Fashion, A-Z at The Museum at FIT

The Museum at FIT is one of my favourite fashion museums. With over 50,000 garments and accessories in their collection, Director and Chief Curator Valerie Steele and her talented staff have one of the largest collections in the world to draw on and they use this archive seem to come up with something fresh and innovative on a regular basis. 

Fashion, A-Z, Part II could have been a yawn, but it was not. Featuring highlights from their enormous collection, the full spectrum of design approaches and talents is presented in the upstairs history gallery.

Several of my favourite sculptural garments from their collection were on display, including: The Charles James Tree dress from 1955 in dusty rose stands as the penultimate body sculpture (pictured above); The Martin Margiela sleeveless jacket from sprint 1997 that evokes  a mannequin; and, a Madame Gres abstracted triangular black silk faille evening dress from 1967. 

Two designers that were previously unknown to me that I discovered in this exhibition included: a halter top and leggings from NOIR Spring 2009 by Peter Ingwersen which showed that sustainable design, fair trade practices, organic cotton can be turned into high fashion; and an ensemble constructed from five cardigan sweaters and pantyhose by XULY.Bet for FAll 1994. Sustainable practices can be exciting and fresh. 

What defies understanding is how this exciting museum of fashion can offer free admission to the public. It is always worth the trip to Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, and there will soon be a beautiful Taschen reference book featuring highlights of the FIT Museum

Fashioning the Object at the Art Institute of Chicago

In No Time Collection 2007, Hand-knitted Dress by Sandra Buckland, Image courtesy of the AIC

Fashioning the Object at the Art Institute of Chicago is an exhibition celebrating the innovative work of Bless, Boudicca, and Sandra Backlund. The practices of this group redefine fashion design into a conceptually based interdisciplinary process that sits on the intersection of art and fashion. Not driven by market forces, the work on display is intellectually engaging and exciting. 

The exhibition curator writes:  "Bless, Boudicca, and Backlund view fashion as a critical forum for dialogue and exchange, as well as an armature for understanding our place in the world. However, they endeavor to move beyond previous practices by drawing on an even greater spectrum of ideas inspired by disciplines as diverse as fine art, performance, design, and architecture to create work that responds to the social, political, and cultural environment and explores the creative process."

The exhibition is divided into three spaces which immerse the visitor into the work of the three designer groups. The first gallery features the work of Bless designers Desiree Heiss, who is based in Paris, and Ines Kaag of Berlin, who correspond daily through e-mail and Skype chats. The premise of their work is on the practice of altering or adding to existing objects to create new narratives, such as a hairbrush made of human hair - "like a jewelry case for hair".  The tactile qualities of this work invite touching and this is one of the few occasions when visitors are encouraged to do so. 

Bless Hair Brush, Image courtesy of the AIC

The second gallery is the largest and showcases the work of Boudicca founders Zowie Broach and Brian Kirkby. The video installations have a haunting narrative and highlight the “investigative rather than simply decorative” nature of the designers work. The video for their "Tornado Dress" can be viewed on YouTube here

The last gallery features the work of Sandra Backlund who creates ethereal knitwear to “consciously dress and undress parts of the body” in an effort to “highlight, distort, and transform the natural silhouette with clothes and accessories.” Delicate and armour-like at the same time, these garments transform the feminine shape into an artwork.

Pool Position by Sandra Backlund, Image courtesy of the AIC
I was enchanted and inspired by this exhibition of fashion as art. Intelligent, thoughtful and innovative are the words that come to mind. The exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago runs until September 13, 2012. For more information, visit the AIC website here.

Online Historic Costume Collections

In a click of a mouse, I can visit the historic and contemporary costume collections from around the world. Although some museums and university collections welcome visiting scholars, digitizing a collection reduces the handling of fragile garments and also offers everyone a chance to see garments that are not on display.  Here are my top picks of accessible collections (click on museum name for related link): 

Dior 1947 Bar Suit, Image Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute
Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Collection: The Met has over 35,000 costumes and accessories in their collection, with the earliest piece going back to the 15th century. This New York museum sets the gold standard for online digitized collections, providing multiple images and extensive descriptive information and provenance details for each item.

Victoria and Albert Museum Collections:  Although the storage and research facilities for this London based museum collection are currently being renovated (scheduled to reopen in October 2013),  the V&A website gives access to images from their extensive costume collection and also provides videos, articles, suggested books, and related material. An inviting and friendly website, the fashion related section is organized by period, with links to all related material available on the site. Like the Met, the information provided for each fashion item is extensive, including multiple viewpoints, photos of related accessories, marks and inscriptions and exhibition history. 

FIT Museum Collection: FIT Museum currently has over 50,000 garments and accessories in its collection. Although they have pieces going back to the 18th century, their focus is on contemporary fashion and they seek to add new pieces that "make fashion history". They have an extensive online collection and are adding to that regularly.  FIT has a smaller study collection of approximately 1200 pieces that is accessible to students, faculty and visiting researchers.

Kent State University Museum: Kent State has one of the largest study collections in the world with over 40,000 pieces including historic pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries to the present. While only a small sampling of items have been digitized, this museum believes in accessibility and welcomes students, faculty and visiting researchers.

School of the Art Institute of Chicago Fashion Resource Centre: This small, tightly edited collection of 300 garments and accessories focuses on avant-garde fashion from the 20th and 21st century. Items are representative of "extreme innovation" and include designers such as Alexander McQueen, Commes des Garcons, Issey Miyake, Maison Martin Margiela, and Yohji Yamamoto. As well, the centre houses an extensive visual, print, and fabric reference collection to "support and illuminate the garments and the study of attire". The AIC Fashion Resource Centre invites visiting scholars, groups and the public to see its collection by appointment (fees may apply). Selected pieces have been photographed and are included on their website. 

Drexel University Historic Costume Collection: An online collection featuring detail closeups and 360 degree views of 129 selected pieces from the collection. Of particular note are the photos related to the conservation of an 1885 gown by Charles Frederick Worth (link here).

Fashion and Art, Canadian Style

1. One's personality expressed in their clothing, “fashion personality.” 
2. One's nationality expressed in their clothing, “fashion nationality.”

—The Urban Dictionary

Today is Canada's 145th birthday and it seemed like the perfect day to post about Fashionality: Dress and Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art at the McMichael Gallery in Vaughan, Ontario. I've extracted parts from the press release below to present an overview of the show, and it is clear that this would have been the perfect venue for my beaded and embroidered hockey equipment from my recent show Constructions of Femininity at loop gallery.

“Fashionality” is a newly coined play on words that refers to the visual culture and semiotics of dress and adornment. Combining the words “fashion,” “personality,” and “nationality,” it signals the interplay between clothing, identity, and cultural affinity. Taking the idiom of dress as a starting point, Fashionality: Dress and Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art explores the use of apparel in the work of twenty-three contemporary Canadian artists. It considers the diverse ways in which the clothed body and the idiom of dress are employed as sources of inspiration, humour, and critique, and as sites for the exploration of issues of identity, hybridity, and self-expression. Not strictly about fashion, the exhibition explores the ways in which the subjectivities and identities of those living in Canada are expressed, deconstructed, and reconfigured, while raising some intriguing questions about the embodied Canadian subject.

The exhibition is divided into four themes. The first gallery embraces the acts of creation and recreation. Here the focus is on artists whose work foregrounds relationships with nature, apparel-making, sports, and social media. Of note here are items of protective hockey equipment which have been embellished by living honeybees, an act orchestrated by Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck. Another project involves 365 days worth of hand-made clothing which was the result of a year-long daily dressmaking project blogged by Vancouver artist and designer Natalie Purschwitz. Asserting that First Nations not be relegated to the narratives of a primitive past, Oji-Cree artist KC Adams makes computer bags from fur and leather, and applies indigenous beading techniques to iPod and iPad holders.

The consecutive gallery considers the life cycle, and focuses on ghostly apparitions and unworn garments. Pointing to the domestic "uniform," the south wall is resplendent with hundreds of brightly-hued transparent aprons assembled by Newfoundland artist Barb Hunt. Conversely, the north wall seems to be alive with hundreds of tiny woolen sweaters, knitted by Ontario-based artist Michele Karch-Ackerman and several volunteers, in commemoration of Canadian soldiers who fell in World War I. In between these two astonishing assemblages are a number of intriguing works that speak to the vagaries of domestic life, real and imagined histories, the feminine “mystique,” and the confines of masculine imperatives.

The third gallery centers upon that quintessential Western symbol of woman: the dress. A blast of colour and energy, paintings and photographs hung here exude a love of cloth, colour, texture, and movement. Nicole Dextras's remarkable photographs of frozen gowns appear to dance next to Barbara Pratt's immaculate painted homages to haute couture. Waiting in the wings is a column of Gathie Falk's shoe boxes containing twelve pairs of colourful papier mâché pumps, while one of Barb Hunt's black plasma-arc cut flat steel dresses leans on a nearby wall.

In the final gallery the visitor becomes part of a conversation about culture and gender. Showcased here are works by a number of artists who have turned to clothing to express their personal, political, and cultural identities. Stereotypical renderings of Indian chiefs and squaws, lumberjacks, fashion models, and beauty queens are deconstructed and reconfigured through kitsch, camp, and a decided roasting of Canada's colonial imperatives. Lori Blondeau's Cosmosquaw cover girl, Kent Monkman's High-Heeled Moccassins, and Janet Morton's absurdly oversized plaid lumberjack shirt (entitled Canadian Monument #2), strongly suggest that any typecasting of Canada's diverse demographic is long overdue for a makeover.

The exhibition runs until September 3, 2012. Happy Canada Day!

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