Does Fashion Belong in a Museum?
Fashion is beautiful, has cultural significance and is a hub of creative experimentation. But is it art?
There is a torrent of color. A rainbow of hues. A virtual ode to pink. The most striking aspect of the Isaac Mizrahi exhibition, on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through to August 7, is the fashion designer's effusive embrace of orange, grass green, teal and, of course, pink.
Before visitors get to the clothes, the sketches or the videos detailing Mizrahi's success, which most will recall as a starring role in Unzipped, they are introduced to his nearly obsessive desire to collect every possible hue in the rainbow in bits of wool, silk and cotton. Examples of his fabric-swatch collection, which he neatly stores in slim boxes, are tacked to the walls of the exhibition's opening gallery. The effect is akin to walking into a room-size kaleidoscope, and the inevitable response is emotional rather than intellectual. The color makes you smile.
Is that reason enough for a museum to mount Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History? Does that make it art?
The Mizrahi show arrives at the same time as a new documentary about a blockbuster fashion exhibition, as well as another new upcoming costume installation in the works, and all three make arguments about why fashion is embraced by museums: It is beautiful. It has cultural significance. It is a hub of creative experimentation. But is fashion art? The answer is, perhaps: It doesn't matter.
Mizrahi began his fashion career in 1987 when he launched his namesake brand and began to delight audiences with a host of innovations that only now, all these years later, serve as evidence of just how prescient he was. Mizrahi mixed his lavishly embroidered, high-end creations with simple T-shirts and inexpensive sweaters that he created for Target.
Today it's common for fancy designers to create one-off collections for mass marketers. But at the time when Mizrahi did it, designing for a lowbrow retailer was viewed as perilous - a move that would surely peel away the gloss from the runway collection and lead to a designer being cast out of fashion's inner circle. Instead, Mizrahi enlarged that circle.
Before Miguel Adrover made frocks from discarded mattresses and Vetements made DHL T-shirts chic, Mizrahi was inspired by freight elevator pads, re-creating them in silk and stitching them into an evening gown. He stared down political correctness with his totem-pole dress - a postmodern, hand-embroidered celebration of multiculturalism that today would surely churn up cries of appropriation.
There are ballgowns in bright blue lumberjack plaid and his "Baby Bjorn" ballgown - a full-skirted red satin dress that comes with a matching baby carrier. There are wry jokes and elegant nods to pragmatism, but mostly the exhibition celebrates the pleasure of clothes, and that is enough to sustain a visitor through a handful of galleries punctuated by Mizrahi's charming sketches and snippets of his cameos on television and in film.
Maybe that's enough. If Jeff Koons' Puppy, a giant terrier made of flowers, evoking more joy than gravitas, can land in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, there's no reason Mizrahi can't qualify for museum status.
The subject of The First Monday in May is the lead-up to the annual Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are astonishingly beautiful garments, but the essence of the film, which opened last week, is how it chronicles the physical labor and the mental fortitude that were required to mount China: Through the Looking Glass, which set a new bar for the number of visitors to one of the museum's fashion exhibitions.
While it also explored the planning for the accompanying gala, with all the stresses of seating charts and high-maintenance guests - at least one of whom tends to spend too much time on his cellphone at such events - the heart of the film is curator-in-charge Andrew Bolton, who lovingly and a bit obsessively tends to the clothes and navigates museum politics and cultural land mines.
The intellectually compelling film explores the museum's uncomfortable relationship with fashion. But instead of making a dogged argument that fashion is art, it focuses on the power of fashion to unite two disparate cultures - China and the West, whose designers are inspired by the fables, cliches and romance of a country some of them barely know. Museums are a home for cultural debate, that much is certain, and fashion is portrayed as a facilitator of it.
Bolton will once again position fashion in a wider context with the upcoming Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology, which opens to the public May 5. It will explore the tension between garments made by hand and those made by machine, between haute couture and ready-to-wear. Which is better?
"Proponents of the hand see it as symbolic of exclusivity, spontaneity and individuality, while opponents see it as symbolic of elitism, the cult of personality, and a detrimental nostalgia for past craftsmanship," Bolton remarked earlier this year during a preview of the exhibition. "Proponents of the machine see it as symbolic of progress, democracy and mass production, while opponents see it as symbolic of inferiority, dehumanization and one-dimensionality."
The goal will be to envision the ways in which man and machine work jointly: solving problems, improving design and moving the fashion conversation forward. No wonder that Apple, which forever altered how humans interact, is sponsoring the exhibition.
Some of the garments are breathtaking. Others are unnerving. Some of them, such as those by Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, are both. She is best known for her use of 3-D printing and her ability to capture our biology and our humanity in silicone, latex and plastic.
Museums have come to love fashion exhibitions. They draw crowds, attracted by the clothes' beauty, as well as their emotional accessibility. After all, we don't just admire or discuss fashion. We wear it. Manus x Machina will test whether audiences feel as profound a connection to an exhibition that questions the importance of the human touch in shaping the clothes that, in turn, help us define ourselves. Fashion may - or may not - be art, but that might also be too narrow a characterization.