Visual Arts Review: A New Fashion Statement from the MFA — Consumer Dreaming and Catwalk Preening

By Trevor Fairbrother

This midsized MFA project is a solid bid for summer foot traffic from the fashionista demographic.

The main entrance of Dress Up — couture by Bob Mackie and Jean Paul Gaultier. Photo: MFA

Dress Up, at the Museum of Fine Arts (through September 2), sets forth more than a hundred items, many of them recent acquisitions exhibited for the first time. The earliest were made in the 1920s, but the majority date from the 1960s and after. The organizers, Emily Stoehrer, Curator of Jewelry, and theo tyson, Curator of Fashion Arts, address the interconnected ways in which jewelry and fashion allow us “to style ourselves and present our identities to the world.” In a recent interview, tyson commented, “Our hope is that this exhibition reminds people to take jewelry and fashion seriously enough to have fun with it!”

As worn by Cate Blanchett and Anna May Wong. Photo: Trevor Fairbrother

This midsized project is a solid bid for summer foot traffic from the fashionista demographic. It includes items worn by such prominent figures as Coco Chanel, Donna Summer, and Evelyn H. Lauder, the cosmetics executive and advocate for women’s health. People name-checked in the wall texts and labels include Madeleine Albright, Marlene Dietrich, Kim Kardashian, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, RuPaul, Edie Sedgwick, and Oscar Wilde. As is often the case when “encyclopedic” museums showcase fashion, the installation summons a limbo world of consumer dreaming and catwalk preening. The three galleries of Dress Up are home to platforms with built-in light strips, display cases for screwy shoes and necklaces, bald plastic mannequins tricked out to the nines, and a disco-ish alcove reserved for taking selfies.

The curators devised an installation with eight sections: “Shopping;” “Child’s Play;” “More is More;” “Identity Politics;” “Little Black Dress;” “Hollywood: From Screen to Street;” “Sequins & Sparkle;” and “The Theatre of Everyday Life.” The diffuseness of some of their tags was annoying until I decided to pass them over as well-meant storytelling strategies. The theme that generates the most sociocultural momentum is “Identity Politics.” Works in that zone included: an AIDS Awareness loop of red ribbon secured with a safety pin; a version of the “Aviary Classic Ring” that Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman wears as a tribute to Maya Angelou; Native American clothes and items of adornment that signal Indigenous pride; an assortment of patriotic brooches with symbols proselytizing “America the Great;” and a photograph of The Dragon Sisters, New York’s happening LGBTQ+ “hip hop show-girl duo.” There was even a nod to the tribe devoted to status symbols and elitist accessories, such as tiaras. One such headpiece is seen in Yousuf Karsh’s banal and stodgy 1956 photograph of high-born actress Grace Kelly, who “became a real princess” when she married the Prince of Monaco that year. It hangs beside an Edwardian-style tiara (“silver and Swarovski crystals”) made around 2013 to be worn by an aristocrat in the British television series Downton Abbey. Those items were not the best neighbors for the Native American works grouped in front of the facing wall.

All the spaces in Dress Up are unified by a two-color palette of tawny brown/ochre and black. The stylish restraint recalls the subtle side of Art Deco style. There’s a beautiful vignette, staged in a corner, where two mannequins in sleeveless evening dresses appear to have been startled during an intimate conversation. One wears a body-hugging deep purple item flared out at the bottom. The illusionistic embroidery decorating the sheer back depicts a hummingbird amidst red and lavender blossoms. It was designed by Englishman John Galliano, and Cate Blanchett wore it to great acclaim for her first time at the Oscars in 1999. The other mannequin sports a tailored black silk satin gown. Color notes are confined to floral embroidery over the shoulders: the contrast they make against the inky planes of shiny fabric recalls decorative lacquer work. The Hollywood costume designer Travis Banton made this for Anna May Wong in 1934, the year she starred in the films Java Head and Limehouse Blues.

The Downton tiara by Andrew Prince and carefree shoes by Anna Hope. Photo: Trevor Fairbrother

My favorite moment of serendipity occurred in the “Sequins & Sparkle” section when I encountered a pair of light pink slingback shoes loosely redolent of Marie Antoinette or Truman Capote’s fictional icon, Holly Golightly. They radiated rich patterns with gold, turquoise and white embellishments sewn with metallic threads. These handmade lovelies, designed by Emma Hope in 2005, reassured me that the bizarre magnificence of the Rococo will never die. Hope collaborates with small, family-owned Italian factories. Her motto is “Regalia for feet.”

The curators have productively deployed a few photographs from the MFA’s collection to spur broad thinking about their thematic groupings. One pays homage to the English society beauty Paula Gellibrand: she is pressed against a mirror to generate a phantasmagoric image suggestive of conjoined twins in an iridescent ensemble. Her adoring effeminate friend Cecil Beaton took the photo in 1928. A couple of pictures by Henri Cartier-Bresson offer surreptitious glimpses of Americans shopping in 1957: one shows a young Black woman gracefully trying on a hat in a Houston department store; the other nails an ostentatiously dressed white couple cruising the windows of a jewelry store in Miami Beach. The largest photographic image came from Martin Parr’s 2001 fashion shoot on the streets of Dakar for the French magazine Rebel. He contrived a self-consciously badass close-up that contrasts a white woman modeling an in-your-face ensemble with a local Black passerby in comparatively dignified attire.

Installation view with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martin Parr. Photo: Trevor Fairbrother

Clothes are essential in modern workplaces and social contexts. For many, they are also conduits for magical or primal instincts because they offer opportunities for illusion, artifice, and escapism. Maxims from two of New York’s acclaimed professionals appear on walls in different parts of this exhibition. Their opinions shed light on the psychological underpinnings of the human clothing industry:

“Playing dress up begins at five and never truly ends.” — Kate Spade.

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” — Bill Cunningham

Coincidentally, fashion is prominent in the MFA’s main exhibition, Hallyu! The Korean Wave. This import from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum celebrates South Korea’s recent arrival as a “cultural superpower” and “global trendsetter.” The clothes range from exquisite haute couture to brash outfits worn by singers and dancers in pop music videos. Hallyu! has the air of a boisterous special event in a mall. If you’d rather gaze on fancy duds in relative silence, Dress Up is for you

Trevor Fairbrother is a writer and curator. His most recent essay for The Arts Fuse was an appreciation of the Dominican-American artist Firelei Báez.

Trevor Fairbrother  ©  2024

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *