Visitors to the Cooper Hewitt Museum at Fifth Avenue and 91st Street in New York are drawn in immediately by sophisticated froth: Giambattista Valli’s pajama shirt and tiered tulle ballskirt from fall 2014 couture. The stunning look, in graduated shades from bright red to to pale pink, beckons viewers to peruse the exhibit, Beauty — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial.
The contemporary design show examines its topics across disciplines from architecture to games to flights of man-made fancy. Ruminating on what constitutes beauty, curators Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lupton could have chosen any item to announce that heady concept, at once universal and consummately personal. They chose a dress. The center salon in which it stands also houses imagery of work by makeup and hair maestros Pat McGrath and Guido Palau, respectively, while clothes from the likes of Mary Katrantzou, Gareth Pugh and Iris van Herpen, feature throughout. (To the right of the center gallery and unrelated to Beauty is a silvery, sensual installation, Thom Browne Selects: Reflecting on Uniformity.)
A proverbial stone’s throw away, Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History is enjoying an impressive run at the Jewish Museum. The vibrant installation highlights Mizrahi’s creative depth and his ebullient, ever-optimistic point of view.
And, the Met. Its spectacular, Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, exceeds its hype, from, positioned at the entrance, the opening gallery displaying Karl Lagerfeld’s fall couture 2014 wedding gown for Chanel, its gold-embroidered train setting an ecclesiastical tone that carries through the labrynth of intricate, exquisitely realized clothes. If you love clothes and respect craft, you cannot be other than awed.
The three exhibitions are within 11 blocks on Museum Mile. On a recent Friday, they all bustled with visitors. They’re not outliers. Fashion exhibits are becoming like fashion weeks — ubiquitous. Among those currently running in the U.S.: #techstyle at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear at LACMA in Los Angeles. In December 2017, MoMA will jump in with Items: Is Fashion Modern? Internationally, one can take in Fashion Forward: Three Centuries of Fashion, at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris; 200 years of Australia Fashion at The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Undressed, A Brief History of Underwear, at the Victoria & Albert in London, and, this fall, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican Art Gallery, also in London.
The matter of whether fashion deserves consideration as art remains open, addressed most recently in a national segment this past Sunday on CBS This Morning. Why the question lingers, who knows? Of course, fashion warrants such consideration. Make that, some fashion deserves consideration as art. No one — not a fashion/art professional nor anyone else in possession of gray matter within the cranium — could sit through five random fashion shows and argue reasonably that all fashion is art. All fashion merits cultural study as representative of its time; clothes are an intimate, powerful barometer of social history.
The fashion-art love fest doesn’t stop at the museum gallery. Fashion brands underwrite museum galas as a matter of course, and jockey for position and press at Art Basel and Frieze. Then there’s crossover with the performing arts. Last week, the New York City Ballet released the list of costumers for its fall gala — Dries Van Noten, Narciso Rodriguez, Jason Wu and Rosie Assoulin. And this Saturday, Lagerfeld’s costumes for “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” will hit the Opera Bastille stage.
Such mutual affection isn’t new. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 caused creative frenzy across all decorative arts, fashion included. In 1965, Yves Saint Laurent appropriated with panache, cutting a shift in nifty graphic blocks straight off of a Mondrian canvas. The current mutual obsession goes back 15 years or so, during which time fashion has looked to art for elevation and art has looked to fashion for democratization — and sponsorship. Art may have gotten the better end of the deal. Designers have cultivated the relationship with deliberate calculation. I recall a long-ago phone conversation during which a major designer offered a verbal preview of an upcoming collection: “The print is inspired by — who’s that artist? I’ll call you back.” Today, it’s hard to imagine a designer who can’t name-check a deep lexicon of artists as easily as a pink-clad six-year-old girl name-checks the Disney Princesses. There’s nothing wrong with that; depth of inspiration is part of what keeps fashion interesting. And there have even been moments of brilliant commercial synergy. Louis Vuitton’s blockbuster collaboration with Takashi Murakami was such a boon to the bottom line that it ran from its conception in 2003 until last year.
But fashion’s self-alignment with art may have a down side. Clearly, museums wouldn’t lust after fashion exhibits if they weren’t a draw. Similarly, even as fashion lures legions to high-minded installations, on the other end of the spectrum, the reciprocal fashion-social media obsession shows no signs of abating. In between, fashion documentaries are as plentiful as Friends on Netflix.
It seems that the only box office at which fashion isn’t performing is its own — retail. First-quarter major retail results were horrific, with numerous fashion brands in the throes of similar malaise (well before the shock of Brexit).
Fashion exists in a kinetic state of push-pull, not only high-low, but other perceived contrasts — luxe vs. street, elegance vs. vulgarity, the arcane vs. the familiar. It can all make for potent stuff, intellectual and lofty. Smart consumers want in on that conversation. They also want fashion that is experiential and entertaining, expectations that pulse equally with possibility and problems. On the downside, consumers can converse, experience and be entertained — and wowed — for 18 bucks at the Cooper Hewitt or 18 cents (visitor’s choice) at the Met, and then go buy and wear the cheap (and often well-designed, good-looking) clothes that suit today’s increasingly casual lifestyles.
This is not to suggest that if fashion exhibits were to go away, business at the high end would thrive. Of course not. Or that such exhibits should go away; many are wonderful and provocative. But as with runway shows, it’s worth at least considering whether we’ve reached a saturation point, particularly with exhibits focusing on recent clothes. Fashion today seems too eager to revel in its own cultural elevation. Along the way, it has made its identity and products available for mass consumption of a sort that doesn’t require purchase.
Whatever happened to the core purpose — making clothes that people don’t just wonder over in museums and critique on social media, but buy and wear?
According to a 2011 University of Florida study, humans started covering up about 170,000 years ago, a development that facilitated the start of global migration — fashion born of utilitarian purpose. Maybe it’s time for current fashion to disengage briefly from its own deification, to take a hiatus from pondering the deep, historical meaning of clothes made 10 minutes ago and refocus on that original purpose, still valid after 170 millennia — dressing people. And, in a modern twist, selling them first.