Fashion Exhibitionism

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.


Filed under Museums

12 responses to “Fashion Exhibitionism

  1. All of your posts are so great because I always come away with something new! Thanks for sharing!


  2. jacq staubs

    before I attempt to view this – I already know – thanks to you – 55 minutes / 6 hours of anything is obnoxiously pretentious . Having been “educated” ( on the job training) in visual fashion merchandising ( my first)job at Garfinckel’s -displaying pretty dresses 5 days a week . The creative process could be explained effectively / interestingly in 20 minutes. The most interesting exhibition I ever seen was at the Victoria and Albert – “Tiara”. I went back twice. 600 years of British history . No symposium. Poor Diana Vreeland !


  3. Yes, about half of it was more theory based, and was a bit tedious.


  4. A few years ago, I was very fortunate to have seen the Edith Head exhibit in the very intimate Decorative Arts Building in Lancaster, Ohio. The original film costumes were on low pedestals with plenty of space so that one could walk 360 degree around a dress, and even bend down to see the hem stitching! Each outfit had a loop video playing that displayed a movie scene in which one could see the movement/draping of a costume in action. The walls were covered in quotations of actors/actresses describing Miss Head’s abilities. In short, an absolutely perfect venue in which to appreciate the craftsmanship of costume design. Intimate, well-lit, approachable, and informative. A true memory maker of a setting, and well worth the 680 miles my DH drove to get me there! That’s what love is all about, isn’t it?😉❤️


  5. Fashion is not my forte, but I attend quilt exhibition I can get to. I too get frustrated when a quilt is not displayed to its (and the viewer’s) advantage. And, although I am one to read every word (usually wanting more) on the display notes, I’m pretty sure most people’s eyes glaze over after the second sentence. But, I am thankful for any and all curators for getting the quilts out to the public. Thanks once again for a very informative post.


  6. Susan Maresco

    Right on, Lizzie. WHen Diana Vreeland was the costume curator at the Met Museum in NYC, she had the brilliant knack of making fashion and costume exhibits totally engaging and even thrilling. I saw at least three during her reign.


  7. Pingback: FIT in the News – March 19, 2019 – FIT Newsroom

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