A Really Long Conversation About Fashion and Museums

McQ.531_McQ1110_Sav_mind_SS97_Look43_006-f2LOWRES.AV0.ELPrevious installments in this series can be found here.

Haley: So. Fashion and museums! Big topic.

Anna: You and I both had a lot of thoughts about this year’s Met fashion exhibit, Punk: Chaos to Couture. In early May they had a party where everyone came with “punk” inspired fashion. There was a lot of fashion’s elite, a lot of designers, starlets, actresses, models–

Haley: –The Gwyneths.

Anna: The Gywneths

Haley: The Jessicas.

Anna: Neither of us have seen the exhibit in person, though we both watched the livefeed. Actually, I had to cut in and out, because I kept going like this. [Let the records show that Anna facepalms.]

Haley: It was TOO painful. I have so many thoughts. One of the most horrifying moments was when Vivienne Westwood showed up with a picture of Bradley Manning pinned to her dress. It was like, legitimately punk, to hijack this event being held for the one percent, to confront them with, “Oh, here’s a photo of a person that you’re probably detaining illegally because he did something that challenges people in power.” When she started to go on a political diatribe, her mic was cut out and she was pushed out of the way.

Westwood is, at this point, pretty much part of the establishment. She’s earned a really serious level of respect from her peers as a living designer. AND she’s more or less responsible for what we think of as the pseudo-official “punk” look, which I hate saying, but there it is. Yet even someone in her position was not allowed to be political at this event. She was being way more punk in spirit than the Met was by trying to recreate what the CBGB’s bathroom looked like.

Anna: Clothes are such an important part of every sub-culture that I don’t think having a punk exhibition is a bad idea. But I want to ask what they were trying to accomplish with this show. If they were trying to celebrate the pure aesthetics of it, fashion at its most superficial, commodified level, well congratulations. There were a lot of metal studs. But if we want to talk about what punk is as an ideology, as a very flawed ideology, that’s a different exhibit. I mean, to the Met’s credit there were probably way more women and people of colour there than at the front row of a punk show in the 1970s.

Haley: I’m nodding emphatically

Anna: When I was shaking my head at the Met, it wasn’t because I was worried about them tarnishing the so-called purity of punk rock’s legacy. With punk there is so much bullshit already.

Haley: For me, it was never about feeling like this subculture had been co-opted, because its not my subculture to complain about. I always thought like it felt like a weird vanity project for the Met, and of course for Vogue.

But to defend the Met, even though why would you need to defend the Met because they are THE institution to rail against if you’re ever going to pick one, but I did hear curator Harold Koda speak at the Bata Shoe Museum a few years ago. It was genuinely wonderful, because he is so brilliant and such an important figure in fashion. He said something weird about how he envies the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is where he used to work, because there are some very strange rules at the Met’s Costume Institute. They don’t have a permanent exhibition, so they’re always in the process of building two shows using what they have in the archive or what they can get donated. I feel like that rule is where we get a lot of these weird kind of filler exhibitions that don’t really make a lot of sense. It wouldn’t surprise me if they just happened to have enough clothes to fill 70% of a punk collection and they said, “OK, let’s just fill in the rest with whatever we can find and just do it.” How often do you get something like the McQueen exhibition?

Anna: Which brings us to the idea of fashion in museums AS A WHOLE. I do believe that having clothing in museums is so important, because fashion is culture. It’s history and it’s art and it’s worth wanting to archive or make accessible viewing for the people. At least, the people with museum memberships. But the questions we should be asking are, What clothes are being displayed? What stories are worth being remembered and worth telling? This is true for war museums and history museums. Talk to the Guerilla Girls about art galleries. We also have to ask how much honesty is going into what is presented. Ditto the decisions regarding what gets archived and remembered. So with the punk thing–I mean, yeah, you’ve got some cool fun tidbits of history there. But then there are the uncomfortable issues. What about these white punks appropriating Nazi imagery?

Haley: That is completely something I feel the Met wimped out on because they were afraid of offending all these families taking their kids to the museum on some nice Saturday or whatever. The use of the swastika in punk, ironically or very seriously, is a really really interesting conversation about the way fashion can become a vehicle for evil.

I don’t want to tread too heavily on this topic right now, because I’m actually working on a super secret piece that incorporates a lot things we’re talking about.

Anna: Which we are all so excited to read.

Haley: There’s so much there about why someone who, FINGERS CROSSED, does not legitimately empathize with Nazis, but would still choose to adorn themselves with such a politically loaded iconography just to make a statement. To me, that’s something that renders punk so historically significant. And yet the Met is just like, “No, we’d rather not.”

Anna: And, again, speaking as someone who DOES NOT LIVE IN NEW YORK and has YET TO SEE THE EXHIBIT, I feel like it is a missed opportunity to ask “Why and how did this specifically remembered style become conflated with such an abstract, anti-authoritative political movement?”

Haley: The punk exhibit, it’s just an example, and I don’t want to spend all this time bashing it because I’m sure a lot of people worked very hard on it and I feel for them, hands were tied blah blah blah. But remember that night we were having drinks with a group of friends and one very smart woman said that even though she loves fashion so much she recognizes that the history of fashion is indefensible? Which we all agreed on. So much of fashion’s history is hateful to women. But I don’t think more so than the history of literature. I don’t think its more so than the history of art. I think the history of art is overwhelmingly negative towards women and other marginalized groups that aren’t nice white French guys painting in watercolour.

So any time a museum fights this urge to recognize fashion as a legitimate art, it’s like a two-pronged assault. They’re saying, “Your mode of expression is not worthy, because it’s indefensible in how it treats women,” but there’s also a long history of using standards of art to devalue the contributions of marginalized groups of people, which is what I think of about the efforts to keep fashion from being recognized as an art. WORN Fashion Journal has been denied grants by committees (not naming names) that don’t think fashion is traditional art. Like, somehow, if you’re not making a magazine about like watercolours circa 1850, you’re not producing an artistic contribution to Canadian culture. When I see these punk exhibits, I can’t tell if they are legitimizing street fashion, or if it’s cheapening the museum as a place that could legitimize fashion.

Anna: Right. Again, this goes back to museums as institutions deciding what gets to be showcased. I do want to give credit to the Minh-Ha T. Pham’s project Of Another Fashion, which is about preserving the sartorial histories of American people of colour. Because it’s rare that the everyday outfits of people who aren’t white are commemorated beyond costume or appropriation. Like, there are all these contexts within which clothing can exist beyond the grandiose.

Haley: When I saw Harold Koda speak, he talked about an exhibition which in which clothing from the time period was integrated into the exhibition itself. I want to say, it was immediately preceding the French Revolution? They had mannequins wearing dresses from that time integrated with furniture and paintings. Allegedly, this was a huge battle for Koda. He was relegated to this costume cave, and for him to start working with the people who worked in the ACTUAL museum, like the ACTUAL art, that was a barrier he didn’t think he could get down. That’s changing though. They have that exhibition about fashion in modernist paintings. Like the way Manet and Monet incorporated fashion in their art. I think that’s, yeah, another way that museums acknowledge that there are these barriers we put up between the way people express themselves in real life and the way we acknowledge it as capital A art. Integrating clothes is actually the simplest and most effective way of saying, “Here is how it really mattered in their daily life.”

Anna: Remembering those practical, daily uses of clothing is also something that gets glossed over. When we think of the 1920’s, we might have some idea of how people dressed in seeing elaborate preserved dresses in an exhibit, or maybe via vintage fashion magazines or Baz Luhrmann’s COMPLETELY historically accurate Gatsby adaptation. But it creates this collective vision of all American women in the 1920’s running around in Chanel drop waist jersey dresses. As progressive as such a dress might have been in its era, it was still an outfit for the privileged. When someone asks you to think of what the working woman in the 1920’s was wearing, do we have an image available? Today, there are people who wear McQueen, but if fifty years from now you were to do a retrospective of the Fashions of 2013, it wouldn’t be–

Haley: It wouldn’t all be Balenciaga space sweaters.

Anna: Exactly. It’s the disconnect between everyday fashion and high fashion, and all the differences therein even when they overlap. Grunge is a good example; as different as it might be from punk, they’re still very very white subcultures, and are probably more associated with music than clothing. There’s this need to not strip the clothes of their meaning, to not just say “oh well a flannel shirt is a flannel shirt.” Well there’s a difference between a flannel shirt that Marc Jacobs shows on Perry Ellis’s runway in 1994, a thrifted flannel shirt worn by Kurt Cobain, or a flannel shirt that some suburban kid bought at the mall because he wants to be Kurt Cobain.

Haley: Yeah, there’s–especially with fashion, but with most subcultures–I feel like there’s this urge to categorize and dismiss as quickly as possible. Quite literally in the case of Perry Ellis and Marc Jacobs example, in that he put forth what he thought people should be wearing. And they literally dismissed him. He was fired from Perry Ellis. But when we inevitably have a Marc Jacobs retrospective, which I do believe is just a matter of time–though probably not while he’s still alive. Stay safe forever, Marc Jacobs, I’m knocking on wood–that Perry Ellis show will be seen as a turning point in his career. But at the time, it was really used as evidence to discredit him. To say “it is just a flannel shirt,” is to say clothing can’t be an indicator of larger social mores. Then when people start talking about why this item of clothing does speak to bigger contexts, they get accused of thinking too hard.

Anna: Blogger Meg Clark wrote a really smart essay a few years ago called “Why Fashion is Worth Blogging About.” In it, she acknowledges that it’s equally important to look at what people are wearing in our present society, which, for her is New York. That it’s interesting to to look at exhibits of eras gone, but also interesting to ask, “Uggs as a trend: but what does it mean?” Why can so many fashion people look back at grunge twenty years later and say “that was an important aesthetic moment”–for better or for worse–but then dismiss Uggs for their inherent ugliness?

Haley: Back to speaking of the major designers contemporary designers that are unequivocally artists, I believe that Alexander McQueen is universally considered to be an artist who worked in the medium of fashion. I did briefly for like TWO SECONDS study art history and I’m obviously very invested in fashion as an art form. I saw the McQueen exhibition in New York last year, and it was an incredible experience. I went with a group, one friend that is equally into fashion and a few more that didn’t care as much, but all of us were in tears by the end of it. It was not what a fashion exhibition should be, it was what a museum exhibition should be. But that didn’t stop me from being a judgmental asshole to everyone else who was there who I felt didn’t deserve to, or like didn’t know to appreciate it on the same level that I did.

Anna: What do you mean by judgmental? Explain yourself.

Haley: Well, it was very very packed. I did a lot of research on the numbers for an article in issue sixteen of WORN Fashion Journal

Anna:ON SALE NOW!

Haley: Smooth. The Alexander McQueen exhibition was one of the most popular in the history of the Met. By the end ticket sales were estimated at 700,000, which is insane for any exhibition, let alone for a fashion designer who really is not very accessible. He did make crazy, fucked up clothes. So it was packed, is my point. Always, always packed. We went first thing, we were there 45 minutes before the museum even opened, and that didn’t change the fact that we were shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world. And there were a lot of comments about how weird the clothes were! But why was I so offended that they would sully this very beautiful heartbreaking exhibition with their thoughts, when the point of a museum is that they’re open to everybody? If it had been an exhibition that only people who were like knowledgeable enough about fashion were allowed to enter it would have been even more insufferable assholes.

Something that really struck me with my research on McQueen was wondering what he would have thought about being so embraced by something that is so institutionalized as the Met when he was someone who used his fashion shows as a way to express a lot of hostility he felt towards the fashion mainstream.

Anna: The enfant terrible.

Haley: At the McQueen exhibition, there were some people with children who were reading the descriptions of the Highland Rape conversation and shuffling the children through that room. I could hear some people talking about how disgusting it was and I thought that was really interesting because it is a really upsetting collection. McQueen’s response to the critics was sort of bullshit. When people criticized it from a feminist perspective, he was like “Oh well, I was just thinking about it as the rape of Scotland and it’s a purely a political thing and I would never condemn violence against women!” But he had a bruised and battered woman in torn clothing running down his runway. If nothing else, he was invoking Scotland as a woman, which is very loaded. And he was a smart guy. It’s keeping with this blind eye that fashion likes to turn on the more uncomfortable aspects.

Anna: Wherein it’s easy to say, “Oh, fashion is art and fashion is our livelihood!!!” but when critical questions arise, suddenly it’s all “Oh, it’s just fashion.”

Haley: Yeah. Like, “What’s wrong with YOU that you see something wrong with it.”

Anna: But then again, the inclusion of the Highland Rape in the Met was a brave choice. It’s part of his history. It was such a pivotal moment in his career, it can’t really be ignored.

Haley: They could have totally skipped over it and had a room full of skull scarves or some bullshit.

Anna: It’s a reminder of the uncomfortable reactions McQueen could provoke. That’s why the punk show was a missed opportunity. To have the resources that the Met has and use them to blindly celebrate a complicated, flawed movement is clumsy. I don’t want to dismiss the whole punk exhibition. I don’t want to categorize it as merely “good” or “bad” or “oppressive” or “subversive.” But do you think it succeeded at anything?

Haley: I’m shaking my head, no.

Anna: Well, you’re tough. It acknowledged street culture as a valid form of expression. I think museums have to ask themselves what they’re doing that’s different than a well-curated collection in a store. When is it merchandising and when is it an exhibition?

Haley: That’s basically the gist out of this whole piece. What do we want to see from a museum exhibition about fashion?

Anna: GOOD QUESTION. Um. Truth and and knowledge? (laughs) What I want to see from a McQueen exhibit is going to be different from what I want to see at a punk exhibit. McQueen’s dresses were so powerful because they weren’t just things you could find at your neighbourhood boutique, and their presentation was often so integral to their designs. But with the punk show, I wanted something more authentic. So it really depends. I don’t want history to be sugarcoated. I don’t want context to be stripped away. I want to learn something. I want to learn something from seeing a McQueen dress in person that I can’t get from a page in Vogue, and I want to learn about the messy history of punk’s relationship to fashion without it being reduced to a “look.” What do you want to see?

Haley: I want nothing less than a complete breakdown between the barriers that we put up between fashion and what’s considered the “legitimate art world.” Basically, I want one of our oldest institutions to fundamentally change forever. Something totally reasonable like that. No, what I want–and I feel like this will never happen–I just want museums to treat fashion as something legitimate, without placing it on a pedestal that is so far removed from actual human beings. And yeah, to look at it with a healthy amount of critical thinking, and respect for the form itself, and not relegate to the dark caves of the museum’s basements.

Anna: Respecting fashion doesn’t mean looking at fashion with an uncritical eye, calling it art, and accusing it’s detractors of just “not getting it.” I think it’s fair to not like Alexander McQueen (even though you would really have to explain yourself). Respecting fashion is about engaging in a conversation about clothing, and recognizing the difference between not liking something and dismissing it outright. Just because I believe something should be archived doesn’t necessarily mean that I endorse it. And those are my thoughts.

Haley: That’s a good ending.

Anna: Great. You’re transcribing this.

 

Haley Mlotek is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal. Her writing has appeared in WORN (obviously), as well as Hazlitt and The Hairpin. She believes in reading, writing, and red lipstick. 

Anna Fitzpatrick is a Toronto writer and bookseller. Her work has appeared in WORN (obviously), Rookie Mag, The Hairpin, The Toronto Standard, and too many middle school diaries that she is trying to forget about.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Alexander McQueen exhibit.

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