; you at once must please the academics, inform the layperson, and appeal to the person who wandered in on a whim, or the insistence of a friend or colleague, and whom you have to win over.

This is not an easy balancing act to do.

To take two catalogues from my collection, FAMSF’s Pulp Fashion, and their Balenciaga and Spain: the former appealed strongly to the person on the street and (yes, I have checked) even to the layperson. It contained full-colour photographs of the pieces as presented in the exhibit, with a (very) little bit of information. The latter pleased the academics: it opened with a facsimile of a statement in appreciation of the designer from Baroness Phillipe de Rothschild, dated 1973. Most of the photos are archival, and there are several essays with very small print. The academics loved it. Most of the laypeople, however, seemed disappointed. They wanted something to remember the exhibit by, not a reference text on Balenciaga. Of course, it is possible the two exhibits had different target audiences for their catalogues. Not all exhibit catalogues are designed to appeal to everyone.

But some of them are.

I reserved my place on the upcoming Costume Society of America behind-the-scenes event for FIDM’s FABULOUS! exhibit several weeks ago. There is to be a catalogue-signing session, and I had convinced myself that I could just wait until the event to get my copy … Then Monica Murgia tweeted that she had received hers and was in raptures. Then Two Nerdy History Girls did a review. Then the FIDM Museum Blog did a recap of the opening and began to discuss pieces from the exhibit, and, well … What’s the Carrie Fisher quote? “Instant gratification isn’t fast enough”?

So, my copy of the FABULOUS! catalogue arrived two weeks ago. I have been petting it ever since.

It is truly fabulous. 370 full-colour pages featuring the fantastic images and detailed information that patrons of the museum have come to expect from the blog (meticulously run by Rachel Harris), and previous catalogues.

The FABULOUS! exhibit is a retrospective, displaying and celebrating the last ten years of acquisitions by the museum, ranging from an early nineteenth-century gentleman’s court suit, to the multi-coloured ‘hightop’ trainers of the 1990s. The catalogue is broken down into six sections based on time period, and spans 210 years of fashion history. Each section opens with a detail photo of one of the objects, and a fold-out timeline covering the major developments and events in art, fashion, politics, and science during the time period; with a one-page essay on the facing page placing the events – and the garments, accessories, and images – within the correct context. What follows are page after page of exquisite photographs by Brian E. Sanderson, with succinct, but elucidating descriptions of each object, often including its provenance and history, by curators Kevin Jones and Christina Johnson.

I cannot find a fault. And I have tried. Even the section on Scottish textiles – I did an entire (not very good) ‘virtual exhibition’ and wrote more than one paper on tartan during my post-graduate studies – was impeccable.

It is perhaps not as informative as the Balenciaga catalogue, but I do not turn to exhibition catalogues as the ultimate reference tool when I am doing research.  I look to them for images of the garments I have been reading about; for the sort of concise context FIDM is so good at providing in its catalogues; and for the reference section.

I, myself, am rather ignorant of ‘modern’ fashion history. I studied the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. With the help of the FIDM Museum blog – which is firmly ensconced in my GoogleReader feed – and now the FABULOUS! catalogue, I have embarked on an independent study course, of sorts, educating myself not only about twentieth century fashion history, but how to be objective about my own century.

This is extremely fitting since FIDM is first, and foremost, a school.

The museum was conceived in 1973, ‘when the Fashion Design Department insisted that students studying clothing design and construction examine garments firsthand in order to fully understand textile drape, pattern structure, and finishing techniques’.[2] The faculty were the first donors, raiding their own private collections to aid their students’ learning.[3]

It has grown by leaps and bounds and does not simply comply with, but sets a standard of excellence in exhibits, incorporation of modern technology … and catalogues.

19 November can’t come fast enough.

All images courtesy of FIDM Museum Blog

[1] Jones & Johnson. 2011: 13.

[2] Ibid: 6.

[3] Ibid: 6.

Research Ramblings, or Court vs Country, 21st-Century Style

If you follow me on Twitter or have checked out my Current Projects page, you’ll know that I am preparing a paper for the Developments in Dress History Conference at the University of Brighton in December. The paper is titled ‘Conspicuous Intellectualism: Banyans and the Construction of Masculine Identity through Dress in the late Eighteenth Century’ (thank you to one of my best friends, Shobha, for giving me the main title, credit where it is due!).  And it involves quite a bit of research.

I have been reading and re-reading various essays, novels, and political and philosophical tomes written by eighteenth-century scholars attempting to get as clear a picture as possible of what the intellectual culture was and how it might have shaped an eighteenth-century, middle to upper class man’s attitudes about himself and masculinity.  This is the Age of Reason.  There is a lot of intellectual debate going on.  The printing press was no longer a new invention, it was a flourishing one; innumerable circulars and pamphlets flooded not just the metropolitan areas but the countryside as well. The landed gentry needed their news and opinion pieces when out of town as much as when they were in town casting their votes, after all.  Books were becoming more plentiful for those who could afford them (though you bought the pages and paid to have it bound yourself, so that it would match the rest of your books, of course).  The authors being read and discussed were Rousseau, Voltaire, Hume, Paine, Goethe … just to name a few.

It was a tense time politically.  There was the Seven Years’ War that spread across the Continent and beyond (to be called the French and Indian War in North America). That was followed by the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. In Britain, the Union between Scotland and England into Great Britain was fairly new (1707), and not universally adored. The Union had dissolved the Scottish Parliament in favour of a “new” British Parliament, but since it remained at Westminster, it was seen by those opposed to the Union as the absorption by the English parliament of the Scottish.  That’s not to say that the Scots (those few who could vote) didn’t have representatives, but in a country that still considers Scotland and England a massive distance apart (the train ride from London to Edinburgh is about four hours, a travel time I do not find impressive), in the eighteenth century it must have been extremely unnerving to have your government packed up and moved to over 500 km away when the only mode of transport was sail, horse, or your own two feet, and you might speak Gaelic rather than English.

Not everyone opposed the Union. Many, like David Hume, saw it as an opportunity for growth and progress for Scotland. Which is what it turned out to be, but it is not easy to see what the struggles during turbulent times will bring when you are living through them. Especially when your uncertainty is compounded by the removal of the Stuart king, James II, in 1688 in favour of the safely Protestant William and Mary (Mary being James II’s daughter).

This deposition rattled more than just the Scots. It completely upended the long-held ideal of the Divine Right of kings. This Divine Right was seen to have been proved when the Cromwellian Republic, established in the wake of the Civil Wars and the beheading of Charles I by his own people, failed. The Restoration of Charles II was accordingly atonement for the sin of regicide, and the prosperity of that era (or so they thought of it) was proof they had been forgiven.

But when Charles II died childless (well, legitimately childless … ), his openly Catholic brother James II was seen as a backdoor to the blood-drinking papist despots of the Continent, and not fit to rule Protestant Britain, thank you very much. We’ll just ignore that Britain had only been truly Protestant for little more than a century, shall we? Good.

Charles II and James II were the descendants of Mary Queen of Scots. Charles II was the last king to be crowned in Scotland as well as England. For those in Scotland opposed to the deposition, the Union was just a further stripping of their identity. Particularly when it was followed  by the Clearances in the late eighteenth century.

There were multiple attempts by the Jacobites to reinstate the ‘rightful’ king: First James II (attempts from 1689 – 1690); then his son, James III (‘The Old Pretender’, attempts from 1708 – 1715); then the glorious Bonnie Prince Charlie, who failed for the last time in 1745 at the Battle of Culloden, and whose face now adorns shortbread biscuit tins the world over. How the mighty have fallen…

The Jacobite cause never truly faded, though. There are still Jacobites today, albeit very small in number, who want to depose the current monarchy and put a (believed) descendant of the Stuarts back on the throne.  Which ignores that the current monarchy are descendants of the Stuarts, they are just the product of daughters married off to Hanoverians rather than the ‘direct male’ line. The crazy is everywhere.

But in the eighteenth century the Jacobite cause was seen as a true threat. There were secret toasts held by secret clubs, the toasts made in glasses with secret signs etched into their designs, secret loyalties stitched into garters and bedcovers by the Jacobite women. The secret, potential threat.

It was an uneasy time to be in Britain.  Not least because they had deposed the ‘rightful’ king, and other than the rebellions (which were easily quelled) nothing had happened to the government itself.  It carried on with the business of running the country.  Taxes were set and collected. People went about their business. Which called the ancient, established idea of ‘rightful rule’ into question, and rattled the core belief systems of an entire nation (or two nations, to be precise).  This meant the Cromwellian Republic had simply failed, rather than being a divine punishment of some sort. It also meant that they were right to stamp out the rebellions, because the Jacobites were clearly standing in the way of Progress. Progress replaced ‘divine right’ in a way. It was seen as linear, unyielding, and right. Thus anyone who stood in its way (ie, the Jacobites, or the indigenous people of colonised nations), was mowed down accordingly in its name.

Real power was now acknowledged to be in the hands of the politicians. Now all those votes the landed gentry were casting when in London really, truly meant something.  And they began to be bargained for, debated and even bought in new ways.  Or perhaps they weren’t new, they were just more publicised thanks to all those busy presses.  Either way, a war of sorts began.  Not just between political factions, but between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’.

Court in the eighteenth century meant high society, and the king’s court, not an institution where crimes are tried.  The Court began to be seen as corrupt, superficial, fake and decayed. Who knew what was under all that make up (worn by both men and women), or those ridiculous wigs?  What diseases did they hide?  If you wanted truth, you went to the Country, where real people made their own way in life.  The people of the Country didn’t make their living on gossip or outdoing each other in appearance. They grew or reared their own food, made their own clothes… and so on.  You can see the beginnings of the Victorian morality discussions about Country innocents off to the City to make their fortunes in the factories and ending in Ruin.

Interestingly enough, it was through clothing that this debate began to be waged. Simplicity became desirable, decoration detestable. This might have had something to do with the ongoing wars with France and thus an interruption in British silk supplies, but who has time to bother with facts when you’re being philosophical in the Age of Reason? When have human beings not come up with philosophical and moral justifications for conforming to necessity? The other intriguing fact is that it would take longer for women’s fashions to simplify even though they were the most constricting, to the point of doing bodily injury. It was acceptable for women to be concerned with their appearances. Everyone knew they had weak minds (unless they were Voltaire, who believed women to be just as good as any man, only nicer). But a ‘real man’ had more important things to consider. If he did take care or wear things that were considered too decorative, or put on wigs and make up, he was a dandy, or a macaroni (Yankee Doodle Dandy, anyone?).

This became most apparent to me when I was reading Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werthur, because Aileen Ribeiro cited it as being highly influential to fashion in her Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715 – 1789 (pp 212 – 216).  I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive her. But, I can see why it would have an impact. (I do not, however, recommend it to anyone looking for a good read, it is an eighteenth-century philosophical morality piece, so not for the faint hearted or the easily-annoyed.)  The main character retires to the Country to recover from the death of a friend and sort out some family affairs.  There he sits in glades and reads Homer in the original Greek and connects with the local people (the working class and yeomanry), sharing their ‘true’ sorrows, and admiring their self sufficiency.  In the highly regulated dress etiquette of the eighteenth century, and quite frankly because it was impractical, one did not wear the same clothes in the Country as one wore to Court. And Werthur’s disparaging comments on the people at Court and what they wore indicate that he has the fashionably disdainful attitude towards its artifice that should be expected of a well read, thoughtful man of his century.  It’s all very Rousseauian. There is a passage where he lifts his own plain, blue Country coat to almost reliquary status, mostly because it was what he was wearing when he first met his love interest Carlotta (who is engaged to and in love with someone else when he meets her, but he insists on falling in love with her — sorry — is helpless to fall in love with her anyway).  I told you it was all very annoying.  The other reason he holds this plain coat in such high esteem is that it is a representation of the real, uncorrupted TRUTH of the Country, etc. And Werthur is ever so happy to be rid of his Court finery when he is fired from his position in the Ambassador’s employ. I think you get the point. Not that he stops making it for another hundred pages, or so.

The thing I found most striking is that while we no longer have ‘Courts’, this attitude is still prevalent in our own society. Perhaps it is even reflected in the fact that what we call simply a pump or a high heel in American English, is referred to as a “Court shoe” in British English.  Though I’ve not done enough research there to say for certain.  It is still true, though, that to care about your clothes and appearance, or fashion in general, and especially both deems you superficial and frequently stupid. You don’t have anything better to do with your time, so you go shopping, etc. The film of The Devil Wears Prada seems to bear this out, the plain, practical but passionate young journalist gets a job at a fashion magazine so she can make rent and is corrupted by shiny, pretty clothes, finally making her way back to ‘true’ journalism at the end.

There is a sort of reverse vanity among certain people that is expressed through intentionally NOT paying too much attention to your clothes. When I was in Oregon this time last year (and admittedly, I was in Portland for less than 24 hours, so I might be doing that lovely city a disservice), I swear everyone was in hiking or all-weather gear of some sort. No doubt proving they were down-to-earth, no-nonsense sorts of people. Or maybe it was just that it is almost always raining or misting up there.  But do you have to wear Northface nylon parkas and hiking shoes? Couldn’t even just a few people wear excellently cut trenchcoats and a nice pair of Wellies or riding boots?

I knew a young woman who had a history of being actively mean to people she ‘no longer had to see everyday’ during chance meetings (if she didn’t like them), of being rather nasty to others about their clothes while being extremely sensitive about her own, and who declared that she was lucky to be so ‘low maintenance’ because it made her such a good girlfriend. Her interpretation of low maintenance being that she didn’t wear make up or spend a lot of money on clothes. There is so much wrong with that entire situation that it would make for a book, not a blogpost (all human beings are high maintenance, full stop), but the fact remained that she didn’t adjust her conduct or her attitudes, but her closet. Why did she feel the need to neglect her appearance, rather than alter the part of her that thought it was okay to bully others? How did that prove she was ‘low maintenance’? Is it that we are such a visual society? Do things like this happen in other cultures?

I have sat in coffee shops listening to friends discuss how much they have spent on their clothing, trying to outdo each other with who had the lowest price tags. Why? I am possibly prejudiced, but I assumed it was to prove that they were far to busy being deep and intellectual to bother with things like clothes. Or maybe it was just one of those senseless competitions students will enter into for no actual purpose.

I do find myself wondering as I do my research what, precisely, says that because you care about your appearance, your clothes, or just clothes in general that you must not have anything else in your head? Whether you live in the eighteenth century, or the twenty-first. Yes, there are people who go over the top when it comes to shopping and appearance. But isn’t there an equivalent at the other end of the scale? Who’s to say that the man or woman dressed to the nines in New York City doesn’t have as much of an appreciation for nature as the rugged hikers of Oregon? Who’s to say that just because a woman loves make up and clothing that she’s not a deep thinker?

The eighteenth-century Court versus Country debate, that’s who. But I think it goes deeper.

In France, if a female politician dressed in the dowdy way most American and British women in politics do (Nancy Pelosi being an exception), she wouldn’t get elected. The French attitude is that if a person doesn’t take care of themselves and make an effort to present their best self to the world, how on earth can they be trusted to take care of a country?

Is it Protestant eighteenth century, then, that gave us these attitudes? Am I being too sensitive because these are criticisms of something I love? Is it possible that those who are so dismissive of clothing are dismissive out of insecurity? They are unsure and awkward about their clothes, so they belittle those who are not like the child who derides the toy of a friend that he actually covets. Or are they genuinely unconcerned and reacting to a world that, no matter how many philosophical treaties we write or read on the subject, does still judge based on appearance? That seems to be what David Mitchell is doing in this Soapbox rant:

You can’t judge a book by its cover because appearances can be misleading. Even carefully ‘unconstructed’ ones.

Feel free to weigh in.

久しぶり

The Clark Centre for Japanese Art and Culture is a small cluster of buildings set back from the road,  in the centre of a walnut grove outside of the small, central San Joaquin Valley farm town of Hanford.  It is very easy to miss if you don’t know to look for it. Once you find it, it is hard to believe you are in the Dairy Belt of California.

Photo by Elliot Kallen for Google Earth

It was founded in 1995, and I started going in late 2001 or 2002, after I’d started university as a Japanese language and culture major. It was at the Clark Centre, though, that I attended one of the most fascinating lectures I ever heard as a student of Japanese culture. There was a trunk show for kimono fabrics, with an accompanying talk from the man selling the textiles about the history of the kimono-making industry in Japan.  He discussed the proper way to wear the garment. He explained the history of sumptuary laws, particularly those relating to the Edo period.  It was the first time I’d ever even heard of sumptuary laws.  And there was the fabric…

I particularly remember a gorgeous, uncut bolt of fabric designed to be specially and precisely printed, in just the right amount for a single kimono, thus ensuring a unique garment.  The ingenuity required for this astounded my then-nineteen-year-old mind. It astounds my nearly twenty-nine-year-old mind, for that matter.  The bolt was a soft purple. Somewhere between lilac and lavender, with an asymmetric white and pink plum blossom pattern on it.  My mother offered to buy it for me, since custom- milled and printed silk was far beyond the budget of a university student.  Looking back nearly ten years later… I wish very much that I’d let her.

I forgot about the Clark Centre somewhere along the way. The same way I forgot my resolution to return to Osaka as soon as possible after I boarded my plane home at the end of my summer living there.

The Clark Center is a wonderfully unique museum.  I can say this for a fact, having been to a number of Asian Art museums over the years. Some of them in Asia.  It is set in a Zen garden with raked pebbles and carefully, asymmetrically placed stepping stones.  The museum space is modelled on a Japanese temple.  Indeed a temple piece depicting a dragon holding a pearl (symbolic of the Buddhist search for enlightenment) even adorns the ceiling after you enter the museum proper. You are only allowed to see it after you remove your shoes in a separate antechamber with two sets of doors that are not opened at the same time.

This serves to conserve the art pieces by regulating temperature and humidity levels, but it has a second purpose.  By imitating the practice performed at Japanese shrines, you are almost forced into a different mindset. One that prepares you to properly take in the beautiful pieces you are going to see, and which readies you for contemplation and meditation, a crucial aspect of Japanese art. The rooms of the museum — only two — are open.  There is no glass between you and the art.  But then again, you never wander through the museum alone, you are always accompanied by a docent or a curator.  This however is not as oppressive as it may seem, but instead enhances the feeling of intimacy.  The display platforms are tatami covered.  The walls are not actually rice paper, but they are the same colour.

I rediscovered the Clark Centre on Friday completely by accident.  Brainstorming about a possible CSA regional symposium paper idea — and spurred on by a conversation with Heather Vaughan, who explained that the paper could even be about collections of Eastern dress, or the influence of those styles on European/American clothes — I checked the Clark Centre website, and low and behold, not only are they hosting a two-part clothing exhibition, there was a lecture that night, from Seki Masumi on the wearing of kimono.

I have worn — and even danced in — yukata on multiple occasions. Living in Japan for an entire summer meant I experienced most of the annual matsuri. My mother purchased a yukata for me from a proper shop in San Francisco before I left, and then one of my host families actually gave me a yukata and obi, both of which I cherish and have dragged with me from place to place over the last decade. Two years before my summer abroad I had worn yukata for a performance put on by the Japanese Student Association at my university.  But I have never worn actual kimono. Even when I wore the yukata, my obi was always tied for me. For those who do not know, the obi is tied in the back, and has many, many meanings and can be extremely ornate. Or so I’d been told. I have never seen an obi tied in anything other than a butterfly bow by those walking in front of me to matsuri or during the dance recital.

Ms Seki is a master of the tea ceremony, which has very rigid rules about what can and cannot be worn. But it is one of the few areas of Japanese life where kimono is still required. She did a wonderful job of briefly explaining the history of kimono to an audience that was mostly ignorant of the garment’s traditions.  Later on, she answered questions magnificently.  There was some new information for me, though, despite all my courses and papers on Japanese culture and language.  According to Ms Seki, a graduate of San Francisco State University currently residing in Tokyo, most Japanese are actually terrified of wearing kimono in public because of all the rules regulating how it is worn: certain colours, patterns, and fabrics can only be worn during certain ceremonies and certain times of year; how you tie your obi, or your accessories, or the fabric you choose determines the level of formality which is extremely important depending on where you are going and what you are doing; cross the wrong part of the kimono in front of the other and you have dressed yourself as though you are a corpse (very, very bad luck).

There are now even academies and schools instructing people in how to wear the kimono, both because there are occasions where traditional dress is needed, and to preserve an art that is fading due to the ease, comfort and thus prevalence of western clothing. I knew from my time in Osaka that kimono were rare.  I did not know why until Friday.

Ms Seki did two demonstrations. The first, featuring curatorial assistant Virginia Soenksen as a model, was very traditional. As seen in the above photo, and in this one, which shows Ms Seki tying Virginia’s obi:

I do not have complete stage-by-stage photographs, but Virginia started out in cropped yoga pants and a tank top, and gradually, piece by piece, dressed herself (with Ms Seki explaining and demonstrating certain techniques along the way) from undershirt, to under-kimono, to kimono, to obi.

Virginia is largely responsible for the current exhibit on dress, very knowledgeable on the subjects, and took kimono-wearing classes while she was living in Japan for two years after university.

It was so much more informative to see rather than simply read the process for dressing in kimono.

The second demonstration was more “experimental”. Ms Seki’s one objection to the kimono schools was the way they bring uniformity to kimono-wearing.  Everyone is so terrified by the rules that they will not experiment and this saddens her, because everyone looks the same.  So, with her friend Sharon as a model, she dressed Sharon in a less traditional way: With the kimono more open in front to show off a silk blouse and the jewellery she had worn, pinning up the front of the kimono to reveal the beautiful burgundy lining, and adding a shawl and heels instead of the usual hapi or haori and zori.

My only criticism would be that this lecture pertained to mainland Japanese dress and how it is worn, while the current part of the exhibit is about the Ainu and the Okinawan traditional dress — two minority groups, often neglected in Japanese studies.  Surrounded by such contrasting aesthetics some sort of short explanation would have decreased confusion, and made the evening that much more educational.  However, as a demonstration of kimono and how to wear it — which is admittedly all the event professed to be — it was a fantastically informative evening. Even despite my own basic knowledge I came away feeling that I finally understood the place and the proper way of wearing the traditional garments of a society I dedicated the better part of my undergraduate career to studying.

The Clark Centre staff were indescribably helpful. Virginia, and the Head Curator, Dr Mark Andreas, were wonderfully patient and friendly.  More than willing to talk to me about the way in which kimono, like eighteenth-century European clothing, forces you into perfect posture, and comparing the aesthetics of the Ainu embroidery to the carvings done by Pacific Northwest First Nations.  They even promised a tour of the exhibit either on a Saturday when they are running curator-led tours, or a private tour by personal appointment if they have time (ie, look for an exhibit review in the coming weeks!).  I purchased the catalogue and look forward to reading it on my flight to Seattle tomorrow.

I’ve pulled my copy of the catalogue for the Museum at FIT’s exhibit, Japan Fashion Now out of the storage box in which it’s been living.  Looking through its photos is like I’m twenty years old again. Except the clothes I saw (and coveted) on kids in Harajuku that July are now on runway models and major museum mannequins.  My adolescence and early adulthood made museum-worthy. I thought I was just a misfit nerd.  Turns out I was cutting edge.  But there is more than nostalgia that has caused me to revisit these fashions and the memories they invoke.

Driving out of the walnut grove that night, I realised I had reconnected with something that I had loved with the all-consuming passion that only a sixteen- to twenty-year-old can possess, but from the perspective of someone who has reached adulthood.

I had forgotten about kimono, and that lilac fabric I’d wanted but wouldn’t ask for because it was so expensive, I’d forgotten my promise to myself to return to Japan. Somewhere along the way the dreams turned into day jobs, bills, and rent to be paid.  Then there were new countries to visit and cultures to explore.  The last fortnight seems to have been one in which I reconnected with myself, because for the second time in as many weeks… I seem to have found my way home. 唯今!

Savagery and Satire

SATIRE

2b. the employment, in speaking or writing, of sarcasm, irony, ridicule, etc. in exposing, denouncing, deriding, or ridiculing vice, folly, indecorum, abuses, or evils of any kind.

—     Oxford English Dictionary

I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through my work… Let’s break down some barriers.

—     Alexander McQueen[1]

 

When I applied for my masters programme I was very specific that I was a history of dress scholar, I did not bother with fashion.  My interests were lodged firmly in the past, and I did not have time to deal with all that superficiality and consumerism and modernity.  I dealt with muslins and the rise of the British cotton and imitation shawl industries and things that were real, in the superior and oh-so-defensive tone of someone who has newly embarked on a course of study, as the only member in her entire department doing a dissertation on dress studies can be.  Utterly and completely neglecting that today is tomorrow’s history, and that today’s socio-political issues are just as equally represented in today’s clothing, even if not described in the flowery language of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell.

I was writing my final essays, finishing my internship, and dealing with life, the universe, and everything when the news of Alexander McQueen’s suicide broke.  I felt a slight sadness that anyone would be so unhappy as to take their own life, but thought nothing more of the topic.  I’m afraid I didn’t really know who he was.  I didn’t even know it was time for the Autumn/Fall shows.  I had “serious” academic work to be getting on with, after all.

It was not until previews of the upcoming show and teaser images from the revolutionary new catalogue began to flood my Twitter feed that I sat up and took notice.  The jacket with the antelope horns on the shoulders caught my attention instantly, as did the eerie photography and aesthetics.  There was something about the garments and the atmosphere of the photos that appealed to my former wannabe-goth, thirteen year-old self.  But other than noticing that it was taking place in New York in May, and that I live in California so would not be able to attend, I simply admired the photos, thought “oh, that’s the sort of thing he did”, and went on to the next link.

But the teasers kept coming.  They became full articles, discussing the revolutionary new way in which the catalogue had been photographed (museum collections cannot be worn as a rule, but since these were all still within the House’s collection, they were placed on models who were then photoshopped to look like living mannequins); or discussing the designer himself.  Then, I purchased the catalogue, and a “well, maybe when I’m on the East Coast in July I’ll see if I have time” became “I must see this”.

I was embarrassingly late in becoming an Alexander McQueen fangirl.  I still prefer historical or technical discussions of clothes to current fashion, and I am happy to admit that I am completely out of my comfort zone.  And yet, I think that is the way McQueen himself would have preferred it.  There is something about his work that evinces an intense emotional engagement from me, and clearly I am not alone.

The exhibit is drawing record-breaking crowds.  I arrived to see it on a Monday, when The Met is normally closed, thinking the lines would be shorter. I was so, so wrong. I was surprised to discover that the normal entrance fee was doubled to $50, that Savage Beauty was the only thing you would see for that, and what’s more, I could still see the lines nearly out to the street from the side entrance.  As I had at least another 24 hours in New York, I resolved to be there before the museum opened the next day to “beat the lines” (that sound you hear is hysterical, ridiculing laughter, by the way).  The museum opened at 09:30, and I was there well before then, but the lines were already absurd.

The signs at the ticket kiosk said that the wait to see Savage Beauty was only fifteen minutes, but after climbing two flights of stairs and seeing the line, I had a rather sudden premonition that this could not be the case. . .

Nearly half an hour later I was perhaps two-thirds of the way through the line and still could not even see the entrance to the exhibit.

. . . I may have gotten bored.

I do not know how long I actually waited, but I would happily have waited longer.

The exhibit is nothing short of awe-inspiring. For McQueen, the show was the most important part of what he did; the garments of a collection could not be designed until he had a concept for the show itself.[2] The Met exhibit’s creation of atmosphere and attention to detail seems almost a recreation of the designer’s own process.  Each and every room is different, and specifically designed for the collection it showcases.  From the plain concrete walls and raw wood platforms of the “Romantic Mind” collection that displays McQueen’s earliest work – creative reconstructions of the traditional tailoring he learned while an apprentice on Savile Row – in the first room, to the opulent, gold-leaf walls lit by flickering (electric, of course) candelabra for the opening room to the “Romantic Nationalism” section – which features the sharply tailored pieces of his Widows of Culloden collection in their bright red McQueen tartan, and the soft, flowing shapes of The Girl Who Lived in the Tree with its references to British Imperial wealth – about midway through the exhibit.

Each and every mannequin’s head is covered, the only exceptions being the “Romantic Mind” room which featured headless mannequins, and the “Cabinet of Curiosities” room, where some of the bizarre and whimsical jewellery pieces or more unsual hats could not be displayed except on an uncovered bust. Each masque fits perfectly with the aesthetic of the room.  Gold, bevelled pieces for the “Romantic Nationalism” room described above, burlap sacks for the room featuring the shipwreck-themed Irere collection, and futuristic faux-metal headpieces recreating the bizarre hairstyles of the Plato’s Atlantis runway show which introduced the “armadillo” platforms for the final “Romantic Naturalism” room.

Despite the variety of the masques, this manages to create a sense of cohesion in an extremely diverse exhibit.  It also continues a tradition of McQueen’s, who would intentionally obscure the features of his models, either through make up, veils, headpieces or masques; he also rarely used “supermodels”, not wanting the overall message, or visual impact of the show to be overshadowed by the model’s own fame.[3]  He even said, when he was accused of misogyny and encouraging exploitation of women in his shows (specifically Highland Rape), “We’re not talking about models’ personal feelings here… We’re talking about mine. Models are there to showcase what I’m about, nothing else. It’s nothing to do with misogyny. It’s all about the way I’m feeling about my life.”[4]  The masques, even for featureless mannequins, are very much in keeping with this mentality because despite their uniqueness, they complete the look, and almost become “background” forcing you to look only at the clothes and the designer’s vision.

The other two elements that most impressed me were the use of video, sound effects and music, and the recreation of some of the runway shows.  I became aware of the background sound and music in the second room, which features the darkly gothic Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious collection, as well as his posthumous Angels and Demons.  The walls are covered in what look like old, tarnished mirrors with grand, gilded frames.  There is a fan for one particular outfit, which has a cape that billows dramatically as a result; but it is the sound of eerie instrumental music – sophisticated haunted house music, really – and wind as if through vast corridors which subtly reinforces the ambiance of the entire display.  The Cabinet of Curiosities features a number of videos of McQueen shows, making you pause that much longer to take each one in.

After leaving the “Romantic Exoticism” room, which is music-box like in its use of turntables and mirrors, you are faced with McQueen’s VOSS runway show in miniature.  A mirrored box where you confront your own reflection transforms into a display case for mannequins wearing dresses from the collection and an image of the white tiled, sanatorium surgical theatre it originally took place in with its own mirrored box in the middle as the background.  The lights go down on the mannequins, and the background image comes to life, becoming a video of the final moment of the runway show in which the walls of the box within the box come crashing down, shattering on impact with the floor, and revealing a nude woman whose body is completely opposite to those of the models that have just been dancing around her.  She is not tall, she is very curvaceous and of a larger size, her face is completely obscured and moths and other insects flutter about and over her.  The entire display then fades back to the mirrored box it was when you approached it, and you are once again confronted with your own reflection.

I had never before realized just how important context was for museum displays of costume.  The catalogue had featured a rather plain dress: black with a gold damask print painted on it, but in the bottom left corner the pattern had not been finished and instead drips of gold paint run down as though the painting had been halted part way through and abandoned to dry however it might.  I simply thought it was an interesting pattern effect, nothing more. But in person, within the setting, I had a completely different, deeply emotional reaction. After the first, gilded “Romantic Nationalism” room, you are taken into a room with ravaged wooden floors and walls, in the background “God Save The Queen” is played on an electric guitar, in what can only be described as an ironic way.  In conjunction with the tattered, torn, and ripped lace, leather and chiffon that makes up the other garments from the Highland Rape collection, my perceptions of this black dress with gold damask print were entirely transformed. My favourite course while doing my masters was my Jacobitism to Romanticism class which looked at the material culture of Scotland, particularly during the Jacobite uprisings, so it is perhaps the historical context that made this room so memorable to me.  Yet, the combination of sound and visuals, followed immediately by the quiet, ethereal hologram of Kate Moss is still my favourite.  It had what can only be described as a visceral impact on me and my opinions of this collection. Altering them forever.

As a visual display the exhibit is undeniably stunning.  There were several pieces where I wished there were mirrors behind stationary mannequins so that I could see the backs or fronts that were turned towards the walls, but that would have disrupted the aesthetic presentation.  My biggest complaint was with the information panels.  Not the labels for the garments, but the descriptions featured to explain each room and collection.  McQueen frequently, and sometimes violently, protested the stereotypes and labels he was given by the press.[5]  He hated being considered the “bad boy of fashion”, or having himself and his vision reduced to the “Michael Cain syndrome” as he referred to it, of the East End, Cockney boy made good.[6]  Bolton’s panels and his preface to the catalogue do not put McQueen in this box, but they create a loftier, more romantic one: a modern version of Rousseau’s Noble Savage; a misunderstood, melancholy prophet showing us all “the truth”. This seems in direct contrast to Susannah Frankel’s statement in her introduction to the catalogue that “… as a human being, he was far more complex, elusive, and indeed magical than any reductive media incarnation”.[7]

People, though, are usually far more comfortable with “reductive media incarnations” than with complexities and things that are uncomfortable, even while they flock to them. The museum needs to make the artwork accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and to introduce a strange and perhaps completely unknown designer to an ignorant public. McQueen himself even acknowledged that “… Any interest in the clothes is secondary to interest in the designer”.[8]  And this is true of all art. The public is just as fascinated by Pablo Picasso the man as they are by his art, being violently offended when Arianna Huffington dragged him off a pedestal and into gritty reality with her biography in 1989.  Tickets for biopics about Jackson Pollock or Vermeer – fictitious or not – would not sell if we did not want to see the myths writ large.  But, all the hype is nothing if you are not a good designer, craftsman or artist, and McQueen certainly was.  Whether or not fashion (said in the same condescending tone I embarrassingly used to employ) is truly art is still publicly debated, though.

In April the New York Times ran a piece on big museums “finding a place” for fashion in their exhibition schedules, which seemed to come to the conclusion that it was merely a cash cow to fund “proper” art exhibits.  In July another article ran in conjunction with the opening of the Madame Grés exhibit in Paris, asking point blank whether fashion was really art or deserving of such major museum attention. That fashion exhibits sell is clearly indicated by not only the lines in my own photos above, but the fact that the Met is open on Mondays just for the McQueen exhibit, and able to charge twice its normal admission price.  And get it. It is even staying open until midnight this weekend to try and meet the demand to see the exhibit during its last few days.  These are unprecedented measures and changes.  The Met has never been open until midnight.  Or on Mondays.

But does popularity validate that something is art?  There are arguments that say yes, and arguments that say no.

Another NYT review suggested that having the House itself financially and artistically involved in the exhibit was limiting and that if fashion wanted to be taken seriously as art, it needed to be removed from its commercial environment and “treated as art”, complete with analysis, comparison, and even criticism.  I agree with the author, Holland Cotter, that in order to treat it seriously, it must be analyzed the same way as all other ar tforms, within the proper socio-political context, and even on occasion drawing some negative conclusions, and that this cannot be done when you have the owners of the objects breathing down your neck and demanding to be made to look good. But that sort of treatment usually happens in conferences and reviews, not exhibition catalogues. However, Cotter claims this happens in other Met catalogues, which I can neither confirm nor deny, this being the only exhibit, and only catalogue I have ever had contact with.  But, in my experience it is highly unusual for museums to say “well, you know, Edward Weston is considered this amazing, early photographer… but we just can’t tell”.  They are trying to sell their product.  And in fact, according to psychology researcher Paul Bloom in his TED Talk, that is perfectly normal. We place a huge amount of importance and value on how a particular artwork is perceived by others, and that influences how much value we have for it. And well established museums and their curators will carry more weight in determining something’s importance and value, than say, well, me.

And yet, Cotter’s article does make one wonder if the reason fashion isn’t considered art isn’t due to this corporate, and arguably biased involvement in its museum display.  Would it be taken more seriously if it was removed from all of that and treated as any other form of art or craft is?  But then again, without the funding a fashion house can provide, would the Met have even been able to mount such an extraordinary exhibit?

For me, Alexander McQueen was a satirist.  He did not write poetry or prose (that I know of), but he took our taboos and forced us to look at them full on, even if they made us squirm; he took our standards of beauty, our perceptions of women, our ideas about history, our stereotypes and our conformities and blew them out of proportion, distorted them into the ridiculous and made us reconsider and think about them, even if we didn’t necessarily like what we thought or felt afterwards.  He was like Jonathan Swift, suggesting the Irish eat their babies in lieu of potatoes during famine.  He was occasionally grotesque, but satire often is, and that is its power.  There was a NYT opinion piece in April suggesting that the only real political and social change comes through satire.  Once we are made to realize something is ridiculous, we are no longer intimidated.  It can be changed.

McQueen himself seemed uncertain whether he was an artist or not.  Towards the end of his life he spoke of going back to art school, but always referred to himself as a designer.[9]  I believe he was an amazing craftsman – the skill used to create his garments attests to that – and a true artist.  Fashion, and particularly his shows “which blurred the boundary between runway show and a new kind of installation art” were simply his medium.[10]  McQueen even said, “For me, what I do is an artistic expression which is channelled through me. Fashion is just the medium”.[11]  The irony that he was discussing people’s perceptions of beauty through fashion is not lost on me. Nor was it lost on him.

The exhibit is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever seen.  Anyone who cannot make it in this weekend should avail themselves of the video walkthrough on the Met’s website (next to the last, at the bottom of the page, though as a proper little acolyte, I highly recommend all the videos).  It is almost as good as being there, and there is less danger of being elbowed in the ribs (all those people in the photos above… yeah, they’re in the exhibit with you).

I regret very much that I came to appreciate this man only after he had died. But I feel that to try and place him in a box whether you are a media outlet or a museum is unfair.  He said that if we wanted to know him, we should look at his work.

I think the best homage we could give him would be to do just that.

Bibliography

Austen, Jane. 1961. Sense and Sensibility (New York, Signet Classics).

Bloom, Paul. ‘The origins of pleasure’ TED Talks. TED [27 July 2011], http://bit.ly/oMPoT4 .

Bolton, Andrew. 2011. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Cotter, Holland. ‘Designer as Dramatist, and the Tales He Left Behind’ The New York Times. The New York Times [4 May 2011], http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/07/arts/design/alexander-mcqueen-show-at-the-met-review.html?partner=rss&emc=rss .

Fabrikant, Geraldine. ‘Museums Are Finding Room for Couturiers’ The New York Times. The New York Times [20 April 2011],

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/21/fashion/21MUSEUMS.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss .

Frankel, Susannah. 2001. ‘Alexander McQueen’, Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers (London, V&A Publishing).

Knox, Kristin. 2010. Alexander McQueen: Genius of a Generation (London, A & C Black).

Kristof, Nicholas D. ‘The Power of Mockery’ The New York Times. The New York Times [16 April 2011], http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/opinion/17kristof.html?_r=1 .

Pieri, Keri. ‘Because Only Kate and McQueen Matter Today: Met Exhibit Pics’ Stylecaster. Stylecaster [29 April 2011], http://www.stylecaster.com/fashion/12637/because-only-kate-mcqueen-matter-today-met-exhibit-pics#124689 .

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘The Fall from Nature’, The Western World, Dr. John P. Farrell, ed. (New York, Penguin Publishing).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘Morals of Nature’, The Western World, Dr. John P. Farrell, ed. (New York, Penguin Publishing).

Wilson, Eric. ‘A Mannequin in Every Sense’, The New York Times. The New York Times [13 April 2011], http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/fashion/14ROW.html .

Winchester, Simon. 1999. The Professor and the Madman (New York, Harper Collins Publishing).


[1] Bolton: 130.

[2] Ibid: 24.

[3] Ibid: 22.

[4] Frankel: 20.

[5] Ibid: 14, 16 – 19, 20; Bolton: 17; Knox: 7.

[6] Frankel: 20.

[7] Bolton: 17.

[8] Frankel: 20.

[9] Bolton: 231.

[10] Knox: 7.

[11] Bolton: 92.

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