Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art

The American Folk Art Museum | January 21 – April 23, 2014

Fashion is cannibalistic. Guest curator Alexis Carreño takes this statement as the point of departure for the exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum. Folk Couture digests and appropriates the museum’s permanent collection and—discarding its obligation to function and form—creates works that are entirely new. This liberating proposition has prompted 13 fashion designers to create bespoke garments for this exhibition inspired by objects in the collection. Be it in a fabric’s pattern, the narrative intrigue behind an object, or the disembodiment and playfulness that this project allows, each designer has found something uniquely compelling about the collection to translate into new work.

Courtesy American Folk Art Museum. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

Taking from the symbolic pattern of a Quaker friendship quilt, tripartite designer threeASFOUR creates the “Amity Dress” a cage-like contraption that consists of three layers of patent leather polished off with Spandex mesh. Inspired by an 1844 quilt including the Jewish Star of David, which reflects the Quaker ethos of religious tolerance, the three designers merge the Jewish, Christian, as well as Islamic star to create a new pattern. It is the print, a creative feature often used to establish a brand, which transforms the designer’s work from commercial to folk. The end product is a remarkable tiling of religious motifs rich with symbolic power and appearing almost “branded” with star-spangled iconography.

Courtesy American Folk Art Museum. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

Women’s luxury designer Bibhu Mohapatra, on the other hand, takes to a sketchbook of maritime tattoos. Surfacing in the waterproof pages of a ship’s log, these illustrations functioned as a portable reference for tattoo samples, which the anonymous owner could presumably etch onto to his fellow seamen. Mohapatra projects his own narrative onto the sketches envisioning the solitary life of an alienated sailor as an outsider artist. He remarks, “the tattoo book basically is the only sort of interaction he has in the sea, which is a big vast wall of emptiness and solitude.” Propped open, the book depicts a reclining man on board a ship. The woman he dreams of is shown on the ship’s sails—present in his imagination only. From this narrative, Mohapatra leaves us with a fleur-de-lis lace bodysuit outlining the black indelible ink on a sailor’s body. Draped over the mannequin is a cerulean organza sash that creates an illusion of fluidity and buoyancy while embracing the female figure. Only in this unique locus of folk couture can the designer give symbolic meaning and function to the wearer of his garment—she becomes the sea bride.

Courtesy American Folk Art Museum. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

Up until this point, the segments of Carreno’s exhibition very much correspond to fashion vernacular—pattern, a template used to create a vast amount of identical garments, and narrative, clothing either derived from a story or to simply dramatize one (costume being the primary example). Ronaldus Shamask and John Bartlett depart entirely from this terminology in the exhibition’s “disembodiment” chapter as they play with function and wearability. Both of these designers separate the body from the garment—a counterintuitive practice for their industry. Shamask was struck by the power and simplicity of James Castle’s work—a self-taught outsider artist from rural Idaho whose body of work consists of “found objects” Incorporating the earnest, “multipurpose” facet of Castle’s work into his pieces, Shamask constructs sheer dresses with sharp kimono sleeves that appear and function as kites as they are strung from the museum’s ceiling. John Bartlett, on the other hand, constructed a bespoke quilted jumpsuit of “fairytale proportions”—standing 10 feet tall and as green as Jack’s beanstalk. Inspired by an anonymously crafted wooden figure of a slender rural farmer, Bartlett’s jumpsuit also hangs dramatically from wall to ceiling. The disembodied presentation of this piece (finding an appropriately shaped mannequin would be a challenge) gives Bartlett the opportunity to construct something elongated and extravagant—a demand not often made in menswear. For viewers walking past what resembles a hanged, invisible giant, the effect is surreal but compelling. Folk Couture has departed from its haute progenitor.

Courtesy American Folk Art Museum. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

In his seminal essay “Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection,” Herbert Blumer argues fashion is a mechanism that is generated by the needs, but more often tastes, of a consumer society. These collective demands are not only competitive but also ephemeral—fashion is perpetually in a state of accelerated evolution, constantly reevaluating itself as it discards and appropriates trends. This rapid circuit of natural selection is akin to the cannibalistic qualities that Carreño acknowledges in this exhibit. But Blumer’s social demands cease to exist in the realm of “Folk Couture.” Liberated from mechanistic function, these designers were given a unique opportunity to showcase their commercial skills while engaging in non-exploitative dialogue with these powerful objects of American identity. This innocence is a primary tenet of folk art—as fashion divorces itself from function, these newly designed garments simply become a celebration of the imagination, an earnest undertaking producing complex and absorbing work.

2 Lincoln Square // NY, NY 10023


Oona Haas

Oona Haas studies English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.


MAR 2014

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