Visitors to the Chic Chicago exhibition at the Chicago History Museum last year left certain that the 60 couture creations on display were brilliant works of art. The heavy, intricate gowns, slinky, body-hugging evening dresses, and prim-and-trim suits were all inventive, masterfully made, and beautiful—much like a great painting. These clothes weren’t just fashion-forward; they were selected to communicate certain messages about culture and sophistication that contradicted stereotypes of Chicago as a relentlessly brutal and industrial city. As women in Chicago changed their clothes, they tried to change their image, along with that of Chicago at large.
It seems that an increasing number of museums are paying homage to fashion’s artistic side, staging exhibitions of textile collections or fashion photographs. But it’s not all about aesthetics: Even as patrons delight in the visual beauty of the objects on display, they’re reminded of fashion’s contributions to cultural identity at large.
In 2006, Italian designer Valentino, hailed as fashion’s “Last Emperor,” displayed the treasures of his reign in an end-of-career exhibition at the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome. Processions of mannequins clothed in Valentino’s signature glamorous evening gowns stretched their arms toward the Altar of Peace, built for emperor Augustus between 13 and 9 BC. As they glorified the famous relief housed in the museum, the beautifully bedecked mannequins also celebrated fashion’s grandiosity. At the same time, the exhibition marked a kind of reclamation of the place of Italian design in the worldwide fashion market, now no longer dominated by designers with the same kind of craftsmanship Valentino spent decades honing. While the exhibition was a celebration of the designer’s life work, it was also a reaffirmation of the endurance of Italian design.
Similarly, a number of museums here in the U.S. have recently shown retrospectives of fashion photography that acknowledge the medium’s symbiotic relationship with fine art. Last fall, the newly reopened Detroit Institute of Art featured a massive exhibition of Richard Avedon’s seminal photographs. Over the span of his 60-year career, Avedon shot aspirational images that promoted cultural rehabilitation after World War II, celebrated the civil rights movement by being one of the first fashion photographers to cast models of color, and ended the era of the static fashion photo, posing models in dynamic scenes that took inspiration from circus performers and featured imaginative storylines. Despite his avant-garde approach to fashion shoots, Avedon’s photographs reveal a relationship with more mainstream art historical trends. His technique of cropping an image to reveal the accoutrements of the fashion shoot—the lights, the backdrop, the equipment—is the kind of attention to medium that characterized much of the art of the modernist period. His images, which featured the “jumping model” pose that is now ubiquitous in the pages of fashion magazines, emphasized that the culture was in flux, as well.
This summer, the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art will share their collections to present two shows that illustrate fashion’s artistic and cultural aspects. The exhibitions American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity and American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection (opening May 5 and May 7, respectively) will both focus on clothing as a way to explore the contributions of women in social movements. The exhibitions will analyze the getups of suffragettes, bohemians, screen goddesses, and other American feminine tropes as a way of investigating how women’s changing standards of dress corresponded to their changing domestic, legal, and professional roles and opportunities.
While it’s true that the clothes don’t make the man, fashion is inextricably involved with shifting cultural norms and, like many works of art, helps investigate—and construct—identities, both personal and national.