Friday, June 25, 2010

To exhibit or not to exhibit... fashion

by Nadia Buick

 Australian Made: 100 Years of Fashion at the NGV

 A few weeks ago there was a small article in The Australian by Michaela Boland titled ‘Frocks finally taken seriously’ about fashion exhibitions in museums such as the NGV and NGA. A friend actually clipped it out and saved it for me because this is one of my key areas of interest. In fact, when I began my PhD at the start of 2009, the relationship between fashion and the museum was at the very centre of my research. As is inevitable with postgraduate studies, your interests often shift slightly as you go along and stumble upon more interesting and unexamined questions. Nevertheless, I’m still very invested in the unending debate about whether fashion belongs in the museum. It seems to me to be just one of countless debates that have surrounded fashion for a long time. It’s also intrinsically linked to debates concerning art and fashion. I think the reason many people think that fashion shouldn’t be in the museum is because many people think fashion isn’t art. And perhaps that’s a point for another post, but needless to say, I don’t think that stating that fashion isn’t art necessarily means it should thus be excluded from the museum.

But back to the Australian article. Like I said, it’s quite short, and its context is decidedly a local one, but it really encapsulates the attitude towards fashion in the museum at this moment in Australia. We’re seeing more fashion exhibitions and there seems to be a higher frequency of large, international exhibitions of fashion coming from institutions such as the V&A. While the NGV and NGA have had curatorial departments for many years concentrating on textiles and fashion, along with having significant collections of fashion (the NGV is the strongest example), other national galleries seem to be taking the leap towards fashion too. The Queensland Art Gallery/GoMA has had two major fashion exhibitions in the last twelve months, with a third, the biggest (Valentino), opening in August, making it three. The first was Easton Pearson, which was curated by GoMA, but the others, (Hats: an anthology by Stephen Jones, and Valentino) have come from major international institutions. So QAG/GoMA is an interesting one to watch. Director Tony Ellwood clearly believes that fashion does belong in the museum, but how that will eventuate as part of a permanent program or even department is still unknown.  It would be easy to argue that, as Suzy Menkes pointed out years ago, fashion is simply the new blockbuster museum exhibition. So perhaps directors such as Ellwood are using fashion as a guaranteed crowd pleaser, rather than displaying any real commitment to the field in the form of setting up a department, for instance. I do get the feeling that the fashion exhibition waters are still being tested here in Brisbane.

Tony Ellwood and Stephen Jones at the Hats opening

And of course, as the Australian article pointed out, not all of the national galleries are on board. Edmund Capon, the longstanding director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales is steadfastly opposed to fashion exhibitions (despite his penchant for historic costume from Asia). Capon was quoted as saying “the only thing about fashion is that it goes out of fashion,” which seems remarkably naïve, and frankly, insulting to institutions whose sole focus is costume and fashion. But Capon’s comment is a reminder of the hostility that does exist towards fashion, even as it seems the tide may have turned; I fear the debate may never be completely over. 

What I do think naysayers like Capon are unaware of, and what someone like Tony Ellwood is hyper aware of, is that fashion does function completely differently to other objects in the museum, and therein lies its value. The job of a good gallery director is to understand what the audience will gain from a particular exhibition, and what fashion provides over any exhibition of art (no matter how popular or blockbuster a show) is a feeling of approachability. I guarantee you will never see a wider cross-section of people at an art gallery as when there is a fashion exhibition. People feel entitled to an opinion of fashion in a way that many don’t when it comes to art. Regardless of how accessible museums are today, art retains its air of elitism (which many prefer) and in turn it can ostracise entire sections of the population from ever stepping foot in their local gallery or museum (although maybe not in the instance of the current Ron Mueck exhibition at GoMA...). In my experience, fashion breaks down these barriers. As a fashion curator, this is something I’ve witnessed firsthand. But, it’s not as easy as simply putting some clothes in a gallery space. There are a whole range of display issues that arise, and this is perhaps my new area of research. But I’ll save that for another day. For now, go and see Stephen Jones’ and the V&A’s wonderful Hats exhibition before it closes this weekend at the Queensland Art Gallery. And if you’re in Melbourne, Australian Made: 100 Years of Fashion has just opened at the NGV.


Anonymous said...

oh those naysayers!

Guru Bob said...

Bendigo Art Gallery (Tony Elwood's old workplace) has been running a series of international fashion exhibition over the past couple of years which they have sourced from the V&A museum in the Uk and have attracted record numbers of visitors there.