Since the opening of the exhibition ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’ at the Metropolitan Museum, we have been discussing here many issues that coalesce around this transformation of fashion into art inside the museum institution. Firstly, I discussed the social roots of Andrew Bolton, the English curator that seems to be the factotum of this jump of fashion from the catwalk to the vitrines of the museum. Secondly, I discussed an precedent (the Chanel Show at the Met) when Karl Lagerfeld trying to displace Coco Chanel from ‘History’ clashed against Met’s former director Philippe de Montebello. Thirdly, I showed how Andrew Bolton did not even clashed with Met’s Trustee and Vogue Editor Anna Wintour who seems to have dictated the museographic way of exhibiting the clothes at ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’.
The End of Fashion?
So I decided to go back to where Andrew Bolton started to discuss how the Victoria & Albert Museum shows fashion as ‘art’. The results had been, to say the least, confusing and one has the impression that neither Bolton nor the V&A really know what they are doing and the result of it is that the decision are made by the sponsoring couture firms. Therefore this seems not to be art but a displacement of fashion from the high street into the vitrines of the museum. What’s the purpose of this? Is this a sign of the industry’s strength or of the fact that the luxury industry is mutating to the point of pushing fashion to its terminal crisis and eventual death?
How Fashion is Shown at the Victoria and Albert in London
Fashion at the V&A is gathered in one circular room that functions as a rotonda with a linear evolution of clothes from 1750 to 1990’s. The court mantua opens the exhibition and it draws attention mainly as a historical object. A very interesting point that the exhibition makes is that wearing such dresses used to impose a certain kind of behavior where, for example, women had to negotiate doorways. This was clearly a society that imposed in women a certain difficulty of movement and also a hierarchical organisation of their movements which means that the countess had to move her dress to let the Duchess pass.In 1760 there are two kinds of gowns: the French-style and the English-style. These are like comparing Madame de Pompadour by Boucher (all structured and stiff) with Carlotta Maria in an Anthony Van Dyck portrait (neglige and easy to wear). From 1810 to 1830 the waist goes up until the Grecian style that impose Napoleon and Napoleon III. In 1830 the jacquard loom appars and fabric printing shows that technology and the industrial revolution aim at the serialisation of fashion and, eventually, its democratisation. In 1840 male fashion goes darker and more austere. Men could only display taste through their intricately fashionable waistcoats.
In 1850 fashion unashamedly embrace industry. The invention of spring steel brings about the ‘cage crinolines’ that allow a sort of revival of the ‘XVIII mantua’ but much more simplified. These are the times of the ‘Gone With The Wind’ bell-shaped look for women. Artificial dyes appear and colours like violet and purple are easier to reproduce. There is a shape and colour explosion for women and men go darker and darker. There is a jump towards the democratisation of fashion when the Savile Row taylor-made suits and gowns appear. The craftmanship becomes mechanised and impersonal.
Fashion Not As Art But As Historical Objects
Until this point what we see is an attempt to describe the history of fashion as a social history which means that this show is not an ‘art’ show but a ‘history’ show. That ‘social history’ is strictly linked to the democratisation and industrialisation of the world and in particular, of courtly society. The viewer, however, at this point, still cannot understand why men go darker and women more colourful. The issue of the waist line and the body shape seems key but the exhibition does not address it. It seems that fashion is just an occurrence and I refuse to think that that is the case.
Then the second part of the exhibition brings a totally new era that is shown by the exhibition as a fait accompli. This starts with 1905 and the cult of the kimono and its logical consequence of 1920’s and the ‘a la garconne’ look where dresses are straight, simple and waistless. These are Charleston times. The times of the Great Gatsby. Even though the exhibition qualifies this look as ‘liberating and modern’, modernity seems to be equated with ‘looking like a boy’ or ‘not showing curves’. This trend for women to look like men coincides with the self awareness of the industry as ‘couture’ for these are the times of Coco Chanel and her ‘trouser suit’. In this context, Elsa Schiaparelli and her ‘art’ work (because this is proper fashion as art) seems to be out of place. It is as if the curators did not know what do with someone unashamedly artful like Schiaparelli in such a social historical narrative.
The New Look of Dior during the 1950s where haute couture starts making ‘made to measure’ copies and embraces mass media. There is also a nod towards a pontification of labour for labour’s sake with Givenchy’s comment that ‘if a seam is not quite right, it is a matter of life and death’. What the Victoria and Albert considers was relevant from the fashion of the 80s and 90s were patterns and not shapes. This is counter-intuitive in this show because the first part (1750-1900) is mainly told through ‘shape’. Very confussing.
Today’s Fashion Unfit For A Social History?
It is in 1990s when the Victoria and Alberts drops the ‘social history’ approach and embraces something that could be understood as ‘artistic’. Showing two suits by Comme des Garcons, its designer Kawakubo seems to give us a rationale for the ‘fashion into art’ and, I am sorry to say, but it is not ‘art’. He says: ‘playing it safe is a risky business’. So, it is about taking risks for business. It is about the new for novelty’s sake. This is advertising or fashion for fashion’s sake. In a way, this is what someone like Charles Saatchi understands as ‘Art’…. an objectual arrangement that provokes a reaction of surprise and wonder. This is entertainment but never, art as an expression of humanity and its potential.
Mark Reed: The Charles Saatchi of Fashion & Flamboyance for Flamboyance’s Sake
This becomes more clear when in the last vitrine of the room, the V&A nominates an equivalent for Saatchi in ‘Mark Reed, the collector’. Apparently Mark Reed, who is nostalgic of the gentlemanly flamboyant look of the dandy, has been buying the most outrageous pieces from the catwalks in London and Paris and, consequently, wore them in social events. So Has this Saatchi of fashion shaped fashion with his thirst of flamboyance? This seems to be the dilemma of the chicken and the egg but the rationale behind high fashion seems to be so self referential and circular that does not allow the V&A to even include it in its ‘social history’. This is why their curators (I believe amongst them Andrew Bolton who is now responsible for the ‘Punk: Chaos to Couture’ exhibition) decided to call this unexplainable ‘postmodernity’ as ‘art’ and since it brings money to the museum, they turned them into museum pieces.