Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Report from NYC: "Fashion and Politics"

The third exhibit we saw in New York a few weeks ago was also at the Museum at FIT- "Fashion and Politics." The museum maintains a permanent exhibition on the history of fashion in their museum gallery, whose contents and theme change about every six months. Previous rotations have focused on subjects such as garment construction ("The Tailor's Art"), color ("She's Like a Rainbow"), and exoticism ("Exoticism," appropriately). This choice of subject was obviously a timely one, and connects well to Michelle Obama's inaugural ensemble shown downstairs in the Isabel Toledo exhibit (although I didn't note any indications to the visitor connecting the two exhibits).

The museum's extensive collection boasts some relevant and interesting examples of political fashion, including an "I like Ike" dress, and RFK scarf designed by Oscar de la Renta, and--my favorite-- an anti-prohibition handkerchief that reads "More Beer Less Taxes."*

For each history gallery rotation, there are two narratives--one, the development of western fashion from the 18th century through the present day, and two, the rotation's particular focus. The problem with this rotation was that while fashion and politics have intersected for a long time, there are times when it is difficult to find garments or accessories that are overtly political. There were some obvious gaps in the show, especially in the 18th and 19th century sections as well as in parts of the 20th century. The curators dealt with this by incorporating pieces with associations to a particular social movement or group, such as the late-19th-century Aesthetic movement or the mid-20th-century middle class.

This was a bit iffy to me. The definition of "politics" can certainly be broad, but I felt it was stretched in some areas and not in others without a strong overarching cohesion to the whole show. The Aesthetic movement certainly had an impact on fashion and art, and was widely lampooned in the press, but its agenda was entirely nongovernmental, as far as I know. Similarly, while the middle class certainly became a formidable socio-cultural entity during the middle of the 20th century, the exhibit didn't clearly link it to particular political movements in a meaningful way.

So while this was an enjoyable, digestible exhibit, and the garments and accessories were nicely displayed, I felt that the Museum was pushing the show's thematic boundaries to fill holes between its strongest objects. Perhaps if the exhibit text had made mention of the broad definition of "politics" and more clearly connected certain pieces to the theme, the exhibit would have felt a bit stronger.

What do you think? Has anyone seen the exhibit? How would you deal with the issue of objects that connects to an exhibit's theme in a less-than-obvious way? What do you consider "political" fashion?

The exhibit is up through November 7th. For more information, look here.

All photographs by Nina Leen for Life, April 1952.
*I can excuse their grammar this time.

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