What is fashion's role in culture?


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I recently realized that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, possibly the greatest museum in the world, has put clothes not only literally but figuratively on a pedestal. It’s interesting to think that crowds that once exclaimed over artifacts exhumed from King Tut’s tomb now gawk at dresses extracted from deceased socialite Nan Kempner’s closet.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. I love clothes and am always interested in looking at them (though, to be honest, I prefer wearing them). But I am fascinated by the phenomenon of how fashion in the past decade or so has been elevated to the highest reaches of cultural respectability.

Arguably, this can be traced back to changes in the nature of the museum itself back in the late 1960s, when it became less fusty and high-brow and more desirous of courting the masses. The Met was at the vanguard under the directorship of Thomas Hoving, who served from 1967 to 1977 and pioneered the trend of blockbuster shows, high-profile acquisitions, and expanded museum shops. Hoving hired Diana Vreeland, Vogue editor, as costume consultant in 1972, and she retained this position until her death in 1989. The idea that a Vogue editor would serve as a consultant to a great museum itself defined a sea change in the cultural climate. Vreeland took full advantage of her role, helping to mount large-scale thematic shows such as “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design” (1974) and “The Glory of Russian Costume” (1976). After her death, the tradition continued with shows on underwear (“Infra-Apparel,” 1993, and Eastern-inspired fashion (“Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress,” 1994), this, piggy-backing in title if not in spirit on Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, which was still the rage in academic circles 15 years after its publication. The museum also presented a series of exhibitions hyping the artistic vision of well-known individual designers such as Dior and Versace, a trend that began with Vreeland’s blockbuster show on Balenciaga.

Yet all this was prologue to the dramatic explosion of sartorial appreciation that the museum has launched in the 21st century under costume curator-in-charge Harold Koda and curator Andrew Bolton. Their shows include “Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed” (2002), ‘“Goddess” (2003), “Men in Skirts” (2003), “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century” (2004), and most notably, “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (2010-11). Now, there is “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” Judging by the crush that greeted me at a recent visit, the museum would do well to extend the run, as it did with the McQueen exhibit.

What is clear from all this is that clothes at the Met now mean more than themselves. It’s not about the clothes to wear anymore; it’s about what the clothes you wear mean. The costume collection, as it was known, was once consigned to the basement, geared unabashedly to the ladies, and relatively straightforward in its approach to designers and periods. Now, it has burst the constraints of its form and mutated into dramatic, surreal spectacles. Why is this and what does this mean?

I can begin by invoking that most fail-safe of explanations: “It’s postmodern.” Postmodernism, which admittedly has the virtue of encompassing anything hard to define, involves contravening established conventions and expectations. In architecture, where the movement was originally and most literally defined, it was a matter of using the past without concern for consistency of style or period. Thus a Greco-Roman portal could be combined with a modernist glass box and decorated with a bit of rococo molding. Postmodernism here is pastiche; it is using the past in quotation marks. In literature, postmodernism tends to be defined more negatively or, perhaps one could say, more philosophically. The critic Frederic Jameson has called it “a skepticism towards meta-narratives”—  which is to say, a puncturing of whatever may pretend to be universal or absolute. Thus Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest ceases to be a figure of god-like knowledge and authority and becomes a mere colonial imperialist, an oppressor of the native inhabitant of the island Caliban. This reading expands to encompass Prospero’s creator, who ceases to be the great bard of civilization and becomes instead the repository of philosophical biases and economic interests associated with Western culture (It is harder, to be sure, to reduce the actual poetry this way — though I’m sure there are papers to be written about the Svengali-effects of iambic pentameter). In fine art, borrowing from both arenas, postmodernism is about crossing all possible boundaries while also indulging in what I would call “aesthetic pragmaticism:” using what is saleable, cool, or new and then discarding it when it is no longer saleable, cool, or new. This is a good definition of fashion with its reliance on seasonal change and shifting fads, and hence is a long way around to explaining why fashion has become the consummate expression of postmodern art.

The Met demonstrates how fully this idea has been adopted at the highest cultural levels. Fashion exhibits like that on Alexander McQueen and Schiaparelli and Prada are now major attractions, not peripheral or trivial like the old costume exhibits, because of, rather than despite, the fact that they blur the boundary between high-brow and low, enduring and ephemeral, mind and body, vanity and philosophy, and art and commerce. They glory in the confusion, rather than try to hide or rationalize it. If there were meta-narratives once separating these categories, they have been gleefully jettisoned.

Indeed, what is most striking in the current Schiaparelli-Prada exhibit is not the evolution in the look of the clothes that has occurred from the one designer to the other. In many cases, it would be difficult to distinguish the 1936 design from the 2010. Both designers dabble in gold embroidery, both are into unusual appliqués, both use materials and motifs that thumb their noses at conventional aesthetic ideas about what a fashionable garment should look like. At one point in the exhibit, a line of Schiaparelli hats are arranged above a line of Prada shoes, and we see how similar their fantasiste sensibilities are. The weird accoutrements and shapes to the hats are echoed in the elaborate cut-outs, filigree, and odd heel formations of the shoes. Yet the point here is also to show the difference in focus: hats (heads?) were more early-20th century, while shoes (feet?) are presumably more 21st. The same is true in the arrangement of jackets and skirts: Schiaparelli, designing in a café society, as the copy tells us, concentrates on jackets which present the upper body; Prada, designing at a time when the lower portion of the female body is a subject of contention, concentrates more on skirts. At least that seems to me to be one of the many points that the curators are folding into this ambitiously idea-ridden show.

The larger point is that what distinguishes the two designers is the philosophical position they espouse and which frames and contextualizes their work. Both of these women were born in Italy to well-to-do families, and both were drawn to fashion as a rebellious form of creative expression. Yet they diverge insofar as this expression is allied with their particular cultural moments.  Schiaparelli chose to be a fashion designer but worked tirelessly to make fashion into art, breaking taboos of conventional dressmaking and collaborating with artists such as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Said Schiaparelli: “Had I not by pure chance become a maker of dresses,[I could have become ]a sculptor.”

Prada, by contrast, is perfectly happy to embrace the commercial aspect of her work and to make it part of her aesthetic philosophy. “I’ve never wanted to be an artist. I’ve never wanted to be called an artist. The term seems old-fashioned. It’s a term that does not relate to modern times. And it’s too confining. What I love about fashion is it’s accessibility and it’s democracy. Everyone wears it, and everyone relates to it,” she said. She is not trying to wrench fashion into the realm of art but, in conventional postmodern fashion (to adopt terms rarely yoked together), to glory in the fact that the two are no longer distinct categories, that one can play happily within both — which is, I should note, convenient if you want to call yourself democratic and charge thousands of dollars for your dresses. The same is true of Prada’s championship of ugly chic. Who, one wonders, are the people willing to spend a fortune to look unattractive (even if in a powerful way)? They are either very sophisticated or very subservient to name-branding  — or perhaps they are both since, if we are exploding meta-narratives, why choose between the two?

The difference within similarity that characterizes Schiaparelli and Prada lies behind the inspired idea of staging a literal as well as a metaphorical conversation between the two designers. The idea was borrowed from a 1930s series of “impossible interviews” in Vanity Fair (one of which was between Schiaparelli and Stalin). Central to the Met exhibit is a film by Baz Luhrmann (director of that pastiche of all pastiches, Moulin Rouge). Luhrmann has Miuccia Prada in conversation with a quasi-fictionalized Elsa Schiaparelli. I say “quasi-fictionalized” because, though the character is played by the actress Judy Davis and speaks as though in response to Prada, her lines have been culled from actual statements she made or wrote. This mash-up of real and fictional in this virtual encounter would make filmmaker Oliver Stone proud.

The show’s execution falls short of its ambitious conception. The space is too crowded, even before the crowds make it even harder to navigate. Mirrors are poorly placed and create unwanted reflections. The juxtaposition of the Prada and Schiaparelli garments is not as crisp as it might be. The bits of film and wall copy compete confusingly with the real and photographic presentation of the clothes. The effect can be headache-inducing. Still, when you see a life-sized photograph of the Duchess of Windsor wearing Schiaparelli’s lobster dress that has its hem waving gently in the breeze via computer animation, you have to admire the fecund imagination behind the show. The curators had ideas — too many perhaps and not as sorted as one might like, but, hey, that’s postmodernism for you. • 8 August 2012


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.