Museum Destiny: The Case for Contemporary Fashion

Curating the body, creating around bodies, is not a typical conversation or exploration in fashion.  

But it is one of the most important art forms because society can reflect how it defines the spirit or mood of an era; how it can identify culture, social behavior, and economic status.  Fashion has that power.  Like art, it embodies the time we live in and we bear witness to the interpretation of its historical and cultural significance. 

Global fashion is a multi trillion dollar industry, where conflicting ideas of aesthetics, ethics, appropriateness, and desirability are debated within each society.  This dynamic is played out through fashion events; high profile, celebrity, political and religious influences; utilitarian needs; and propelled by the global footprint of capitalism.  Given this, is there any room to experience its contribution to culture? 

Since art fundamentally creates culture, how do we see fashion as an art?  Museums.

The museum offers a space that invites exchange of knowledge and ideas, critical dialogue, a culturally rich human experience, and mostly an educational format to see fashion in an anthropological context. 

Fashion has a story to tell and to understand the correlation of culture, fashion, and museums, we must explore why fashion exhibits do matter, shed light on the current status quo, and make the case to infuse what’s missing – contemporary fashion.

When we start to see how fashion serves a purpose in culture and history, we begin to dismiss the frivolous segment of it and assimilate a more responsible and protective conduct.

Why Do Fashion Exhibits Matter?

One could also ask, why do art exhibits matter.  They all matter.  In providing background, let’s distinguish between art and fashion.

Fashion design is typically dismissed as art.  Traditionally there’s been a separation of fine art and applied art – architecture, interior, graphic, and fashion design are examples of applied art.  Fashion, like any other art, serves as a platform to express, evoke emotion, and make a statement.  Artists are motivated to create an object or image that is timeless – work that transcends time.  Fashion designers have this same desire, but are up against creating seasonal work, to fuel the speed and disposability of today’s fashion environment.  Fashion has never been more accessible to the masses than today, which, arguably, can hinder the artistic value of fashion.  But the artistic and cultural value is sought after from a very sophisticated, culturally thirsty audience.

Fashion exhibitions at museums and galleries are a global phenomenon, with record breaking attendance. The exhibitions of Alexander McQueen: Savage BeautyManus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology; and China: Through the Looking Glass are in the top 10 of all exhibitions visited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [Met], New York, with over 2.2 million visitors.1

Fashion exhibits matter because innovative and conscious fashion designers that define their work as art create unique sculptures in cloth that tell a story. They curate the body, create and sculpt around the body, achieving a three-dimensional object of beauty.  Non-conforming and experimental, they create a body of work that has staying power, substance, is culturally right, and sends a strong message through their design.  Their process and artistic expression is as valid as visual art.

London based Jun Nakamura, whose design practice centers around the traditional Japanese manual resist-dyeing technique called shibori, knows the importance of preserving cultural history with his modern take on the art of shibori.  Although he doesn’t call himself an artist, he believes the process of designing is the same as that of creating art.  “I think the process of developing design by working on a form, sketching, and collaging is similar to that of creating art.  It all challenges our creativity, striking a balance as a whole piece.”

In defining her work as art, French designer Victoire Laffineur, whose piece from her ocean pollution Renaissance collection was acquired by The Musée de la Piscine in Roubaix, France says, “fashion helps me to express myself. I love this freedom I have when I am designing. You need every part of your body to achieve a collection. You feel all the materials you are using.  For example, just like a painter with paint, brushes, canvas…, you are choosing and working with fabrics, trimmings, furnishings…”.

The Musée de la Piscine in Roubaix (the North of France)
Victoire Laffineur, designer, Renaissance collection | Acquired by The Musée de la Piscine in Roubaix [North of France] | photo: Pascal Lefebvre

The popularity of fashion exhibits demonstrates that you can have sold out tickets, long lines to get in with a daily attendance in the thousands.  According to Art Newspaper, The Met’s Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibit averaged 10,000 visitors a day.

When we start to see how fashion serves a purpose in culture and history, we begin to dismiss the frivolous segment of it and assimilate a more responsible and protective conduct.  Visitors want to engage, indulge in the aesthetics, and advance their knowledge of fashion’s purpose.

Fashion Exhibits: The Status Quo

Numerous dedicated fashion spaces around the world typically exhibit shows with an historic emphasis.  They are categorized into six groups: the establishment; every-city-has-them art museums; design museums; fashion museums; namesake museums; and fashion school museums.

The establishment: The Costume Institute at The Met in New York and V&A Museum in London, successfully scramble their old systematic privileged designer collections into a new thematic exhibition framework for their periodic exhibits.  Collectively collecting hundreds of thousands of objects, they will be the first to say that their collections were built on designer legendary status and artistic worth fueled by donations from the designers themselves and society figures, as reported in The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Collection, by Vanessa Friedman, New York Times.  These holdings are self-fulfilling acts, omitting a wide-range of historical artifacts.

The Met’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, exhibited September 18, 2021 – September 5, 2022, is at the forefront of conversation, due partly to finally recognizing the underexposed in American contemporary fashion.  Approximately 100 men’s and women’s ensembles by a diverse range of designers from the 1940s to the present are featured.

Every-city-has-them art museums fulfill a duty to exhibit fashion, on an average, every 5-8 years.  Due to lack of resources and organization, many institutions present traveling shows or, in working with a guest curator, present a retrospective of an iconic designer as in San Francisco’s de Young Museum Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective, curated by André Leon Talley.

Oscar de La Renta: The Retrospective, de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2016 | photo: Si Jie Loo

Art museums who yield the space, resources, and dedicated curatorial staff within their organizational structure are few and far between.  The Phoenix Art Museum is one of only seven art museums in America with an active fashion-design program.  Phoenix Art Museum Fashion Design Department was founded in 1966 and features more than 8,000 objects in their collection that represent the late 17th century to the present.  They build community around fashion with lead support from Arizona Costume Institute.  Exhibitions are relevant to the times.  Fashioned In America exhibited American designers, highlighting a renewed interest to make clothes in America due to poor labor practices after the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, and Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich, a current exhibit on the ongoing topic of beauty, gender, and identity, showcases gender-fluid, body-positive designs by a ’60s-mod legend, Gernreich.

Another dedicated space to fashion and textiles is the Denver Art Museum.  Its textile art and fashion department encompasses over 5,000 objects from Asia, Europe, and North and South America, and range from archaeological textiles to contemporary works of art in fiber and fashion from the 18th century to today.  They recently received a $25 million endowment gift from an anonymous donor.  This gift will support programming, art acquisitions and outreach of its Textile Art and Fashion department, creating a new Institute of Textile Art and Fashion. 

Design Museums are all inclusive of our fascination with design.  Fashion design is just one part of programming and exhibits, so the regularity of fashion exhibits rotates with other design disciplines. 

After his death in 1987, the work of designer Willi Smith finally got its due in 2020 at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.  The first retrospective exhibition on Willi Smith, Willi Smith: Street Couture, was a study of self-presentation, self-identity and one’s own claim to space. Because most museum’s permanent collections are of historical objects and they do not actively collect from living designers, Smith’s body of work during his lifetime was not collected.  This posed a problem in curating Smith’s show with a lack of his collections to exhibit.  

But Cooper Hewitt made up this void of showcasing his body of work through text.  To broaden, expand upon, or enhance the visual experience of an exhibit, museums offer a catalogue or publication.  Cooper Hewitt produced a comprehensive exhibition publication and created a digital community archive to honor the life and innovations of this pioneering artist.  This pairing of the visual and text showed how Smith’s design premise and strategic vision had a reach beyond the institutional confines of fashion signifying that there is more to fashion than its reputation as fluff or frivolous. Culture and the arts defined him and his brand, WilliWear.  

Cooper Hewitt and Willi Smith are an example of the convergence of culture, fashion, and art institutions with an execution that provides an intelligent way of understanding a contemporary designer’s contribution to culture.

Fashion Museums only objective is to exhibit fashion.  Their exhibitions are more regular and offer more shows simultaneously.  They can be unique to a region, such as Mode Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, which collects contemporary Belgian fashion with over 35,000 objects.  Fashion Museum Bath, England, has close to 100,000 objects in their collection ranging from Shakespeare to today’s leading designers.  To stay relevant, each year the Museum invites a respected expert from the fashion industry to select an outfit that encapsulates the prevailing mood of fashion, an ensemble that represents the prior year.

Namesake museums, like French museums The Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris and The Musée Christian Dior, Granville, preserve and exhibit the haute couture collections of these two couturier’s exceptional work.  These museums are stewards of haute couture traditions that accompanied a way of life that no longer exists, a true historical marker of the twentieth century.

Fashion School museums are committed to an ongoing dialogue of fashion’s cultural contribution.  They offer a balance of history and contemporary exhibits and allow space for popular narratives.  Museums in the academic arena such as SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, and FIT Museum in New York highlight shows that expose the work of the underrepresented and are socially relevant, as in FIT’s A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk and Black Fashion Designers, or bring on exhibits specific to costume design from film and television as in SCAD’s Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.

We fundamentally need to understand that “what’s missing” can solve a human need for a cultural experience where there is association, yet an unexpected platform, potentially tapping into a new market.  

What’s Missing?

Today’s designers.

West Coast art dealer Irving Blum, famous for taking a chance with Andy Warhol when no one understood his artwork, once said, “artists that effect change, real change, are so few and far between, are so incredibly valuable, they cannot be replaced, they’re unique.  You have to adore these people. They contribute so much to the culture.  They are the culture.”

A new breed of designers are affecting change.

They are culturally astute and are hellbent on communicating their work as art.  Creating outside of a mass-production mentality, they generate designs that are limited, coveted, intellectually talked about, tell a story, and are meaningful. “Let’s keep fighting the fight for fashion as art”, says Hera Zhou of Shanghai whose The Great Wave collection was exhibited at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris and at GraySpace, Santa Barbara in the show Blurred Boundaries: Fashion as an Art.  Zhou represents this new generation that curates the body through innovative design principles and storytelling.  The strength of Zhou’s work is the interpretation she brings from visual art.  Her masterful interpretation of the painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai created a sculptural reality of depth, layering, and rigid density as evidenced in her pleating technique.

Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, "The Great Wave", Designer: Hera Zhou, Photo: Yann Bohac.
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, “The Great Wave”, Designer: Hera Zhou, Photo: Yann Bohac.

For the viewer, the experience can be magical by the pure aesthetics alone, and unforgettable in witnessing a narrative that goes deeper than the aesthetics.

There is nothing like the allure of fashion exhibits.  You can check off all the boxes: long-term exposure to an inquisitive public and industry audience; it’s engaging and sparks conversation; it’s educational and inspiring; and delivers increased revenue from record-breaking attendance.  

Establishing institutional structure and resources that collect and showcase fashion and textile art from contemporary makers could be the shot of new creative energy which is needed right now.  Coming out of a global shutdown from the pandemic, the offering from art institutions represent a pre-pandemic exhibition template which, in many regions, can be viewed as obsolete.  More of what we know and expect can negate interest.  Behaviors have shifted and our choices lean towards quality versus quantity on where we want to engage with the arts.  The bar is higher.  We fundamentally need to understand that “what’s missing” can solve a human need for a cultural experience where there is association, yet an unexpected platform, potentially tapping into a new market.  

What this new exhibition platform of contemporary fashion makers can bring (inclusive of the emerging and underrepresented voices) are awe-inspiring exhibits that feed the curiosity and fascination of fashion. For the viewer, the experience can be magical by the pure aesthetics alone, and unforgettable in witnessing a narrative that goes deeper than the aesthetics.

An elite group of designers under the radar are affecting change.  Storytelling through their magnificent creations captures the zeitgeist of today – social and behavioral shifts, the environmental crisis, and the preservation of traditional methods.

Hyee Jin Bae, whose work was exhibited at CICA Museum, Seoul, South Korea, reveals a strong message of our behavior of wearing clothes.  She sees clothing as culture and habit and says, “we wear and take them off daily, which makes it a part of life. However, the process is also repetitive so it is not easy for us to recognize the act itself.  I strive to discover a new aspect of our daily lives. Typically, the visual form or design is based on the functionality, but the function of the clothing that I make differs from looking posh or preventing the cold. My clothes are designed for people to focus on the act of wearing the clothing.”

배혜진 HYEE JIN BAE, Artist,CICA Museum Exhibit,
배혜진 HYEE JIN BAE, Artist, CICA Museum Exhibit, Seoul, Korea

London based Chinese Canadian Yvonne Lin looks deep into the fractures of our society and a creates collections that spark conversation into the psychology of our being.  “I feel there’s so many things happening in this society that are wounding. I wanted to reflect that process in my design, reveal what is broken and confront the problems affecting us.”  This is reflected in her collection Vulnus Cura, derived from the Latin words Vulnus – to wound and Cura – to cure, care, and heal.  “It looks closely at brokenness as a process of mending”, she says, “mending what? one might ask – the cracks in our society and a lost innocence that comes with growing up.”  The fabrics tell as much of the Vulnus Cura story as the design, using laser cut wool, jersey, and cotton.  Seeking a comfortable fabric to the skin, the process may have been otherwise, “I feel like the fabric went through a process of burning and taking on another form”, says Lin.

Vulnus Cura, Yvonne Lin, designer | photography Anna Sting, 22_
Vulnus Cura | Yvonne Lin, designer | photography: Anna Sting, Model: Rebecca O’Donova, Make-up: Violet Zhang

Mixed identity is the message behind Maital Levitan’s body of work, Culture Osmosis. Seattle, Washington born, raised in Israel, and currently based in Rome, Levitan, who is of mixed heritage, says we are all connected and part of a global tribe but are challenged in finding our own way in the world, searching for meaning, belonging, and freedom.  “Being born in the USA and moving to Israel, having a “global family” and a mixed identity, were inspirations for this collection.  I combined the shapes of my traditional origin – Poland with the modern tailoring of the 50’s back in NYC.”  The mix of textures through multiple fabric patterns and fabric blocking can be viewed as a transformation of becoming one identity.

Culture Osmosis | Designer, Maital Levitan | Photography- Simone Ammendola
Culture Osmosis | Maital Levitan, designer | Photography- Simone Ammendola

Designers are affecting positive change against the industry’s negative impact on the environment, making it their mission to practice sustainably.  Zero waste practices, the product process of restorative: reusing, recycling, up-cycling, and repairing unwanted or presumed to be end of life textiles and garments, are the norm for this generation of designers.  Karen Glass, founder of Ø [zerøwaste] GLASS, has collected a fashion archive of textile artifacts from around the globe, that, in many, have a provenance and historical record.  With this impressive collection Glass says, “there are hundreds of artifacts primarily from countries that have contributed to the global apparel industry, Turkey, China, India, as well as Western and Eastern Europe.  There are obviously many ways to make art and fashion, but our adherence to a mentality of conservation and preservation is what drives our work.  It is a circular rather than linear movement.  Currently I see this movement defining multiple aspects of society and culture.”

Ø GLASS | Ø archive collection
Ø GLASS | Ø archive collection | photo: courtesy of Ø GLASS

With the same restorative process, Isabella Diorio tells the unknown story of American pioneering women in the military who served and sacrificed for their country, some going as far as disguising themselves as a man in order to serve.  “It’s not just about the garment itself but about the story behind it,” says Diorio. “I felt that the fact that these women go into a male dominated field and are able to compete with the best of them was one that was often overlooked. Troubled by the rising population in homeless female veterans, Diorio created Female Engagement Team (F.E.T.).  

Each of the F.E.T. looks bears the name of these women vets, describes the sustainable materials and print finishing technique used, and how its functionality can relate to a military uniform.  The execution is extraordinary in constructing deconstructed second-hand garments and vintage military uniforms while skillfully incorporating symbolic military details.  F.E.T. evokes a bit of an edge, demonstrating female power and perseverance.  It is a work of art that documents an overlooked part of American history.

The Elsie Jumpsuit, The Vegan Leather Harness, First Aid Purse | photo: Emily Warfield, courtesy of Isabella Diorio

My interest in textiles such as Adire and Aso Oke comes from a fascination in how a textile can become the through-line of people’s lives, their personal histories, economic change and growth, political and cultural shifts. – Abiola Onabule

London-based Abiola Onabule, recent designer in London’s the Design Museum’s Designers in Residence program, believes that the adaptability of the present, while preserving the history of traditional artisanal methods and textile, moves us forward. With globalization, there is a rush to preserve this cultural-centric art.  Indigenous craftsmanship was quite sustainable, compared to today’s manufacturing practices – with the use of natural resources, natural dyes, pesticide free, and quality construction to last for generations.  Value was placed on textiles; it was an investment – each item created was with intent to hand down to the next generation.  

Onabule, influenced by her Yoruba Nigerian heritage, uses Adire and Aso Oke textiles.  Most of us may not think of having a relationship with fashion, but Abiola describes the role of cloth as having its own distinct storytelling, identity, and importance in a person’s life.  She says that cloth that is created for special occasions is stored and cared for to be brought out and talked about, “conjuring up memories of the cloth’s original outing”.

The following image is part of a collection that focused on abstraction of the female form through a variety of freehand cutting techniques, cutting on curves, on the bias, and draping. The cut of the clothes give sole support for all structure and silhouette.  She used striped Yoruba Aso Oke fabrics alongside the curved cutting, and used direction and mitering of the stripe to illustrate how the clothes curved and hung round the body.  She had the Nigerian fabrics (Aso Oke) woven in her family’s ancestral home of Ijebu-Ode, by local weavers, with custom colorways and designs as well as additional supplementary second-hand Aso Oke from her grandmother, aunts, family and friends. 

Abiola Onabule Photo 4 - Photos by Jessica Eliza Ross
Abiola Onabule, designer | Photo: Jessica Eliza Ross

The work of Onabule, Diorio, Glass, Levitan, Lin, Jin Bae, Zhou, Nakamura, and Laffineur, are a tiny sampling of “what’s missing” in fashion exhibitions.  These contemporary designers are game changers, they represent the global culture and can speak the language through fashion.  Collecting and exhibiting their work is a museum’s destiny.

Further Study:

The Education Edge of Fashion Schools With Onsite Museums


1Art News – A Look at the Met’s Top Ten Most Visited Exhibitions of All Times, by Alex Greenberger POSTED 09/12/15

Feature Image: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Courtesy of Designer, Hera Zhou

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor