Monday, August 24, 2009

Report from NYC: "Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out"

While we were in NYC, my husband and I stopped in at my old stomping grounds, the Museum at FIT, to see two interesting exhibits. Today's post focuses on what was by far our favorite exhibit of the weekend: "Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out."

While Isabel Toledo has recently come into the public eye because of the coat and dress set she designed for Michelle Obama to wear at this year's inauguration ceremony, her work has been exhibited at FIT for years, and her husband Ruben, a noted illustrator, designed the "spinning wheel of fashion" motif used in the Museum at FIT's permanent history gallery.

Specifics of the exhibit, as well as more details about Toledo herself, can be found at the online exhibition webpage here. What I'd like to focus on is why this was the consummate Good Fashion Exhibit, enjoyable both to me and to my "layman" husband.

The exhibit took place in the Museum's downstairs galleries, a large, square, versatile space with a sort of lobby area usually used for an introductory section. The lobby section featured Michelle Obama's inaugural ensemble as well as an opening didactic panel and a wraparound timeline of Toledo's work. The first didactic introduced Toledo and also gave an overview of the structure of the exhibit, telling the visitor what the thematic sections were and how they were arranged. This was one of my favorite elements of the exhibit's text, because it let the visitor know exactly what to expect and helped them orient themselves within the exhibit, so they would never be wondering whether they had missed a section or if they were progressing along the correct path.
Speaking of which, another aspect of the exhibit that I enjoyed was its layout: each corner of the large, square space past the lobby featured a thematic area focusing on one element of Toledo's design. They did not have to be viewed in order, so visitors entering from either side of the space would have an equally coherent experience. There was a central circular area that featured a variety of Toledo's works, arranged to loosely correspond with the thematic section they were facing. This allowed the visitor to easily transition from section to section and see how all of the themes tied together.

Within the sections, didactic text was informative but brief, accessible without being simplistic; my husband read it all and understood each section and its connection to the overall exhibit. In addition, the didactics made reference to specific garments being shown, connecting the thematic ideas to the pieces in concrete ways. Many of the object labels also had silhouettes of the flat patterns of the piece being displayed, allowing the visitor to get a sense of how Toledo sculpts with fabric and turns 2 dimensions into 3 in innovative ways. There were a few garments that were mounted flat in order to display their unique shapes when off the body. The exhibit also featured some of Ruben's illustrations of Isabel's pieces, which were a great complement to the garments.

My only-- and small--gripe was that the mannequins weren't absolutely my favorite- their faces were a little stylized and they had built-in wedge feet, which was a little odd- but frankly, they allowed plenty of attention to be given to the garments and acted as proper bodies underneath them, which is all you can really ask for from a mannequin!

My husband raved about the exhibit when we left, which says a lot considering he knew nothing about Toledo going in and we had already done one fashion exhibit that morning ("The Model as Muse").

This was an A++ exhibit! Kudos to Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, and the staff at the Museum at FIT.

Has anyone else seen it? How did you feel about the exhibit? What elements are most important to you in a fashion exhibit?

"Isabel Toledo: Fashion from the Inside Out" is up at the Museum at FIT until September 26.

Photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo, USAF, January 20, 2009.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Report from NYC: "The Model as Muse"

I have been terribly delinquent in posting recently, since I've been so busy I've had to resort to Chef Boyardee at home (but that's another story). My hope is to now make up for it with some good posts!

This weekend I went up to New York City to see some great fashion exhibits. My brave and patient husband accompanied me, and was able to give me commentary from the viewpoint of a fashion and museum "layperson." The first exhibit we went to see was "The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which closed on Sunday. I blogged about this a while ago in the context of the "sexy" exhibit (here) and I wasn't sure what to expect, thinking perhaps it might kowtow to popular celebrity supermodel obsession.

My fears were unfounded. I thought the exhibit was not only enjoyable and well-designed, but highly academic! I would identify the show's "big idea" as "models have played a vital role in the world of fashion since the 1950s, and that role has changed fundamentally in each decade." Each section of the exhibit examined approximately one decade, explaining the fashion milieu of that time period, exploring the role of the model (sometimes the different roles of different types of models, such as the house or "cabine" models and the magazine models) in that milieu, and highlighting a number of important models and their contributions to the history of fashion design and merchandising. Each room set the stage for the time period in design and mood, using music ("C'est Si Bon" for the 50s, "My Generation" for the 60s, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the 90s, etc.) and video clips, usually from fashion-centric movies.

This show faced a major challenge in that it used garments on anonymous, identical mannequins to convey ideas about very distinctive individuals whose appearance and particular way of wearing clothes had a lasting influence on designers, artists, media, and the public. The curators used fashion photography, magazine spreads, and videos to make sure that the models themselves were the exhibit's central focus, while the clothing on mannequins served to reinforce the design side of the equation. The first room re-created a magazine spread of Charles James dresses worn by famous models in a nineteenth-century-esque drawing room scene, putting James dresses from the Costume Institute collection on mannequins in poses similar to those of the original photograph, which was shown behind the mannequins. There was even a cameo appearance of some rococo furniture from the museum's collection as set pieces. Other rooms used a similar method, showing clothing famously worn by models and re-creating iconic scenes. A few conceptual garments really captured the interplay between model and designer: a spread of dresses by John Galliano for Dior that created the look of a Stockman dress form with an evening gown being built upon it, each named for one of Dior's famous cabine models, and two dresses at the very end of the show that were part of a collection by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, in which the models were masked and wore sheer lab-style coats over their garments, creating a sort of homogenous anonymity.

There were a few flaws with the exhibit. I wasn't crazy about the very stylized mannequins, nor the hair and makeup that had been applied- it worked okay in certain areas, but it was terribly distracting in others (the 1950s room, for instance). The sound clips could have been a little longer so you didn't hear them over and over again when you were going through each room. I wish the Dior dress at the very beginning, in the recreation of "Dovima with the Elephants," wasn't touching the raffia on the ground (mylar please!).

There were some things I really loved- the light fixtures that looked like photo shoot lights, the fact that most of the photos were given space to speak for themselves, the layout and trajectory of the exhibit.

And there was one thing that I both loved and really didn't like: the text. It was beautifully and profoundly written, academic but engaging, almost poetic at times. It really tied the curators' ideas together and provided the conceptual starting point for all the objects in the exhibit.

But there was a LOT of it. Even I, who almost religiously reads every word of didactic text, got tired of reading. My husband commented that while he enjoyed the exhibit, everything he learned from it came from my explanations, because he attempted to read the didactic panels but quickly fell into TLDR (too long, didn't read) mode. The text was crucial to a real understanding of the exhibit's narrative, and yet it was inaccessible to anyone who wasn't willing to put in the time and mental energy to follow.

So the target audience of the exhibit was people like me, which is legitimate- not every exhibit has to be made for multigenerational families, the general public, etc. The Met's visiting public, however, is a broad group composed of a whole lot of tourists and a whole lot of art enthusiasts, and any fashion exhibit is likely to have a big draw for those who don't necessarily have a background in the subject. I wonder if the exhibit might have been more educational if the text had been pared down, and those of us who wanted to delve deeper could have read more in a brochure (which they didn't have) or the catalog.

Overall, B++ exhibit. Enjoyable, educational, relevant to the field- but perhaps it could have been tweaked to be more accessible without compromising too much of its content.

Did any of you see the exhibit? What did you think? How do you feel about didactic text and the balance between depth and readability?

Magazine photo of Naomi Campbell by Brigitte Lacombe, Time Europe 9-18-1991.
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