Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fashion is history.

So if you have not seen the NY Times article on fashion's place in museums then don't bother at this point because I'm about to point out why it has a seriously misled point of view.

It really is pointless to argue that fashion is superficial and it has no place in the academic world because it has arrived, folks, and its not going anywhere. Fashion as history has fought the same battles that any other "alternative" history has fought. And by "alternative" I mean, anything that is not the old, rich white man's version of history. Emerging social histories fought for their relevancy back in the 1960s, and fashion has been fighting the same battle in academia since before the 1990s.

Yes, it is true that fashion exhibitions are popular with the public because fashion as a general subject is popular. But who is to argue against something that brings in revenue for museums that are struggling financially more than ever in this downward trending economy? Also, just because museums and academia are finding a place for costume exhibitions doesn't mean that the public in general understands how fashion can be used to tell the stories of the past. Isn't educating one of the basic missions of a museum? Imagine the surprise for those lucky wanderers of New York's Met or Chicago's Chicago History Museum or L.A.'s Los Angeles County Museum of Art when they find themselves face to face with a turn of the century gown that demonstrates how couturiers freed women from rigid corsetry or how garment factory workers used the emerging ready-to-wear industry to uplift their position in life. Conserve, share and educate. That is what museum's are doing with their costume collections just as they are with their paintings and photographs and other forms of "art."

Dresses featured in Chicago History Museum's exhibition Chic Chicago: Couture Treasures from the Chicago History Museum that demonstrate how couture fashion "trickled down" to ready-to-wear fashion. Christian Dior (on right) circa 1953 and Sophie (on left) circa 1954 could both have been purchased at Chicago's Marshall Field's in their different departments of course.*

What it comes down to, honestly, is that dress, in all its different forms, is something we use everyday. And whether or not you are plucking t-shirts out of the half off bin at Express or strolling into Dior on Avenue Montaigne, dress expresses identity. Dress has acted as an expression of identity since before the Etruscans draped their first chiton in the 6th century B.C. and will continue to do so forever. Therefore, it is not hard to connect how fashion can give us a tangible window into the societies of the past, whether it's a gown from the couture house of Gabrielle Chanel from the 1920s or an English red coat from the Revolutionary War.

So, believers in fashion, continue to support the arts, in all its forms, by visiting the exquisitely well thought out fashion exhibitions being featured in museums across this country. Thank you and goodnight.

*Information from the catalog of the exhibition, which can be purchased here. (One example of the scholarly work that goes into a fashion exhibition.)

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