Fashion takes on a life of its own – ghostly presences across the centuries – in a new V&A show. But can style translate successfully to a gallery setting, asks Michael Bracewell.
Exhibitions of fashion design and street style have become increasingly popular with museums, attracting major press coverage and large crowds. But can garments and artefacts maintain their allure -their identity and magic -when they become exhibits?
One answer to this question can be found in a dimly lit suite of galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here a mesmeric collection of raw timber structures greets the visitor – scaffolds, giant horizontal cogs, illuminated box shelving, and an enormous magic lantern of etiolated, dancing silhouettes, plus mirrors, frames and crudely crossed struts, all with fantastical illustrations of harlequins and circus horses, rows of flamboyantly lashed eyes and reversed crescent moons.
In place of traditional captioning or signs, slick aphoristic statements and slogans are stencilled around the edges of the structures in black capital letters: philosophical maxims on the nature of time and spectacle, presence and absence, ritual and transformation. Inside this phenomenological fairground is a display of garments for which the installation was created.
This is Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back, an exhibition that examines the history of fashion and its cultural, allegorical and psychological aspects. It is curated by Judith Clark, who trained as an architect, in collaboration with the writer and historian Caroline Evans. Evans’s survey, Fashion at the edge: spectacle, modernity and deathliness, is the source of many of the exhibition’s quotes.
For the visitor, the overall effect could be likened to strolling on to a Fellini film-set decorated by a working alliance between Aubrey Beardsley, Salvador Dali, Mike Nelson and Marshall McLuhan.
Installation art and exhibition design are fused as Spectres mixes seriousness and drama to demonstrate the social and historical significance of fashion, design and style. In this the exhibition is doubly triumphant since the question of how to interpret these subjects in a museum or gallery has often been vexed.
In the early 1980s, magazines such as The Face encouraged interest in the machinations of trend and fashion subcultures. This development -in many ways a consequence of punk -was as concerned with what clothing might reveal as a social or cultural code as it was with craft or vision. As punk’s rips and zips gave way to the sophistication of Comme des Garcons or Yohji Yamamoto, so the journalistic underpinning that had come to attend the business of style watching began to acquire a more academic edge.
“High” and “low” notions of culture were blurring, and the plagiarism, parody and punning at the center of Post-Modern culture could be seen, for instance, in the cartoon lopsidedness of outfits by BodyMap or the controversial fake bruising worn by models for Comme des Garcons. As the 1980s gathered pace, fetishizing commodity, commerce and urban plumage, fashion and style acquired a renewed cultural significance that made both candidates for museum exhibitions.
This new relationship was examined by a 1989 exhibition at the Design Museum entitled Commerce and Culture: from pre-industrial art to post-industrial value.
The museum’s then director, Stephen Bayley, wrote in an accompanying book: “Once, commerce and culture were all one. In the future it looks as though they will be one again. This startling assertion was stimulated by the curious observation that the gap between shops and museums was closing …”
Just as the French naturalist writers of the 19th century, in particular Emile Zola, had remarked that the vast new department stores were the museums of modern life, so in the 1980s and 1990s it was considered witty to suggest that modern museums had become like department stores. This was prompted in part by the major museums’ drive to generate much-needed income by making concessions to the new lifestyle cultures -to have an “ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”, as a 1988 advertising campaign for the revamped V&A proclaimed -as well as to engage in new curatorial adventures.
Fashion, which had once existed within its own exclusive world, came to be seen as a suitable subject to win new audiences for museums. The commentator Ted Polhemus, for instance, was invited to curate an exhibition of street-style and fashion.
But how to stop garments and artefacts, created for human use and animation, from simply demonstrating their lifelessness as exhibited items on mannequins or within vitrines? The answer came, surprisingly, from a reassertion of cultural gradations that had been undergoing revision. An exhibition of international carrier bags, no less, was held at the Design Museum in the 1980s. As well as celebrating the neglected achievements of carrier bag design, the exhibition made a tongue-in-cheek statement about the cultural materialism being championed at the time.
Actual garments, however, could prove harder to exhibit than the bags in which they were carried out of the shop. Traditionally, museums of “costume” had been of interest only to academic fashion historians, for whom the craft, detailing and design of a garment were to be studied like any other acquisition. But to the outside world, such displays appeared the opposite to the glamour of fashion.
Clothes required wearers, and fashion -which at its best brought whole romantic worlds to life, as rich and strange as those created by artists in other media – appeared locked in a loser’s contract with posterity.
Throughout the 1990s exhibitions such as Warhol Style in 1996 became uneasy affairs. On paper, the idea of an exhibition exploring Andy Warhol’s relationship with and impact on high fashion and high society seemed promising. But seeing his leather jacket and scuffed Chelsea boots in a moodily lit vitrine appeared, at best, to make the artist seem very dead indeed.
More recent exhibitions such as Fetish Wear in the US or the V&A’s Black British Style have suffered similar problems. Inside a museum or gallery, a subculture’s vitality quickly fades.
Warhol’s relationship with monied fashion and fashionability is better seen though Masterpieces of American Jewellery at the Gilbert Collection in Somerset House.
The sophistication of the exhibition, with pieces grouped under “Americana”, “Humor” and “High Style”, and images of Barbara “Babe” Paley, Grace Kelly and Countess Mona Bismarck looking down from the walls, is a perfect articulation of Warhol’s obsession with wealth, fame and beauty.
For Clark and Evans, the glamour, beauty and historical significance of the garments on display is made eloquent by a direct address to what Evans has described as “the ghosts of modernity”. In this, clothes are seen as presences that can be related in terms of moods as much as centuries. For Clark, exhibition design becomes an artistic medium, with the items being displayed almost like mythic emblems within an illuminated manuscript. In the absence of their wearers, garments assert their own presence -and their own animation.
Spectres is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until May 8; a book of the same name is published by the V&A at Pounds 30, offer Pounds 24; Masterpieces of American Jewellery is at the Gilbert Collection, Somerset House, until June 12.
Fashion’s five greatest moments:
1 Mick Jagger, above, wearing a smock designed by Zandra Rhodes (originally for Lord Lichfield) when the Rolling Stones played their free concert in Hyde Park, after the death of Brian Jones in July, 1969.
2 The blue jersey dress designed by Elsa Schiaparelli for her autumn 1937 collection, featuring a design on the reverse by Jean Cocteau. Her white dress featured a lobster print by Salvador Dali, who had hoped that the garment would also be garnished with real mayonnaise.
3 The white tuxedo worn by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 film Casablanca, and later chosen by Bryan Ferry in the photograph taken by Eric Boman for the cover of his second solo album, Another Time, Another Place (1974).
4 The classic cowboy denims worn by Marilyn Monroe in John Huston’s film of Arthur Miller’s screenplay The Misfits, released in 1960. A white Stetson hat was worn by Montgomery Clift in the same film.
5 The “Tits” muslin T-shirt, created by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and sold at their shop Seditionaries in 1977.
One observer described Seditionaries as “a shop for the elite of radical displacement”.