by Joanna Chaffin
I can’t help but feel a slight stigma when telling people that I love fashion or even have aspirations to work within the industry. Is it the elitist frivolity in the ever-changing nature that tells you one minute something’s in and the next minute there’s a new black? Well consider my delight when such cultural institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), and the Whitney Museum of Art started recognizing contemporary fashion as an upheld artistic practice worthy of exhibition in a precious gallery. Could it be that designers such as Miuccia Prada, Lee Alexander McQueen or Jean Paul Gaultier are worthy of the same platform as the likes of Vincent van Gogh or Rembrandt?
I don’t want to sound naive enough to think that recognizing fashion as an art form is something brand new. I have seen plenty of exhibits that look at clothing and dress as a marker of cultural change—from binding corsets to the bohemian days of the 60s and 70s to the power suits of the 80s—and it’s undeniable that fashion at large changes with time. I get it. What excites me is the change that I, and many others, have begun to notice. Such fashion exhibits with a contemporary focus seem to be gaining massive attention. Take as an example Savage Beauty at the Met, highlighting the work of the late Lee Alexander McQueen in 2011, which broke museum records by bringing in over 650 000 people. The focus is now on a distinct artist, their techniques, methods, mediums and message. But why the sudden shift?
What this could be chalked up to is a multitude of things and a discussion that I think is far longer than a single blog post could sustain. What strikes me is the idea that contemporary fashion and designers are now somehow being more widely legitimized as art and art makers. What trickles out of the fashion industry can sometimes be seen as an ugly underbelly dictating what’s in and what’s out. Instead, to look at the purity of the act of making clothes not just to be worn but appreciated and honored for the craftsmanship and creativity, creates a greater understanding that reveals much more than aesthetic beauty.
I think the success of so many of these exhibits may have something to do with the close connection that society, maybe more today than ever, has with clothing—from the increased accessibility, to the fantasy that fashion creates, to creating an everyday modern armor to protect yourself from the world — clothing is an undeniably powerful tool that speaks for us. Clothes also have closer contact with the body unlike painting or sculpture that normally occupies the gallery space. Clothing looked at as ‘art you live your life in’ breathes new intention into these works that goes beyond trends or even filling the basic and rational human need.
With the explosion of exhibitions in recent years including the V&A’s look at the work of Yohji Yamamoto in 2010, gallery and museum spaces have clearly taken notice and hopped aboard the fashion train. Is this just another trend itself or will fashion houses such as Prada, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Valentino soon find their archives in the hands of museums as reclaimed cultural artifacts? Time will tell what this impact of fashion-based exhibitions will have on museums and if the museum structure aids or hinders a designer’s expressive spirit. Maybe it will lead to a widely held appreciation of fashion as an artistic expression and not just a frivolous departure from the real issues in the world—or maybe that’s just what I’m hoping for.