Designed for beautiful bodies and made for runway display, high-fashion clothing is increasingly at home in museums.
Shows of individual designers really took off after New York’s Guggenheim Museum staged in 2000 a retrospective of ensembles by the Italian couturier Giorgio Armani that traveled to museums in Bilbao, Berlin, Rome, London, Tokyo and Los Angeles. Now the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art leads the field with annual displays that draw thousands of visitors to glittering soirees and exhibits of high-style ensembles by designers living (Miuccia Prada) and dead (Elsa Schiaparelli, Alexander McQueen). San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums are following suit with an Oscar de la Renta retrospective next year.
Locally, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts jumped onto the trend last fall with “Italian Style,” an exhibit organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that demonstrated how Italy used fashion to revive its economy after the devastation of World War II.
This summer the History Center in St. Paul is showing “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” a stunning collection of international couture by Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Emanuel Ungaro and others plus American designers ranging from classics by Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta to jazzy evening wear by Bob Mackie and Patrick Kelly.
The Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota, whose collection ranges from furniture to forks, is best known for its clothing and accessories. Periodically it too taps its fashion collection for shows ranging from evening garments to contemporary sportswear.
Goldstein director Lin Nelson-Mayson, MIA textile curator Nicole LaBouff and History Center associate curator Linda McShannock recently talked about the increasing enthusiasm for fashion and costume shows.
Q: Why are fashion exhibitions gaining popularity?
Nelson-Mayson: What we’re seeing now is the rise of the celebrity designer, along with the popularity of events like New York’s Fashion Week, and TV shows like “Project Runway.” Fashion designers have become “tortured artists” — and we pay attention to that.
LaBouff: It’s the cult of the designer. Compared to 20 years ago, designers are a different type of creative person. They’re icons or celebrities in their own right. Even dresses and suits have celebrity provenances depending on who owned or wore them.
McShannock: Clothing represents who we are and how we approach life. So whether we’re aware of it or not, it defines us. In that respect we should always be showing fashion!
Q: How are designers responding to all this?
Nelson-Mayson: Fashion designers have become much more aware of how to market their things, and exhibitions are a technique for that.
Q: How have museum fashion shows changed, and why?
Nelson-Mayson: Clothing exhibits used to be about things like the First Ladies gowns, which the Smithsonian still shows. Those displays offer a brush with greatness; they’re about things owned by people who are not necessarily known for their fashion sense. But when you see a show of phenomenal designers from the past, Elsa Schiaparelli, for example, people say, “Who is this?” And they realize that there was someone much more daring and innovative.
LaBouff: Museums have been innovating too. In the 1980s, mannequins stood behind glass. Now we’re breaking down those barriers. Costumes are out of the glass cases, there are movies and music in the galleries, and garments are displayed in motion or in settings where they might have been worn.
McShannock: Fashion shows are about more than style now. New fibers came out after World War II, and different dying processes raise issues of water and land use and what is more environmentally sound. Drawing on our 3,600-piece Munsingwear collection, for example, we did a show that really was about the growth and development of a Minnesota business that once was the world’s largest producer of underwear.
Q: What do each of your museums have in your fashion collections?
Nelson-Mayson: We’re the only design museum in Minnesota and we collect furniture, textiles, graphic and industrial designs — everything from Roman glass to the Walkman. Of the 32,000 objects in the collection, about 21,000 are apparel and accessories that date from about 1790 to roughly 2010. We have about 50 pieces of real couture, 650 to 700 hats, and about 1,000 pairs of shoes and boots.
McShannock: As a history museum we have about 25,000 items that show what people wore here from the time of statehood, 1858, to the present. Some of our Ojibwe, Dakota and other Native American material actually predates statehood. We have garments worn by schoolchildren, business people, farmers, workers in the meat processing industry or housewives from various eras. But we also have bison-fur coats, Civil War uniforms, Prince’s “Purple Rain” costume, and contemporary pieces by Hmong designers.
LaBouff: The MIA doesn’t have a collection of Western clothing because the museum’s former textile curator decided not to try to duplicate the Goldstein museum’s collection. There are great Chinese robes and Japanese kimonos in the Asian collections though, and American Indian moccasins and garments in the Art of Africa and the Americas collection.
Q: So since the MIA doesn’t have a clothing collection, Nicole, what do you do as textile curator?
LaBouff: I try to find ways to integrate textiles with other kinds of objects in the museum. I’m working with tapestries now. For example, the museum commissioned a tapestry sculpture in the shape of a coat by Jon Eric Riis, a contemporary American artist. The scrolling, leafy design on the outside was inspired by a 16th century Flemish tapestry in the museum’s collection, and inside the coat are huge insects.
I’m also pairing an 18th century Chinese tapestry with a pastel by James J.J. Tissot that portrays a 19th century French interior completely decked out in Chinese textiles. And we’re putting up huge tapestries by the Swedish-born contemporary American artist Helena Hernmarck that are very abstract and very beautiful.
I’m also working on an 18th century dress exhibition that tells the story of dress through paintings, decorative arts, sculpture and other kinds of objects.
Q: Since the Goldstein Museum of Design is part of the University of Minnesota, how is its collection used by students?
Nelson-Mayson: Our collections are always being used by classes studying how things were made and used. For clothing classes we’ve even pulled out examples of sleeves through the ages — leg-of-mutton vs. athletic wear. Students want to know how problems were solved and what made something successful or not.
Q: Linda, you’re now researching Minnesota dressmakers as pioneering businesswomen for a future show at the History Center. What will that be about?
McShannock: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were four women in Minneapolis and St. Paul who each employed more than 50 women as custom tailors and designers. They made a lot of European trips to bring back clothes from couture houses in Paris and Brussels to copy. We have about 100 of those dressmaker pieces — from wedding gowns and party dresses to business suits. In the early days of the History Society, women’s groups used fashion shows to raise money. It wasn’t until the 1980s that we realized this is a story about women in business here in Minnesota.