Fashion brings in the crowds

A new article from The Independent states it simply: Fashion at the museum brings in the crowds. And again, Valerie Steele provides an explanation, namely accessibility: “People believe they are able to understand and appreciate fashion, whereas they are often unsure about contemporary or even historical art.” In other words, they probably follow the sentiment of Zandra Rhodes, fashion designer and founder of the Fashion and Textiles Museum: “To me, a dress that has been marvellously made has more value than an unmade bed with a lot of garbage round it.”.

So the good news is that there are more great fashion exhibitions on the horizon. What the article also made me realise, however, is that in order to secure a true blockbuster exhibition with maximum pazzaz, most museums seem to favour top couturists and luxury brands. Of course, I too would love to marvel at the work – or works, even – of Yves Saint Laurent, Schiaparelli, Gaultier and Hartnell. But by focusing on the story of the designer as creative genius, as artist, and by seeking to align fashion exhibitions with the fine art galleries, curators are also missing the opportunity to showcase the fascinating history and aesthetics of everyday dress and popular fashion, leaving this to the less highbrow cultural history museums.

Is this a ‘natural’ division? Or perhaps a sign that even though fashion may bring in the crowds, the shift towards a greater acceptance of fashion as an area of culture to be reckoned with and treated seriously, is still only partial?

Either way, by putting dreams on display rather than showcasing a recognisable reality of what the general public will wear and can afford, museums may find it harder to engage the audience in outreach projects or social interactions and knowledge sharing. After all, how many people can share their story of a favourite McQueen ballgown or a Stephen Jones headpiece? On the other hand, I’m not sure if Trapholt’s call for contributions to a recent exhibition on Margit Brandt really payed off either. And perhaps the flights of fancy provided by the creative elite may serve as a greater inspiration for DIY museum projects, such as V&A’s My Beautiful Paper Hat for the same Stephen Jones exhibition.

So really, one shouldn’t exclude the other. Indeed, why not combine the best of both, as in the upcoming Pop! exhibition at The Fashion and Textile Museum, where show pieces, high fashion and subculture styles will share the exhibition space.

Here’s hoping I’ll get to see some of it.


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