Thursday, May 8, 2008

Lecture: Exhibiting Fashion

I attended a lecture called "Exhibiting Fashion" at The Royal Ontario Museum on May 7th. There were two speakers: Dr. Alison Matthews David of Ryerson University School of Fashion and Dr. John Potvin of the University of Guelph.

Dr. Alison Matthews David talked about the development of fashion magazines as a cultural force which disseminated idealized scenes of the elite class. She showed photos of illustrations from the Gazette du Bon Ton, a Parisian journal from 1912-1925. This journal was a collaboration between seven Parisian haute couturiers (Cheruit, Douillet, Doucet, Paquin, Poiret, Redfern and Worth) and the finest fashion illustrators of the time. The illustrations showed a day in the life of a Gazette fashion plate. This of course required several changes of clothing a day for activities such as shopping, attending the races or polo matches, going on promenade or to an afternoon tea, and attending an evening event like a ball, a concert, or the theatre. The journal included ten illustration plates with each issue and cost 100 francs a year, making it accessible only to the very rich.

Dr. John Potvin, a professor of art history at the University of Guelph then spoke about the importance of showing fashion at museums and/or art galleries. The point of his talk was that clothing and fashion are more accessible to people in a way that paintings are not. He attributed Diana Vreeland's involvement in the spectacular exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute for giving credibility to fashion as a work of art in and of itself. (Apparently Vreeland once said "I want to be drowned in beauty." I can totally relate to that!!)

Throughout his talk, Potvin discussed three inherent conflicts between museums and fashion exhibitions, specifically:
1. the commercialization of museums vs. curatorial practice
2. entertainment vs. education
3. past vs. present

Potvin illuminated his point by commenting on the Chanel exhibit and the Nan Kemper exhibit at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Armani exhibit at the Guggenheim, and the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves St. Laurent in Paris. He seemed to prefer the exhibits where curators provided a context for the displays (ie, showing clothing alongside paintings, furniture and other relevant cultural objects). And yet he also said that he loved the Armani show which had no backdrops and had several gaps in the archive because it was like looking in his closet through time.

The speakers made intelligent arguments for fashion being a significant cultural force worthy of museums and art galleries. I believe that fashion is a work of art in and of itself and it was nice to get confirmation that my passion for fashion is not a frivolous affair.