Alternative presentations of historical fashion
In 2010, when I saw the exhibition Fashioning Fashion, European Dress in Detail 1700-1915 at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA) towards the end of its run, I was saddened by the thought that I could not return to this exhibition. At the time I wrote that: This extraordinary display of garments and accessories spanning 1700 to 1915 is unparalleled in its importance to fashion history due to its breath, its quality and the excellent condition of the pieces. Included in the nearly 160 examples of fashionable dress, undergarments and accessories are a number of extremely rare pieces. And while the exhibition catalogue Fashioning Fashion illustrates each and every garment in the collection in lavish photographs, there is really nothing like being there to fully appreciate the workmanship in these garments and accessories. I never expected that I would be able to see these rare and beautiful pieces one more time.
Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris is the current host for this touring exhibition, which was also exhibited at the German Historical Museum in Berlin in 2012. Having the rare fortune of seeing the same garments exhibited in two different venues allowed me to compare and contrast the ways in which the design of an exhibition can alter the experience of seeing again the same collection of objects.
The most significant difference I noted was the curatorial presentation of the garments. At LACMA (and at the German Historical Museum), the garments were organized thematically into four sections: Timeline, Textiles, Tailoring, and Trim. At the Les Arts Décoratifs, the garments are presented chronologically. This curatorial change at Les Arts Décoratifs adds aesthetic harmony and an enhanced coherence to the presentation groupings, and makes it easier for students of costume history to appreciate the transformation of fashion over a period of more than two centuries.
Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote: Space is the breath of art. Whether we are aware of it or not, the quality of the space in an exhibition affects the placement of objects and in turn, our experience of the show. In the cavernous Resnick Pavillion at LACMA, the exhibition designers displayed the garments in gray cube-like “crates”, presenting them as if they had literally come out of the crate. They were also given an elevation. In the more intimate setting of the Les Arts Décoratifs, the garments were shown in clusters according to period behind glass and without elevation. This presentation at the level of the viewer did not distort the dimension of scale, giving a more accurate perception of the size of the original owner. Some garments that I remembered seeming larger than life in LA appeared to be far more delicate in the Paris presentation. In Paris I was also able to compare my body size to those on display. This experience of transference – when we ‘inhabit’ garments without actually trying the items on, comparing the relative size and scale of them to our own body – is what most of us do when we visit a fashion exhibition. We use our intuitive knowledge to assess the fit, proportion and styling of a garment on display and instinctively know whether we would want to wear it or not. In this case, the LACMA collection of pieces is so fine and so exquisitely beautiful that I dare say I would want to wear it all.
This is an exhibition that offers the viewer a close range look at important artifacts of costume history. If you cannot get to Paris to see the show, the next best thing would be to purchase a copy of the book, which is filled with sumptuous colour photos of the costumes along with numerous detail photos of the luxurious textiles, exacting tailoring techniques, and lush trimmings used during this period.
You can find out more about the Phenomena of Transference in research by Jules David Prown, Alexandra Palmer or Julia Petrov
Fashioning Fashion, European Dress in Detail 1700-1915
December 13, 2012 – April 14, 2013
Les Arts Décoratifs, 107, rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France
Phone: +33 (0)1 44 55 57 50
All images on slide show are courtesy of and copyright by Museum Associates/LACMA
You can read further insights from Ingrid Mida on her Blog: Fashion is my muse