One of the on-going themes here at The Vintage Traveler is fashion exhibition, and what works (for me, at least) and what does not. I come to this conversation purely as a consumer of exhibitions, not as a scholar of the subject, nor as a maker of exhibitions. So I was pretty excited when the theme of this year’s Museum at FIT symposium was Exhibiting Fashion. Because the symposiums are live-streamed, I had planned to take it all in last Friday.
If you missed it, then you are in luck, because you can still view all the talks and discussions. There are six hours of content, so you may not want to watch it all. Some of the talks are more relevant than others. You’ll know within a few minutes of watching one if viewing it is of interest to you.
I’m not going to attempt to go into all the topics that were discussed, as that would take an entire book. But there were so many things said that really resonated with me, and there were a few things that I wish had been said that were not.
If you know Valerie Steele (curator at the museum) from her writings and interviews, you know that she has a few opinions about what makes a great exhibition. I’ve heard her say on numerous occasions (including in the symposium) that an exhibition has to be more than just a display of pretty dresses. And while I have no problem at all in spending a few hours looking at pretty dresses, fashion display has certainly moved past that mindset.
Much was said about how to translate the behind the scenes research into a visual display. While it is always possible to just lay it all out in the display notes, once an exhibition designer gets too wordy, then I’ve noticed that people stop reading. What is more effective is for the exhibition designer to evoke a context to which the viewer can relate. The use of everything from props, hair and makeup, Mise-en-scène , and juxtapositions can add meaning without a word being written.
But to paraphrase Lou Taylor, it really all comes down to the garment itself. The exhibition rises or falls on the selection of what is shown.
Several of the speakers touched on the point that I always try to make, and that is an exhibition does not need to be a huge production designed to pull in massive crowds (that is, to generate a lot of income for the museum) in order to be a fantastic experience. The small and more intimate exhibition can lead to insights not possible when you are jostling for position with hundreds of other viewers.
I was hoping someone would mention the huge walls of mannequins, three and four tiers high, with dresses that are impossible to see past the basic silhouette and a bit of sparkle. Unfortunately, that practice is left to me to say just how much I hate this trend in fashion exhibition. As Lou Taylor said, it all comes down to the garment, so what’s the point if the garment can’t be properly seen.
A lot was said about museum exhibitions as entertainment, as opposed to the museum as a place of education. As a former educator, I can tell you that the two are not mutually exclusive, and several presenters made the same point. Yes, fashion exhibitions are entertainment, at least they are to me. At the same time, I love leaving an exhibition with a new insight or bit of knowledge.
Another point that was briefly hinted at was the fine line between getting a point across and beating the museum goers over the head with the point. The best example I’ve seen of going too far was the Met’s 2013 exhibition on Punk. I’ll not rehash it here, as I wrote a review. Still, I hate leaving an exhibition feeling battered.
If you only have time for some quick viewing, I suggest you look at Julia Petrov’s talk on the history of fashion display. It’s fascinating. It starts at 55 minutes into the symposium.