Fashion and the museum

An interesting little article in this weekend's FT magazine (7/8th April 2007), 'Playing to the gallery' by Vanessa Friedman (p. 34-35), which discusses the current swathe of exhibitions devoted to haute couture and fashion, with a focus on the V&A's next offering 'New York Fashion Now'. The comments about the perceived role of the museum, or - indeed - the effect of the 'museumfication' process on objects/artefacts are illuminating.

The main gist of Friedman's article is that the articles chosen for the exhibition are largely taken from up-and-coming designers are fashion houses, whose position in the couture pantheon is not yet assured:

The problem in placing it [the work of the new designers chosen to be exhibited]
in the museum is that the work takes on an importance it may not actually

i) the museum valorises objects

Freezing them in an institution at this stage in their development seems odd.

ii) the museum effectively 'kills' objects, or at the very least puts them into suspended animation

Friedman goes on to comment about the atmosphere surrounding the exhibition, likening it to a trade event rather than an exhibition.

iii) museums and commerce don't (shouldn't) mix.

She concludes:

It would be easy to imagine Selfridges or, for that matter, Harvey Nichols, the
main stockist in London for most of the emerging New York designers,
doing a similar thing for this generation [of fashion designers]. But
a museum? Shouldn't the idea be to get the clothes on living bodies
before they end up on mannequins?

iv) museums denude objects of their utility, their functionality. These clothes will cease to be clothes is they are never worn, suggesting that garments need that particular intimacy with the human body to become/be accepted as historical documents. Without the individual, the personal, what are they? Art? And what a canonical of worms that would open, eh?!


Amy said…
Having read this post over this evening, I can appreciate that it may be a little confusing and can only apologise for the poor formatting and typos! I can only offer tiredness as a (poor) excuse. I should explain; the comments in italics are mine, in response to the implicit perceptions of the museum as an institution as revealed by the selected quotes. Hope that makes things a little clearer!
Ceri said…
Well Amy I think your comments are very valid but in a way I like the idea that museums can embrace new cultural products as well as old ones. After all, many of the objects and paintings on display in museums were not appreciated at the time they were produced and it is only with hindsight that we come to value these things. So by giving space to those who have not yet attained any cultural points whatsoever could be seen as daring... but it could also be seen as pretty slavish to the current market and rampant commercialism that characterises our society.
Amy said…
Oh, I completely agree. Especially in the case of the V&A which was, afterall, set up with the purpose of extolling 'good' design in mind.

The perception of the commercialisation of museums (as separate entities from galleries) is an important issue - museums are clearly still considered to be institutions 'above' such base considerations as money, trade and profit. So the idea of the museum as a temple to the arts, with the objects within promoted to iconic status, is still very much prevalent in contemporary British society (al least, that's the gist of this article).

I wonder how differently a similar exhibition of the works of young and upcoming British designers would be received? Something I failed to mention in my original post was that Friedman herself recognises that in the fashion world, until very recently, American designers were considered by Europeans to be 'copyists' - which suggests a perception that they were in it for the money, as opposed to the 'art'. Perhaps the legacy of these attitudes continues to colour 'our' view of fashion and its (lowly?) hierarchical position in the pantheon of design?

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