I recently saw the exhibit, ‘Fashion Redefined: Miyake, Kawakubo, Yamamoto’ at the Indianapolis Museum Art (now called Newfields). The exhibit was on a second floor gallery, adjacent to the European and American Painting and Sculpture Galleries that feature some of my favorites works of Van Gogh, Gaugin and Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper. As I viewed the collections displayed on mannequins, it didn’t feel much different than when I engage with works of art in the other galleries. Yet after pondering the questions later, 'is fashion art' and 'does fashion belong in a museum', and reading what others had to say, I reconsidered: perhaps fashion isn’t really art at all and might belong in a more obscure gallery, or not belong at all. I review here not only the exhibit, but also the idea of fashion as art and its place (or not) in an art museum.
The Fashion Redefined exhibit consists of pieces from Newfields collection of Japanese designer fashions that the museum has been collecting since 2009, as well as loans from private collections. The featured Japanese designers were part of a group who arrived on the Paris couture fashion scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and shook things up in the fashion world. These designers not only infused Japanese aesthetics into their designs with clean lines and a focus on minimalism, but challenged the female silhouette—that hourglass figure (or the skinny hourglass figure) that haute couture fashion liked to celebrate. One of the designers, Rei Kawakubo, really disrupted the status quo with her collections that were viewed as gender-neutral, with loose-fitting garments, frayed hems and dark colours. Another collection of Kawakubo’s, the, ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ collection, also known as the ‘bump’ collection was another sensation (a few are featured in the exhibit--see blue dress far right in image below). These I found most intruging. So did Paris though not in a good way, they were appalled that these bumps purposefully built into garments, appeared in all the wrong places—they made hips, buttocks and even tummies looks bigger! How dare Kawakubo do so? I found it refreshing.
Other interesting garments were four sheath dresses featuring works of art by designer Issey Miyake. These were part of Miyake’s 'Pleats Please Guest Artist Series'. The dresses, were literally, the artist’s canvas’. Miyake chose artists who created art works specifically for the pleated sheath dresses. One off white dress, features a work by Cai Guo-Quiang who used gun powder explosions to create an image of a dragon which was then photographed and printed on flat fabrics before it was pleated (image below).
Is Fashion Art?
The exhibit was well done; the fashions intriguing, the exhibit labels interesting, even thought-provoking. Was this exhibit much different than traditional art exhibits of paintings or sculpture? I did a bit of digging to try and find out what the experts, artists, fashion designers and museum professionals had to say. Overall there's a lack of consensus. Some consider fashion, when in museum at least, like a glorified store window, while others consider fashion similar to decorative arts like ceramics, or jewelery. Others say fashion is not art and doesn’t belong, as fashion is interactive—it requires an active participant—a person wearing the garment.
Fashion designers have strong and contradictory views. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier famously said in 2001 “Fashion is not art. Never” (Cathcart & Taylor, 2014). Other designers concurred, including Prada and Marc Jacobs. Artists of traditional mediums weighed in on the discussion and suggested that fashion belongs in its OWN museum, so fashion could be "put into context". Their argument—fashion takes gallery space away from ‘real’ art (Cathcart & Taylor, 2014). My guess is that some museum curators would agree with this argument.
Attendance at Fashion Exhibits
More importantly though, we should consider what museum visitors think. And if we use attendance numbers as a benchmark, it seems that museum-goers love fashion exhibits—in a big way. The most visited museum exhibit worldwide in 2018 according to the Art Newspaper’s annual museum-visit attendance survey, was a fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination with about 1.7 million visitors. The show, featuring haute couture fashion with religious works of art, was a smash hit—the most visited exhibit in history of The Met! It beat the #1 show of all time at The Met, the 1978 King Tut exhibit, Treasures of Tutankhamen. It also beat out the Mona Lisa Exhibit, when she was on view at the Met in 1963 (with just over a million visitors). Not only that, more than double the number of visitors want to see Heavenly Bodies than another exhibit at the Met that was going on at the same time--Michelangelo in the Divine Draftsman and Designer.
Yet not all people agree that fashion belongs in a museum. After reading a selection of reader comments in response to a 2014 article, 'Does Fashion belong in an art gallery', you’ll see what I mean, for example, “…a lot of so called fashion should be in the trash can not in museums”. The comments goes on.
What’s Going On Here?
Still, museums can’t ignore visitor attendance numbers, discouraging as they may be for artists and museum professionals, that fashion exhibits attract more visitors than traditional art exhibitions. The overwhelming numbers are telling—the response suggests that visitors, (and new visitors who might never have set foot in a museum if not for fashion) find fashion approachable, relatable, interesting and fun.
The attendance numbers alone create a strong argument that fashion does belong in an art museum. Perhaps museum professionals need to think differently about what art is, and consider that fashion goes beyond telling a story about how people dressed in a culture or time period, and is thought-provoking, challenging, engaging with potential to change people’s thinking just as traditional art does. What do you think?