NEW YORK — Contrary to public opinion, luxury is far from a new phenomenon, and an exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is testimony to that.
From a European-made 1735 brocaded pale yellow silk taffeta dressing robe to a detailed 2007 Rodarte dress, luxury takes many forms in the school's Fashion and Textile History Gallery. During a walk-through of the show, which runs through Nov. 10, Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, discussed how consumers have been drawn to expensive things for centuries — even though luxury was not always welcome.
The word once meant "lust" or "lasciviousness," and many once considered luxury to be morally corrupting, something that "weakened the moral fibers of individuals and whole nations," Steele said. Eventually, they recognized "the new economic model that luxury makes money" and embraced it, she added.
The exhibition opens with a mannequin dressed in a mink coat, a traditional item of luxury, and another mannequin decked out in a modern interpretation, a Prada ensemble including a fake-fur skirt. An 1860 gray silk moiré dress, a 1930 Paquin slip, 1956 Roger Vivier evening shoes for Christian Dior, Acne jeans, an Hermès Kelly bag and handwritten invitations to a Jeanne Lanvin fashion show are among the 150 items on display.
"Luxury, like art, calls into question the inherent worth in anything," Steele said. "A lot of times a luxury item is valued for its desirability for being in and of the moment, not just for pure fashion."
In one of the first galleries, Viktor & Rolf's wedding dress for H&M reminds visitors of that concept. On another note, Steele said mass-produced imitations of fashion luxury items were prevalent at the height of capitalism in the 19th century. Couturiers like Charles Frederick Worth became recognized as "artists of luxury" and helped elevate dressmaking from a craft to an international manufacturing business. Knockoffs of fashionable luxury items were in demand by middle-class women eager to replicate the newly rich's fashion sense, Steele said. Women's ornate dress led Thorstein Veblen to coin the phrase "conspicuous consumption," she added.During the walk-through, Steele displayed her own sign of luxury from long ago: Her earrings were once 18th-century fake diamond buttons.
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