Looking at it Backwards: My Visit to the Brussels Fashion and Lace Museum

I visited Brussels over the holiday and had the pleasure of spending a few hours at the Fashion and Lace Museum. Their current exhibition, Back Side: Fashion from Behind, emphasizes the backs of the body and of the backs of garments, quite literally flipping the perspective on viewing fashion in a museum. It asks what is revealed or conveyed on the back of the body, which, according to their press kit, the human being has an ‘ambiguous’ relationship with because it is constantly decorated by fashion, yet remains unseen by the wearer. The show integrates 70 pieces, spanning a period of 400 years, from haute couture to ready-to-wear, and which help to explore the subject from many angles.

I most enjoyed the broad range of objects, but also the curatorial choices that were made to display the garments and communicate with the viewer. Many objects were shown with the back facing the viewer, often in a case with a mirror so the front could often be seen (reminiscent of Madeleine Vionnet’s photographs of models whose fronts were revealed by mirrors). Very few of them were visible in the round. It struck me that only being able to see the backside of a garment, with limited visual access to the front, produced a certain discomfort due to the restricted vision. Normally, we focus attention to the front sides of clothes, whether on our own bodies or others. It felt to me that I was being denied access to the part of a garment I am most used to seeing, and effectively made me consider the ‘ambiguous’ relationship we have to this side of the body.

Dress by Lanvin

The exhibition also highlighted the differing notions of the back as something hidden or forgotten, versus revealed or as an erotic focal point. One display case highlighted examples of the ‘forgotten’ back, including waistcoats embroidered on the front and plain fabric on the back, and one contemporary Lanvin dress with an embellished front of white, densely layered material, and an entirely black back, exposing the zipper and showing the ground on which the layers were attached. The back of this silhouette allowed the construction to reveal itself. Later, the erotically exposed back was demonstrated through the photographs of Jeanloup Sieff, which tread a line between fashion images and tantalizing photos of the female body.

Hilde in a Dress That is Too Small, Paris. Photograph by Jeanloup Sieff
Hervé Leger dress. Published in Depeche Mode 1995

Back Side asks the viewer to see the body in three dimensions, and reconsider how we relate to the unseen sides of our own bodies. It succeeds in mixing historical and contemporary dress, high and low fashion, glamorous and bizarre (a Rick Owens ‘outfit’ comes to mind, in which one outfit is attached to another like a backpack and would have been work by two models, one carried by the other). In addition to the joy of viewing beautiful objects, I most appreciated how the curation allowed such a simple change in perspective to become a rich and complex exploration of the back side through fashion.