NEW YORK, United States — It was the legendary Diana Vreeland, former American Vogue editor and special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute from 1973 to 1987, who said successful fashion exhibitions needed to be experienced, not just seen. And indeed, the exhibitions she helped to stage at the museum, including “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design” and “The Glory of Russian Costume,” were experiential extravaganzas that drew large crowds and helped raise the profile of the Costume Institute’s annual benefit. In recent history, perhaps nowhere was Vreeland’s ethos more alive than in the Costume Institute’s 2011 blockbuster “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” a highly immersive exhibition that broke all previous attendance records, attracting 661,509 visitors over the course of three months.
This year, the Costume Institute’s increasingly lavish benefit — attended by leading fashion designers, models and A-list actresses — seemed to almost eclipse the exhibit, devoted to the anarchic movement known as punk. While the event received extensive media coverage, critical reception to the exhibition itself was decidedly mixed. Suzy Menkes called it “bloodless” and “dull,” while The New Yorker deemed it an “overwhelming failure.” But this hasn’t kept away a fashion-hungry public. According to figures supplied by the Met, "Punk: Chaos to Couture" attracted more than 170,000 visitors in its first month.
Good or bad, there’s no question that blockbuster fashion exhibitions are on the rise. Many are hopping their way around the globe, popping up outside the established fashion capitals of New York, London and Paris. A Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective, for example, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, has been touring the world since 2011 and has already made successful stops in Dallas, San Francisco and Rotterdam.
“The tourism boards of the cities that welcome these exhibitions put in an incredible budget to welcome these exhibition and to make sure that not just a local public, but people from all around the area are aware of the exhibition. So there is a whole promotional project that accompanies the exhibition, that is something that is very new, the equivalent of what impressionism shows were in the 1980s,” Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, told BoF. “It’s no longer just about an exhibit, but a cultural event. Cities are realising to what an extent it is a cultural event now and it brings together not only many generations of publics but also different types of socioeconomic visitors. So the fashion exhibition brings together a visitor pool that is very difficult to find in other domains, because it is very accessible.”
Indeed, thanks to fashion-focused reality shows, live-streamed catwalks and fast-fashion designer collaborations, what was once a closed fashion industry has become something of a mass consumer spectacle — an evolution that’s reflected everywhere from social media to the rise of blockbuster fashion exhibitions.
But how has the rising popularity of large-scale fashion exhibitions, like the Met’s annual mega-show, impacted smaller exhibitions, like “Front Row,” a show about American designers of Chinese descent, guest-curated by designer Mary Ping, or “When Fashion Danced,” an exhibition about the work of 1970s designer Stephen Burrows at the Museum of the City of New York?
“Having the blockbusters has raised everyone’s expectations of what a fashion show should be,” Valerie Steele, a fashion historian, curator, and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, told BoF. “It can no longer be just pretty dresses on mannequins; you have to have a good set, exciting technology, beautiful graphics, not to mention a great catalogue and a great public program to accompany the exhibit,” added Steele, who said attendance to the FIT museum had doubled in recent years.
“However, it’s problematic if it starts pushing museums to say ‘Ok, then we must do only shows about trendy fashion topics,’” Steele cautioned. “Being a small university museum, it’s difficult to get funding and the more innovative the show, the more resistant sponsors may be to funding it.”
Kenneth Ramaekers, director of Modemuseum Hasselt in Belgium, known for its specialised fashion exhibitions, expressed a similar frustration. “As a smaller venue, it is really difficult to get funding. It's mainly the bigger venues who get all the funding. They have bigger budgets and more staff but that doesn't necessarily mean that the quality of their exhibitions is better. It's pretty easy to find sponsors for exhibitions attached to well-known names, but the exhibitions where you do profound research and bring something new are difficult to fund,” Ramaekers continued. “Corporations who might fund you are mainly only interested in numbers: how much do you want us to fund and how many people you think you're going to reach with exhibition A or B. But the blockbuster shows also make fashion exhibitions more known and perhaps also appreciated by a bigger audience, so you get more people willing to visit smaller venues as well."
“There will always be different kinds of visitors. We have to cater to people who know absolutely nothing about fashion and to people who are very knowledgeable — professionals,” said Golbin of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile. “But anything that gets people to come and to bring their kids is good; their kids will grow up and eventually will bring their own kids, so coming generations will be raised feeling comfortable in a museum. Even if they just buy a postcard, they came in and that makes us happy.”
Tellingly, when visitors to the Kunsthal Rotterdam were recently invited to vote to help decide which of three potential shows the museum would host at the end of this year — a dinosaur show from London’s Natural History Museum, a show about Op Art painter Vasarely or Modemuseum Hasselt’s “In Her Shoes” — the most votes went to the fashion exhibition.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 12 June, 2013. An earlier version of this article misidentified the name of a show currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition's correct title is 'Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced.'