For at least two centuries, fashion designers and art practitioners have merged fashion and art in glamorous crossovers and dazzling collaborations. 

In the first installment of a three-part series, Art Radar brings you a brief history of the fashion exhibition and highlights three shows that explore, exploit and actively evolve the complex relationship between fashion and art in Asian contexts. 

John Galliano for House of Dior, fall/winter 1997–98. Photography by Nick Knight. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Nick Knight / Trunk Archive.

John Galliano for House of Dior, fall/winter 1997–98. Photography by Nick Knight. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Nick Knight / Trunk Archive.

The fashion exhibition

When two worlds meet

There are two contrasting views towards the marriage of art and fashion. On the one hand, purist art lovers eschew the fickle and commercial world of fashion. A 2013 article in The Wall Street Journal says:

We think of art appreciation as erudite, but an interest in fashion is considered airheaded. When an art-lover buys art, it’s called ‘collecting’. When a fashion enthusiast buys clothing, it’s called ‘shopping’. Art is supposed to be timeless and important, while fashion is understood to be ephemeral and frivolous.

On the other hand, some believe that the worlds of art and fashion are more similar than previously imagined. “Fashion is as enduring as art for what it might tell us about history and how it might describe the zeitgeist”, says Alison Kubler, co-author of Art/Fashion in the 21st Century (2013). The sentiment is echoed in the blurb of Fashion and Art (2012), a book that established the term ‘art-fashion’ as a discrete area of study:

Both fashion and art construct imaginary worlds, and use a language of style to invigorate beliefs, perceptions and ideas.

Fashion enters the museum

Regardless of the differing views, it is an undeniable fact that art and fashion frequently cross paths today. From designer-artist collaborations to wearable art, and from fashion photography to the high-fashion parties that accompany art fairs, the spheres of fashion and art are intricately intertwined.

Fashion received its official status as a legitimatised fine art form when museums began to pay attention – when major art institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Musée de la Mode et du Textile at the Louvre in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London began to host exhibitions that forged a new genre of fashion visual culture.

The first exhibition to present current fashions – rather than historic costumes – was the groundbreaking Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Met in 1983. The show was curated by Diana Vreeland, legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, whose subsequent shows, according to Artspace,

succeeded in abolishing the aura of antiquarianism previously associated with costume display and became the most influential examples of an emergent genre.

John Galliano for House of Dior, fall/winter 1997–98. Photograph by Chris Moore. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

John Galliano for House of Dior, fall/winter 1997–98. Photograph by Chris Moore. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Controversies and cultural statements

Fashion exhibitions abound today; according to Artspace they are now “a staple of major museums’ programming”. Such shows attract record levels of attendance despite criticisms from art purists. New Republic describes them as “giant shows of questionable relevance, which seem to bring in the crowds regardless of quality”. Merits of the exhibitions aside, conservatives also grumble that shows sponsored by fashion brands compromise the public-ness of institutions and the world of art itself.

In response, Markus Brüderlin, Director of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany, has argued that fashion in museums provide a statement about our culture. He declared:

A museum pointing the way ahead in the search for Modernism in the twenty first century cannot ignore fashion.

Meanwhile, Massimiliano Gioni, curator of the 55th Venice Biennale, says that support provided by fashion foundations plays a crucial role in the art world. Gioni was quoted by Business of Fashion as saying:

In Italy in particular, certain fashion foundations have basically had to take on the role of public institutions and museums. […] For more than a decade a lot of the most ambitious public exhibitions of contemporary art in Milan have been organised and produced by fashion brands.

Asian-themed exhibitions

Perhaps fashion exhibitions can escape such controversies by focusing not on on the brand, but on fashion’s social and historical implications. The following three exhibitions, featuring historical and current Asian designers, attempt to do exactly this. While Asian-themed fashion exhibitions are still less common than their Western counterparts, these thoughtfully curated shows succeed in standing out from the crowd.

1. Material Translations: Japanese Fashion | Art Institute of Chicago (2012)

This 2012 exhibition was an iconic show held two years ago that traced the influence of Japanese designers in the 1980s through the 2000s. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition marked several milestones:

The first time pieces from the School’s Fashion Resource Center [were] shown in public and the first time contemporary fashion [was] presented within the museum’s Asian Art galleries. It’s also the first true collaboration between the Fashion Resource Center and the Art Institute […].

One classic example from the collaborative exhibition is Rei Kawakubo’s 1983 sack dress that characterised the aesthetic of poverty, “concealing, not revealing, the female form in muted color”. Issey Miyake took a similar disregard for conventional silhouettes; his now familiar Pleats Please collection dressed the female form in origami inspired shapes of crisp pleatingTime Magazine wrote that Kawakubo and Miyake’s avant-garde creations revolutionised clothing by blurring the line between fashion and art.

Installation view of ‘The Future of Fashion is Now’ (2014) with the work on the right hand side of the photograph by Japanese designer Pyuupiru. Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn. Image courtesy the designer and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Installation view of “The Future of Fashion is Now” (2014). Work on the right by Japanese designer Pyuupiru. Photo by Aad Hoogendoorn. Image courtesy the designer and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

2. The Future of Fashion is Now | Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2014)

In contrast to the historical Japanese show, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s “The Future of Fashion is Now” (2014) is a uniquely contemporary affair. Curated by Dutch writer and art collector Han Nefkens, the exhibition showcases the most innovative visions by young designers from all over the world. It actively seeks out designers with non-Western backgrounds, invites them to take a critical view of the current fashion system and challenges them to come up with cutting-edge solutions.

Installation view of ‘The Future of Fashion is Now’ (2014) with the work on the left hand side of the photograph by Rejina Pyo. Photo by Nieuwe Beelden Makers. Image courtesy the designer and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam.

Installation view of “The Future of Fashion is Now” (2014). Work on the left by Rejina Pyo. Photo by Nieuwe Beelden Makers. Image courtesy the designer and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam.

Rejina Pyo from South Korea, for example, explores the relationship between fashion and sculptural art with her Perspex and metal dresses. Wang Lei from China makes traditional Chinese costumes from woven toilet tissue, and Pyuupiru from Japan creates hand-knitted garbs that free the wearer from the normal restrictions of the human body. Ultimately, the show seeks to

connect and celebrate young fashion designers/artists around the world and, as such […] work towards defining a new system of fashion.

The exhibition runs at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, until 18 January 2015.

Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, fall/winter 2004–5. Photograph by Marcio Madeira. Image Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and firstVIEW.

Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, fall/winter 2004–5. Photograph by Marcio Madeira. Image Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and firstVIEW.

3. China: Through the Looking Glass | Metropolitan Museum of Art (2015)

Finally, this much anticipated show at the Met in New York is an ambitious, cross-disciplinary exploration of how imagery from China inspired fashion designers from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent. “China: Through the Looking Glass” (2015), hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a collaborative effort between the Museum’s Costume Institute and the Department of Asian Art that

explore[s] how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries, resulting in highly creative distortions of cultural realities and mythologies.

Film Still from 'In the Mood for Love' (2000). Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Block 2 Pictures Inc.

Film Still from ‘In the Mood for Love’ (2000). Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Block 2 Pictures Inc.

The exhibition will be presented in the Museum’s Chinese Galleries and Anna Wintour Costume Center. Featuring more than one hundred examples of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear alongside Chinese art, the show juxtaposes high fashion with Chinese costumes, paintings and porcelains. Furthermore, filmic representations of China are also incorporated to reveal how our visions of China are framed by narratives that draw on popular culture.

The exhibition will run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 7 May to 16 August 2015. 

Next in this series

In the second installment of this three-part series, Art Radar introduces 8 defining collaborations between Asian artists and designers.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: art and fashion, museum shows, events in New York

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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