All Dressed Up

As more and more art museums showcase high fashion, their staffs are grappling with strategies for presenting it, funding it, and connecting it to their missions

Yves Saint Laurent’s evening ensemble Tribute to Vincent van Gogh, 1988, in the Paris show, which will open in Denver next month.


“I don’t know much about fashion,” Denver Art Museum director Christoph Heinrich admits. But that hasn’t stopped him from bringing an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective to the museum. The show, which originated at the Musée de Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris in 2010, will open in Denver on March 25. Like many museum directors, Heinrich has found himself won over by the world of fashion design—at least, in this case—and willing to clear out galleries of paintings and sculptures to make room for ball gowns and cocktail dresses. “When I saw the YSL show in Paris,” he says, “I was just blown away by the colors, the textures, the simple cuts that were reduced but at the same time very elegant. When I walked through the show, it felt very much like walking into a painting.”

But is fashion art? It appears that this question, much on the minds of curators and art critics, has already been answered. Like photography and film, which were late in being accepted by art museums, fashion—or at least a certain kind of haute couture—has assumed a prominent position in museums exhibition schedules. Designers’ creations are increasingly moving from the runway to pedestals in extravagant gallery displays. And the public turns out to be as enthusiastic as shoppers at the Barneys Warehouse Sale.

In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will open “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” linking Elsa Schiaparelli, the leading designer of the Surrealist movement, with Miuccia Prada, herself a formidable patron of the arts. The museum is hoping the exhibition will match the success of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” which drew more than 660,000 visitors to the museum last summer. Almost at the same time, the de Young Museum in San Francisco opened “Balenciaga and Spain,” the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, put on “Rodarte: States of Matter,” and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts featured “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” which is up at the Dallas Museum of Art through February 12.

“There’s a big difference between a runway show and a museum show,” says style aficionado André Leon Talley, contributing editor to Vogue and guest judge on America’s Next Top Model. Last October, the art museum at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia opened a fashion gallery named for Talley, who curated its inaugural exhibition, “High Style.” The show featured the work of eleven contemporary designers who won the school’s André Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement award, including Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and Miuccia Prada. As Talley explains, “A runway show is fleeting and immediate. The purpose of a runway show is simply a selling device. A museum show is not to sell the clothes. It’s there to celebrate the clothes. A museum show has the ability to make a correlation between art and fashion that you don’t necessarily see directly when you are attending a runway fashion show.”

Talley, who got his start in fashion volunteering at the Met’s Costume Institute in 1974, attributes his “eye” to the training he received under Diana Vreeland, the consultant to the institute from 1971 to 1989 and a former editor of Vogue. “She was the first to put the fireworks into clothes in a museum setting—turning it around and giving it a narrative and a story that made these clothes come alive.”

As director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York Valerie Steele observes, “I think there is a great popular interest in fashion and growing acceptance of seeing fashion brought into a museum.” Steele, a pioneer in the field of fashion exhibitions, weighed in last year with a show devoted to Daphne Guinness, a fashion celebrity, who has commissioned clothing from numerous designers, most notably Alexander McQueen. “A museum is just another medium for presenting fashion. You can see it on the Internet, you can go to fashion shows, you can see it in stores, and you can see it on the street,” says Steele. “But in a museum, it is slightly abstracted and brought together in a different kind of context. It brings you a different point of view.”

As for what accounts for the popularity of fashion exhibitions today, Heinrich suggests, “Fashion is this 360-degree sensual experience, and it is very straightforward about beauty.” For the YSL exhibition, the Denver Art Museum will display more than 200 dresses by the designer, who often was inspired by art, as seen in his short cocktail dress Tribute to Piet Mondrian, from his 1965 fall/winter collection. “People really enjoy the spectacle, and, at the same time, they really look very carefully as to how the thing was made. I can imagine that there is quite a parallel approach to appreciation of a dress and a sculpture,” says Heinrich.

In the case of the McQueen show at the Met, its curator, Andrew Bolton, recalls, “The show became a phenomenon that I never anticipated; I thought that once people came to the show, they would respond to the objects because they are extraordinary pieces of artwork, but I never thought that it would touch the hearts of so many people.” Though the Costume Institute at the Met has had other blockbuster exhibitions—including “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” in 2001, and “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” in 2008, which each attracted more than 550,000 visitors—the McQueen exhibition, as designed by Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett, was able to enhance the seductive powers of the garments on view. With more than 100 ensembles and 70 accessories, the show traced the development of McQueen’s 19-year career, up until his suicide in 2010. One gallery featured the designer’s controversial “Highland Rape” collection (fall/winter 1995–96), ostensibly addressing the British “rape” of Scotland in the 18th century, and another, constructed as a Victorian cabinet of curiosities, displayed videos of McQueen’s runway shows. Elsewhere there was a hologram of supermodel Kate Moss twirling in a white flowing dress to the theme music from the film Schindler’s List.

“I think what makes McQueen unique is the degree he imbued fashion with emotion,” says Bolton. “His designs addressed very universal themes, like life and death, sex and beauty,” he adds. “They appeal to a broad audience, but one that is savvy to the complexities of visual culture and the commonalities between art and fashion.” Bolton points out that many of the dresses, like the one fabricated entirely out of razor-clam shells, read as installation art.

Like Yves Saint Laurent, McQueen was often inspired by contemporary artists. His flower gown, made of real and silk flowers, derived from Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001), a video of a bowl of fruit rotting over time. Once, during a McQueen runway show, a model in a white dress spun around as two machines sprayed paint on her garment, a move inspired by Rebecca Horn’s painting machines.

Says Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of the Gaultier retrospective at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and former fashion model, “Fashion is more and more common to the public. Even if you live in Hong Kong or Singapore, you can see fashion shows broadcast live from New York or Paris. It all makes fashion more popular now,” he adds. “I think that now that people can really relate to fashion, they want to be more involved. Traditionally, haute couture was something ordinary people did not have access to—unless you were a prince or a movie star.”

As Loriot sees it, “Gaultier was really the first couturier pop star. He was really recognizable on the street, just as now you have Marc Jacobs or John Galliano.” (Of course, Galliano achieved negative notoriety last year when he was caught on video making anti-Semitic remarks, for which he later tried to apologize.) The Gaultier exhibition took more than two years to organize, owing to the massive number of loans required from both photographers—”everyone captured Gaultier, from Helmut Newton to Richard Avedon to Cindy Sherman to Mario Testino,” says Loriot—and the celebrities he worked with. The show features the cone-shaped bra made for Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” tour as well as outfits worn by the late Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana. And the exhibition did not shy away from Gaultier’s controversial Hasidic collection, based on the clothes worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews. It was met with howls of outrage when shown in fall 1993. “Gaultier always says there is a very thin line between provocation and originality,” comments Loriot.

Fashion photographers are generating some of the most striking and edgy images today, but they are still underappreciated, according to Vince Aletti, curator of “Harper’s Bazaar: A Decade of Style,” recently on view at the International Center of Photography. Aletti was also chiefly responsible for ICP’s “Year of Fashion,” in 2009, which featured such shows as “Avedon Fashion 1944–2000” and “Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years, 1923–1937,” as well as “Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now” and “Dress Codes,” with works by contemporary artists addressing clothing, fashion, and style. “Museums generally do not take fashion photography seriously and very rarely show it unless it’s in the context of supporting some other kind of material,” says Aletti, who notes that the Museum of Modern Art’s first such show wasn’t until 2004, with “Fashioning Fiction in Photography since 1990,” even though Steichen was MoMA’s chief photography curator from 1947 to 1962. Pointing to Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, Peter Lindbergh, and Juergen Teller as some of the top photographers in the field, Aletti says, “We were dedicated to show real fashion photographers who do not get seen in museum shows. A lot of the ways fashion photographers approach work—from staging and narrative and various sort of fantasy settings—is very much what a lot of contemporary art photographers are doing right now and not doing quite as well.”

Fashion fever has spread beyond contemporary design to more historical exhibitions. In the summer of 2011, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York each held a show focusing on fashion in the Middle Ages, based on depictions in illuminated manuscripts of the period. The exhibition touched “on the relationship between historical events and fashion. There can be a relationship,” says Morgan Library curator Roger Wieck, who combed through 500 manuscripts to find images for “Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands.” The exhibition traced the evolution of garment design from the “fashion revolution,” including the invention of sleeves in 1325, through the Hundred Years’ War and the plague period that lasted from 1350 to 1390 to the influx of Italian influences accompanying the ascension of Francis I to the throne of France, in 1515. Wieck included four mannequins dressed in re-creations of period clothes, including an elaborate houpeland—a multilayered robe made of velvet and ermine, like one worn by Catherine of Cleves, for whom the illuminated manuscript The Book of Hours was commissioned in the 15th century. “People loved the mannequins. They had never seen anything like that,” says Wieck. “I really wanted to jolt people the moment they walked into the room.”

Despite the public’s enthusiasm, these shows have been criticized for being funded by the very brands that are featured in the galleries. In 1999, the Guggenheim Museum came under attack for holding a show dedicated to the work of Italian designer Giorgio Armani after his company provided $15 million in funding. Even now, the Metropolitan’s lead sponsor of “Savage Beauty” was the Alexander McQueen fashion house, which has continued in operation after its namesake’s death.

When asked about the policy of the Association of Art Museum Directors on such matters, its president, Dan Monroe, who is executive director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, stated, “While possible perceptions of conflict of interest are issues every art museum must consider, the primary issue regarding sponsorship of exhibitions is not sponsorship per se but the necessity for art museums to retain full and complete curatorial control and authority for the exhibitions they present to the public.” He added, “With regard to the McQueen exhibition, I have no doubt but that the Met retained full control and authority of a truly inspiring and remarkably successful exhibition.” Met curator Bolton says that, while he received boundless support from Sarah Burton, the current creative director of the McQueen studio, he retained independent control of the exhibition.

Even so, many museums engaged in organizing fashion exhibitions have shied away from accepting sponsorship from brands. “The moment where we would become an instrument in a marketing campaign, we would lose our not-for-profit credibility,” insists Denver Art Museum’s Heinrich, noting that the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition is supported with loans from the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, an organization independent of the fashion house (which is now owned by Gucci), while funding was provided by the museum’s annual campaign. “It’s just an advertising campaign undertaken by brands because sometimes it is cheaper to do a museum show than to take out an ad in American Vogue’s September issue,” says Loriot, who worked closely with Gaultier on his exhibition but pursued independent funding, which he got from a variety of sources, including several fashion-related companies, and from the government of Quebec.

Rodarte, a California-based fashion label run by two sisters, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, was the subject of an exhibition highlighting the convergence of art and design at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2011. (Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired Rodarte’s “Fra Angelico” collection and put it on display in December.) ”When this show was conceived, we were really thinking about it in the style of our ‘Focus’ series, which features young Los Angeles artists who have not had exposure in a museum show before,” says Rebecca Morse, curator of the exhibition. The show at MOCA presented Rodarte’s elaborately crocheted, almost deconstructed outfits as sculptures on armatures, all black in darkened galleries on one floor (including their costumes for the movie Black Swan) and bright white surrounded by neon lights upstairs. “Although the Mulleavys are obviously working in a different medium, they fit in with what we were doing in the museum,” Morse says. The designers, who frequently collaborate with artists, found the experience to be of a piece with their other projects.

Jeffrey Deitch, director of MOCA, invited the Mulleavy sisters to show at the museum. Says Deitch, “Kate and Laura Mulleavy are working in the fashion sector but, in my opinion, they are making art. Their clothes are sculpture and when you talk to them, they talk like artists, their friends are artists, and their references are the references of artists.” Deitch, who was a dealer for 30 years before taking the position in Los Angeles, has had a long history working with rock bands and designers as artists, most notably bringing the young New York fashion house threeASFOUR to Art Basel Miami Beach, in 2005.

Curators are now, more than ever, on the lookout for fashion designers who “think like artists.” In some instances, the inclusion of fashion in art museums merely aims to validate what is a commercial enterprise. But in other cases, it broadens traditional notions about art. As Deitch says, “I’m not interested in fashion; I’m very interested in people who are expanding the definition of art by expanding the media.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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