NEW YORK — The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s new exhibition, “Form Follows Fashion,” underscores a new trend around the country.
As the exhibition explores the changing silhouettes of fashion throughout the 20th century, from full skirts to nipped waists, the museum is evaluating the scale of its own holdings and has begun to eliminate a small number of pieces. The move is part of a broader issue of space and quality control that curators are facing with costume collections everywhere.
What is unusual about FIT’s latest deaccession, however, is that the fashion institute is planning to participate in a costume auction at the end of the month that will mark the first time the museum has sold pieces, rather than given them away. FIT is getting ready for the Charles A. Whitaker-backed auction in New Hope, Pa., as part of a sale that also includes fashion from university collections around the country. FIT has given away pieces to other institutions in the past, said curator Valerie Steele, adding that the museum plans to use the funds to acquire other, more important pieces.
“We have hundreds of Chanel suits. There is no way we are ever going to use them all. If we let duplicates or a few pieces go, that’s okay,” Steele said, responding to a question about the controversial nature of museum deaccessions. She said the standards of industry associations for museum directors allow for institutions to sell their holdings if the moneys raised are used to acquire other pieces, although that is a point of disagreement among several top museum curators.
The need to do that stems in part from the increasing difficulty for museums to acquire quality pieces directly from designers, Steele said. “Designers are not giving any more,” she said. “Very seldom do they give, and the richer they are, the less likely they are to give.”
That said, the money earned at the Oct. 23-24 auction at the New Hope Eagle Fire Co. will go right to new purchases for FIT, with Viktor & Rolf and contemporary Lanvin being at the top of Steele’s list. Asked about the important costume holdings of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which the museum has acknowledged will likely be pared down in the future, Steele said she would love to have the collection but would not discuss the chances.
In the meantime, visitors to “Form Follows Function” can get an eyeful. From Charles James’ 1953 “four-leaf clover” ballgown to Madame Grès’ 1967 pyramid evening dress, the space is stocked with impressive pieces, with the emphasis on shape and structure as opposed to color.
Despite that, there are some vibrant items, including Chado Ralph Rucci’s 2003 amethyst-colored evening coat and dress, Pierre Cardin’s 1968 fuchsia egg-carton dress and Zac Posen’s 2004 lavender sail dress. Adrian, Martin Margiela, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons are also featured.
— Eric Wilson with contributions from Rosemary Feitelberg