Fashion: A Very Short Introduction
Malign Muses, Judith Clark’s groundbreaking 2005 exhibition at the Mode Museum in Antwerp, brought together recent and historical dress in a spectacular series of tableaux. The setting was designed to look like a 19th-century fairground, with simple plain wooden structures that evoked carousels, and oversized black and white fashion drawings by Ruben Toledo, which added to the feeling of magic and showmanship. The exhibition emphasized fashion’s excitement and spectacle. Intricate designs by John Galliano and Alexander McQueen mixed with interwar couture, including Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘skeleton dress’, a black sheath embellished with a padded bone structure. A dramatic 1950s Christian Dior evening dress in crisp silk, with a structured bodice and sweeping skirt, caught with a bow at the back, was shown, as was a delicate white muslin summer dress made in India in the late 19th century, and decorated with traditional chain stitch embroidery. Belgian designer Dries Van Noten’s jewel-coloured prints and burnished sequins of the late 1990s stood next to a vibrantly hued Christian Lacroix ensemble of the 1980s. This extravagant combination of garments was rendered comprehensible by Clark’s cleverly designed sets, which focused on the varied ways in which fashion uses historical references. The exhibition’s theatrical staging connected to 18th-century Commedia del Arte shows and masquerades, and linked directly to contemporary designers’ use of drama and visual excess in their seasonal catwalk shows.
Malign Muses was later staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it was renamed as Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back. This new title expressed one of the contradictions at the heart of fashion. Fashion is obsessed with the new, yet it continually harks to the past. Clark deployed this central opposition to great effect, encouraging visitors to think about fashion’s rich history, as well as to connect it to current issues in fashion. This was achieved through the juxtaposition of garments from different periods, which used similar techniques, design motifs, or thematic concerns. It was also the result of Clark’s close collaboration with fashion historian and theorist Caroline Evans. By using Evans’ important insights about fashion and history from her 2003 book Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness, Clark revealed fashion’s hidden impulses. Evans shows how influences from the past haunt fashion, as they do the wider culture. Such references can add validity to a new, radical design, and connect it to a hallowed earlier ideal. This was apparent in the fragile pleats of the Mme Gre`s dress included in the show, which looked to classical antiquity for inspiration. Fashion can even speak of our fears of death, in its constant search for youthfulness and the new, as evoked by Dutch duo Viktor and Rolf’s all-black gothic-inspired gown.
Visitors could therefore not only see the visual and material aspects of fashion’s uses of history, but through a series of playfully constructed vignettes, they were able to question the garments’ deeper meanings. In a continuation of the exhibition’s fairground theme, a series of carefully conceived optical illusions used mirrors to trick the viewer’s eye. Dresses seemed to appear then disappear, were glimpsed through spy-holes, or were magnified or reduced in size. Thus, visitors had to engage with what they were looking at, and question what they thought they could see.
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