Last weekend, I went to see Damien Chazelle’s delightful La La Land. At the cinema, I had to pass two large vitrines displaying slightly retro garments. One case held a yellow jersey dress and a pair of brown-and-white wing bucks; the other a man’s shirt, tie, and trousers, with an identical pair of shoes. Between the cases stood life-size pasteboard versions of the film’s stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, frozen in a moment of exuberant dance and wearing the very outfits from the vitrines.
The film’s promoters were borrowing from the world of fashion exhibitions, which often position garments in glass cases alongside paintings or photographs of people wearing them. Such curatorial practice is meant to add context, offering a way to imagine how garments were worn. What was the point in this case though? The clothes were clearly copies of the film’s costumes, not originals. They held no particular historic or artistic significance.
These costumes were three-dimensional invitations, enticements for moviegoers to project their bodies imaginatively into the film’s romance, to fantasize about wearing that dress or those shoes, while dancing with Emma or Ryan. They were invitations into the seductive fiction of a film whose subject is, in fact, the seductive fiction of (old Hollywood, musical) films. The fashion display was there to provoke identification and desire, which is often also its role in the world of “high” art.
Fashion was born, precisely, from such desire. Historians date the origin of fashion to the late 15th century, when mechanically reproduced fashion plates introduced the possibility of seeing styles worn by faraway people one could never otherwise encounter. When fashion plates began circulating in Renaissance Europe, they gave rise to a new desire: to look like—to dress like—a picture. Fashion created then a splitting of the self, the opening of a gap between one’s current self and a future self who will resemble an image. Fashion, as Roland Barthes wrote, “brings a dream of identity.”1 When fashion enters the realm of visual art, this “dream of identity” is incorporated along with it—sometimes very profitably. In the museum world, we see this on a vast scale in the way the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute routinely yokes its biggest exhibition of the year to a lavish, star-studded gala. Celebrities trump art of course, and the gala easily outstrips the museum’s exhibition in influence and visibility. Press photos from the event flash instantly around the world, provoking waves of desire for the glamour and beauty of the attendees, and by extension, for their clothes—resulting in the fabrication of countless knockoffs. And since gala attire is usually related to the exhibition, the knockoffs then echo the fashions displayed within the Met’s marble walls. This round robin of art, pop culture, and desire offers a perfect example of how museums use fashion to raise their own profiles, cultivate donors, and perpetuate—however indirectly—their curatorial influence.
This process, however, usually remains unacknowledged, or worse, disavowed, with no account taken of the art world’s profit motives in showcasing commercial fashion. Consider Takashi Murakami’s 2008 show, © Murakami, which traveled with an actual Louis Vuitton boutique that sold the handbags featuring the artist’s designs for the brand. “It is the heart of the exhibition,” Murakami said about the Vuitton store.2
Or think of Zaha Hadid’s 2008 Mobile Art Chanel pavilion, a traveling art museum built to resemble a giant, quilted Chanel purse. (The pavilion’s “parking spot” in Central Park cost the Chanel Corporation 400,000 dollars in rent.) Hadid’s pavilion housed art works by Sylvie Fleury, Sophie Calle, Nobuyoshi Araki, Daniel Buren, and Subodh Gupta, but it was the spectacular, architectural Chanel “purse” that attracted all the attention. Hadid’s creation literalized a disturbing truth: the museum had morphed into that ur-symbol of the prestige commodity, the Chanel purse, and swallowed both the art and the spectators.
Yet anti-fashion snobbery will get us nowhere and, like any kind of snobbery, it only creates more social hierarchy. Fashion is delicious, beautiful, and yes, can be art. But when the art world embraces fashion, I prefer it take care to remain politically “woke”—as in the following two examples:
In her Harlequin’s Coat project, French artist ORLAN collaborated with several fashion designers, including David del Fin and Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, whose garments she literally stitched together with her own clothes to create “harlequin coat”-style, patchwork garments. From these, she then created headless, soft-sculpture mannequins that she placed atop transparent Philippe Starck “ghost” chairs, like floppy upholstery cushions. Visitors would then sit upon the mannequins’ “laps,” mingling their human arms and legs with the mannequins’ sprawled, fabric limbs. Visitors were also given patchwork harlequin booties to slip over their shoes while walking through the gallery (whose floor was covered with vinyl patchwork tiles). To enter the Harlequin’s Coat project was to melt into the space, to merge one’s biological body with inanimate, fashion-bodies, to contemplate fashion’s inherent fetishism. Sitting upon the chairs, one layered one’s own clothes atop ORLAN’s, as well as those designed by the couturiers. This exhibition did not resemble a high-end boutique; it showcased no one coveted label. In the spirit of the trickster harlequin character of the commedia dell’arte, ORLAN had dismantled fashion’s obsession with commercial labels and put in its place a symbol of collaboration, hybrid identity, and multiculturalism (the harlequin was originally a character with African as well as European roots).3 She had reimagined fashion’s dream of identity.
So too, does British-Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare. Shonibare’s installations can resemble uncanny fashion shows, featuring mannequin-like sculptures dressed in the artist’s vivid signature wax, batik fabrics (whose complex provenance includes Africa, Holland, and Indonesia), to tell a complex story of colonialism, migration, and global politics. In his 2002 The Swing (after Fragonard), for example, Shonibare recreated the 18th-century classic painting as an installation, using a female headless mannequin whose ruffled period gown consists of different versions of his trademark fabric, including one into which he has incorporated the double-“C” logo of the Chanel brand. Like the swinging figure in the Fragonard, Shonibare’s mannequin reclines as her skirt billows around her. In this case, though, the scene’s pleasure and abandon are tempered by the reminders of the revolution to come (this aristocrat has already been beheaded), of colonialism’s exploitation (telegraphed by the fabrics), and by the chilling analogy drawn between the excesses of yore and contemporary luxury capitalism (the “CC” logo imprinted on the skirt). This installation is not about losing oneself to a dream, it is about waking up.
- Roland Barthes, The Fashion System trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 256.
- Quoted in: Carol Vogel, “Watch Out, Warhol, Here’s Japanese Shock Pop,” New York Times, April 2, 2008.
- Harlequin’s Coat involved far more—including a free-standing central coat, which contained a petri dish holding co-cultured animal and human cells, created by an Australian biogenetics laboratory. The idea was to use the harlequin as a symbol of a utopic goal of inter-species, inter-cultural hybridization.