Blockbuster fashion @ museums.

Jeanette Johansson

Been to a blockbuster museum fashion exhibition recently? There’s no shortage … Did you attend to take in glamour, beauty and at the same time working the grey matter, learning something new? Departing feeling you had a satisfactory fashion fix in combo with that warm glow of having had a cultivated experience?

Congratulations – you had just successfully been sucked into a fashion conspiracy.

Went to a seminar the other day entitled ‘Fashion in Museums’, conducted by Marie Riegels Melchior. My outlook on fashion in art museums has not been the same since.

MRB is Assistant Professor at the University of Copenhagen as well as assitant curator at Designmuseum Denmark. At the abovementioned seminar she describes the evolution of dress displays in art museums.

Her argument is that in the beginning there was “dress museology”. In the early 20th century it was acceptable by art museums to collect high quality textiles. By the 1930s the musems had broadened their horizon and started collecting dress items made from high quality fabrics. From there the next step towards collecting dress because of exceptional cut and style was not a big one. The focus was on design and aesthetic values rather than a social and cultural context.

The interest in fashion in museums grew in the 1960s and 1970s. Not least because of the involvement of big fashion names such as Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland in the curatorship of high-profile exhibitions. Additionally this era was characterised by a creative revolution in popular culture further contributing to an increased recognition of fashion as an important part of cultural heritage.

MRB claims that it was during this period that fashion in museums entered a phase of ‘fashion museuology’.

Front-stage display of fashion was shaped and inpsired by the experience of commercial fashion shows, the styling of fashion editorials, focusing less on the actual piece of clothing and more on the creation of a visual imression, a narrative to engage and evoke the feelings of the visitor.

By the early noughties fashion had become a strategic focus for museum management teams.

What are the key factors explaining the rise of blockbuster fashion exhibitions?

The number one factor is that fashion is in fashion. Musems are on the popular bandwagon – it has boosted their profile making them appear livelier and more eye-catching places to visit. Leading to the issue of money. Musems are often the victims of cuts in relevant funding. Naturally making them look elsewhere for other options. Interestingly, it is not the income from high-profile fashion exhibitions per se that provide most value. Rather it’s the media exposure it generates, making the museum reach new audiences who might not otherwise be lured by museum vibes.

Is there a problem with these developments? Obviously there is – MRB is pointing particularly at the receding importance of the scholarship aspect. Furthermore there is the shift of the balance of power when outside “collaborators” get involved. For example, a high-profile exhibition like Vogue 100: A century of style exhibition recently held at the National Gallery in London was curated by man appointed by the publishing house Condé Nast, not the National Gallery. A case of a respected cultural institution hijacked by a corporate giant in a grand gesture of self-promotion?

Flashy fashion exhibitions are furthermore taking a toll on dress handling stipulated by guidelines issued by the Costume Committee’s Guidelines for Costumes. It also affects a museum’s willingness to collect dress as items are now frequently borrowed from other museums for temporary exhibitions.

I recommend reading “Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice” by Marie Riegels Melchior and Birgitta Svensson for the full lowdown on an intriguing subject.

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