Hours before the door opens, there’s already a big crowd lined up. It’s almost like an iPhone release frenzy. Some sit on the floor and eat snacks. Others make another line to take selfies in front of a poster. Though there are several other galleries to marvel at in the museum, the crowd only wants to see this one.
In the last 5 years, I have attended various exhibits celebrating the legendary couture designers from Alexander McQueen, all the way back to Charles James and most recently Oscar de la Renta. Every exhibit displays extravagant gowns worn by icons like Jacqueline Kennedy and Sarah Jessica Parker. But do these fancy pieces of couture really belong in a museum?
In timing, clothes beat the printing press! They have been around since the Greeks. They also have evolved along with society. Through their patterns and design, they tell stories about identities, races and expectations (The Core from Columbia finally is kicking in!). Quietly they have had a place in museums via sculptures and paintings. But until recently, they received the front row seat via couture exhibits.
Couture is an exclusive club that combines the highest level of artistry with mastery of style. Unless you’re in the A-List circle, the runway or in the business, you will never see one of these gowns in-person or let alone learn about the design process. Initiatives, like the MET’s Costume Institute, break the exclusivity to bring the fairy tale to the masses. Maybe it will inspire students to take seriously their geometry class.
But there is a danger to showcase only couture designers: conformity. The world of fashion encompasses more than glamour. What about the fabric itself? Or the design process? (usually it’s only given a second in the spotlight, except for Charles James). If we want to inspire students to learn about fashion as an art, museums have to take risks in showcasing more than glamour.
At the Oscar de la Renta exhibit, I kept being shuffled by the crowds, who wanted a selfie with almost every gown. Hardly few were actually reading the description plaque. It felt more like a show rather than an exploration. Aren’t museums supposed to educate us after all? The Charles James exhibit on the other hand, combined digital wizardry to deconstruct a dress from patterns to the assembly. This context helped me appreciate what I had in front of my eyes. I was present from beginning to end — I didn’t even take pictures. And more importantly no one was pushing me around.
It’s clear museums have to step up in content and also the delivery to show that fashion is not just about what we wear but also an art that deserves to stay in a museum.