Colin’s Column | Are Fashion Exhibitions Measuring Up?

Valentino Garavani at Somerset House | Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for Somerset House

LONDON, United Kingdom — Did the world stop? Did it move? Were we changed? Did fashion leap into the public consciousness as a result of the 2010 Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which broke a number of records, not least in sales from the gift shop?

I would answer in the negative. The Alexander McQueen exhibition was about tragedy, darkness, drama, fame, notoriety and even horror much more than it was about clothes. Had McQueen died differently, or not died at all, would there have been crowds queuing around the block? And what would they have been hoping to see?

Despite exaggerated claims for its importance, the fact is that fashion itself is of little interest to most women in the world and hardly exists as a concept at all for most men. Hence the expression ‘Planet Fashion,’ meaning somewhere other, a place without any connection to Earth. Never was more apt an appellation coined. Planet Fashion is of no more interest to the majority of people than the furthest reaches of the Solar System.

Indeed, for the most part, the hoards we thought would need us have not materialised. Fashion is about hysteria. It requires the wilful suspension of disbelief. And the majority of people are simply too phlegmatic to be taken in by either. But still we try to annex their interest. Fashion magazines are tried and tested catalysts. Yet the truth is that they are only read by a pathetically small segment of the world’s total population.

Maybe future hope does, in fact, lie with exhibitions. This Christmas, London, with three fashion exhibitions currently on show, is a good place to put this idea to the test.

“Valentino: Master of Couture,” at Somerset House until 3 March, is devoted to fashion old-timer Valentino, one of the last couturiers who is actually a couturier, having been trained in Paris by designers such as Jean Desses at the very beginning of his career. The exhibition is a retrospective and a comprehensive one at that. It shows clearly why Valentino survived for so long. Firstly, in his entire designing career, he never once developed an original idea. That is not an insult or meant to denigrate Valentino’s achievement. Rather, he never forgot the women who were his customers. He never forgot that most of them want, not originality, but glamour (which is never trail-blazing and always retrospective). Indeed, we all know the reason for Valentino’s success: give the clients what they want and they always come back for more. This exhibition shows Valentino doing just that by creating his own response to their needs. You won’t come away from this exhibition buzzing with ideas, but you will remember it for its overview of evolving taste over the last sixty years, warts and all.

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, through 6 January 2013, we have “Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 19050,” which is a very different story. If ever an exhibition looked penny-pinching and opportunistic, this is it. There is no joy, personality or life in this extraordinarily banal collection of largely characterless ball gowns. The sad thing is that the lack of any great creations on show probably reflects less on the curators of today than the V&A’s buying policies of the past. I suspect that really great ball gowns simply do not exist in the archive, but if they do and were not chosen, somebody should be taken to task for not choosing them. Of course, as this exhibition was conceived as a tribute to the Queen’s Jubilee last summer, there are only London-based designers on show. But, even so, there are too few pieces by Hartnell and Amies and far too many names that you won’t find in any history of London fashion because they were nonentities.

The other fashion exhibition currently up at the V&A is much more promising. “Hollywood Costume,” until 27 January 2013, is what a didactic exhibit should be. No, let’s modify that. It has all the elements that an exhibition needs to be an authentic teaching and learning experience. But they are not presented in the right way.

Walk into the first of the three large rooms that hold the exhibition is very much like stepping into a souk at night. Hundreds of shadowy figures (this is proving to be a very popular exhibition), mostly elderly, are stumbling around in the gloom trying to get hold of a storyline. They are wasting their time. What distinguishes this exhibition is the fact that, like a souk, there is no coherent pattern or trail to follow.

So, it’s a badly organised exhibition. But what of the exhibits? Full marks on that. The breadth of content transcends the confusion. But, in the final analysis, any exhibition about Hollywood costume has to be measured against Diana Vreeland’s trail-blazing 1974 exhibition, “Hollywood Design.” In comparison, the V&A’s “Hollywood Costume,” although extremely entertaining and very much worth seeing, is an exhibition without the movement and joie de vivre of its great predecessor, which is still the benchmark. In fact, what made “Hollywood Design” so uplifting an experience was the spirit of the singular woman who curated it. Perhaps this is something the V&A should ponder.

Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion

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  1. Mr. McDowell has nailed the problem with fashion exhibitions done by too many curators (but not all) who have grown up in the era of clothes as entertainment, created by designers more skilled at self-promotion than exceptional apparel design. Such curators seem clueless about the artistic and intellectually interesting reasons for dressing well as part of one’s daily life. They also seem uneducated about why such clothes deserve recognition for design, workmanship, fabric, cut, fit and originality — not to mention the relationship of the clothes to the culture of the era. Proof: In every exhibition there is rarely information about the piece itself on the captions, only the date and who donated it, ignoring the opportunity to educate the public about what, why and how. Clothing is art and craft expressing identity for real people, not primarily theatrical costume for actors. Bravo to Mr. McDowell for reminding the museum world of its fundamental purpose.

  2. It’s always such a shame to see a fashion exhibit go awry, or fail to adequately display the quality of the pieces in it. I’ve seen some breathtaking ones over the years, including the V&A Westwood show and the JPG at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. But others have fallen flat – the YSL retrospective comes to mind.

    Yes, technically the display of the pieces may be correct (hanging, lighting, labelling) but without an overall atmosphere and theme to the show to support them, they look rather lost.


  3. Of course you cannot please everyone!

    I like to mix it up! being based in London means I can easily attend cutting graduate shows together with traditional fashion exhibition from the likes of Valentino.