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Colin’s Column | Are Fashion Exhibitions Measuring Up?

Valentino: Master of Couture | Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe
  • Colin McDowell

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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