“An uneasy mix of art and commerce” is how Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, once described fashion. Given the imaginative work that’s been let loose on some of the world’s top catwalks over the years, it’s a fitting description. But the label of “art” is not one that the Australian fashion industry has ever worn with confidence. Even in the best of times, homegrown designers rarely get the opportunity to realise their creative vision unfettered by commercial considerations. And these have not been the best of times. With the failure of several high-profile brands over the past year, on high streets and in boardrooms, the mood of the local fashion scene might be better described as plain uneasy.
It’s a different story in Australia’s art galleries and cultural institutions, where fashion is doing fine. The pulling power of anything related to fashion, dress or costume should not be surprising – like Impressionist paintings, fashion’s aesthetic value is high and, sometimes, the demand on our intellect low. We all wear clothes – maybe not exactly the sort of clothes that are on display but we are, as they say, familiar with the concept. Wrap this familiarity in the packaging of fashion’s commercial origins, tie it up with a reputation for feminine frivolity, and you begin to understand why, for a long time, curators around the world struggled to have fashion taken seriously.
Although controversy over industry involvement and sponsorship remains, fashion’s battle for legitimacy is now mostly won. The debate has shifted to questions about what a fashion exhibition should be. Intelligent, experimental and concept-driven? Educational, with a focus on the cultural and social history of “the way we wore”? Blockbuster entertainment or simply beautiful? It can, of course, be all these things, but according to the fashion scholar and museum curator Valerie Steele, “ideally, an exhibition will be good for thinking”.
Not that I was doing much of that as I drove through pleasant kangaroo and sheep country on my way to see Modern Love: Fashion Visionaries from the FIDM Museum LA at the Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria (until 2 February). But once inside the dimly lit exhibition space, with its mannequins displayed in large glass-fronted cabinets, the commercial character of fashion was hard to ignore. The low lighting is part of the costume exhibition experience – fragile textiles are vulnerable to harsh light. In the past, I have been struck by the contrast between this shadowy afterlife of fashion and the attention-seeking performance of its birth on the catwalk. But on this occasion, a wander through the gloaming produced a different sensation, the not unpleasant one of window-shopping after dark.
This resemblance to the retail experience could well be intentional. The substantial collectino of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising museum (more than 15,000 objects) owes much to the donation of many haute couture pieces by its early patron, Betsy Bloomingdale, the New York socialite of department store fame. On display at Modern Love is a red silk gazar Christian Dior evening gown made for her in the mid 1980s. It would be striking in its simplicity if not for an enormous bow billowing down the back.
It’s hard to see how one would sit down in such a dress, but that is hardly the point. Modern Love is not an exhibition of everyday fashion. This is top-end stuff, where even a pair of Adidas high-tops turns out to be a limited edition pair of “limousines for the feet”. It is also primarily an exhibition of women’s fashion bookended with two masculine outfits: Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s punk-era “Bondage” suit and Thom Browne’s Quaker-inspired suit from his Fall/Winter 2013–14 collection. Melbourne’s Toni Maticevski is represented by his sculptural “Haute Drape” dress made from neoprene, a recent purchase by the FIDM and the only Australian designer piece in its collection. Otherwise, the “visionaries” of the exhibition’s title are a rollcall of household names and a sprinkling of some lesser-known, but important, international designers.
The period covered by the exhibition – from the mid 1970s to the present – encompasses crucial developments in fashion, including Westwood’s transformation of British tailoring, Jean Paul Gaultier’s high-fashion adaptation of subcultural style, and the rise of avant-garde Japanese designers, such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo. More generally, the period takes in postmodernism, deconstructionism, the “decline” of haute couture and its resurrection at the end of the millennium. Today, the couture “brand” has become a global phenomenon and the dominant face of fashion in the 21st century.
To expect an exhibition the size of Modern Love to address the complexities of this period is a big ask. Nonetheless, what does emerge out of the 60 or so outfits on display is a world of money, glamour and politics, and questions about fashion’s relationship to the body – themes that, by its very nature, fashion cannot avoid.
Take that enormous bow on Mrs Bloomingdale’s dress. The 1980s is an era that particularly lends itself to the appealing (if simplistic) theory that fashionable silhouettes mirror the economic times. Sure enough, throughout Modern Love, swathes of silk bloom off hips, breasts and sleeves like technicoloured growths. Worn by the social glitterati in those high-living, conspicuous consumption times, these dresses are a fitting symbol for an overinflated stock market that, by October 1987, had nowhere left to go.
Direct political statements (Obama good, Bush bad) appear on Jeremy Scott’s sequined jacket and George Roth’s T-shirt. But Sarah Caplan’s simple A-line dress, printed with the skyline of New York’s financial district, provides a more nuanced engagement with the sociopolitical landscape. Made from Tyvek, a synthetic paper-like material, such dresses have historical links with political and advertising promotions: Richard Nixon’s female supporters wore specially designed paper dresses during the 1968 presidential campaign. They also represented a promise to liberate women from the tyranny of fashion. Thirty years later, Caplan’s paper dress critiqued our “throwaway” consumer culture. Post September 11, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center dominating the dress’s frame, yet another layer of meaning is added to the shifting commentary of this “ephemeral” piece of fashion.
No one was better than Alexander McQueen at dipping into history, combining fragments of the past and elements of the present to create complex, conceptually assured design that interrogated the fashion industry itself. In McQueen’s frothy cream tulle and black lace peacock dress from 2008, themes of British imperialism, fashion history, romance and loss are all expressed in a garment of exquisite beauty and artisanal skill. Yet it is the more understated patchwork suit from his Spring/Summer 2004 collection that resonates most. In a tribute to the 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, models in the catwalk show re-enacted the movie’s Depression-era dance to the death. The evocation of grinding poverty is a line that fashion designers cross at their peril, but in the light of McQueen’s suicide in 2010, it serves as an unsettling reminder of the relentless merry-go-round of constant renewal and limitless creativity that the fashion system demands of its visionaries.
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