Review Archive

Reviewed: Christian Dior at the V&A

 

‘Maman, je hais les bottes’, a little girl informed her mother of her dislike for a mannequin’s boots.
‘C’est quand même assez chic’, her sister disagreed.
‘I had a jacket rather like that in the eighties’, reminisced an older woman.
‘I don’t like that at all’, her friend with the pompadour and purple coat and countered.
‘Elaine liked the green dress.’ Who is Elaine?

Such are the sorts of things you might hear as you weave through the day-dreamscape that is the V&A’s Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. For a few minutes, I thought of framing my visit as one made through others’ impressions—those of Lady Purple Pompadour and opinionated French children. Never had I been more tempted to eavesdrop, but with the over 500 exhibits and some truly fabulous displays, soon my own impressions became more than enough to catalogue.

This is a favourite feeling: the heart-eyed, physical and emotional sense of being so visually overwhelmed that you don’t know where to turn your gaze first. At one point, I stood and looked up at the smart-tech surface of a classically ‘painted’ ceiling explode in gold shimmers and fade to constellations before sitting down to watch the light show again. And again. And then once more.

An evolution of the Musée des Arts Décoratif’s Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, Dior begins with a small biographic timeline and a morphology of the Bar Suit—its oh-so-recognisable New Look silhouette and variety of iterations. The visitor is then guided through a shiny white model of the designer’s 30 Avenue Montaigne façade into an organic suite of themes, including the newly arranged ‘Dior in Britain’. Featuring Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday couture gown as its statement piece, this section treats Dior’s Anglophilia, collaborative endeavours with British fashion manufacturers and success amongst British clients. 

A parade of Aladin dresses (Right: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1953, Vivante Line ‘Lively’) and Mazette ensembles (Left: Dior, Haute couture, Autumn/Winter 1954, H line)

In the first of the nine sections beyond the anteroom, ‘The Dior Line’ presents ten quintessential Dior looks from 1947 to 1957: the ten-year span between Dior’s first collection and his death at age 52. Faced with the glowing strips of light delineating each mannequin’s space against the black background and the mirrored frames, my eyes slipped in and out of focus and my depth perception felt spotty. Curators suggest the timelessness of the line’s formative years in the telescopic space between opposing mirrors, and the selected ten ensembles become an endless stream of Aladin and Blandine, Maxim and Mazette.

With subsequent sections centred around ideas rather than chronologically, the exhibition maintains an equilibrium between cohesiveness-continuity and variety-expansion. The ‘Garden’ room reminds us of the inverted flower shape of the New Look—la corolle. The maximalism of John Galliano’s 2004 Look 4 Ensemble, resplendent in velvet, damask silk and erminesque rabbit fur, resonates with Christian Dior’s taste for romantic historicism. And the 2016 appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri as the first female creative director takes the Dior ethos of ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ to a new dimension, where a woman is no longer simply in a position to be considereddressed and celebrated—but to lead the House of Dior. 

‘The Atelier’ at Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A

Exhibition highlights include the crisp, ultra-exposed showcase of ‘The Atelier’, with its variety of workshop toiles: look closely, and you may recognise designs previously exhibited. Accompanying videos of meticulous craftsmanship are a bit hypnotic. Have you ever thought of how the bows on the bottles of Miss Dior are cut and tied by hand? The Diorama arranges seven decades of shoes, sketches, accessories and makeup in a rainbow fade, and I made a game of spotting the most modern of Chiuri’s tarot enamel minaudières amongst seventy years of material history.

The final exhibition piece is the ‘Eventail de vos hasards’ dress, in which Chiuri transposed Dior’s promotional fan from the 1950s to the pale pink tulle skirt of the gown. Holding the original fan, the mannequin stands alone amidst reflections of itself in a now-familiar play of doubling, inversion and self-reference. Dior ends with an image of the future, grounded in the past, of endless openings and chance.

Eventail de vos hasards dress (‘Fan of Your Chances’), Dior by Maria Grazia Chiuri, Haute couture, Spring/Summer 2018; Fan, Dior by Eventails Gane, 1950-5

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Sunday, July 14. 

Just for the Sake of Fashion? A Review of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’

Over the holidays, I was fortunate to visit the Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient exhibit, currently on display at the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris until 27 January 2019. The exhibit showcases fifty haute couture designs—clothes, accessories, and sketches—that were inspired by Indian, Chinese and Japanese culture. The fashions are flanked by pieces of traditional Asian art that Saint Laurent would have studied. Another focus of the exhibit is the highly controversial launch and ad campaign of Yves Saint Laurent’s first perfume Opium.

Images of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

Much was on my mind as I walked through the small but very well designed museum. Pot lights illuminating the dark rooms provided a sense of liminality, as if one is half-way between a public and private space. I found it particularly interesting to walk through the exhibit with alongside my brother, who could not help but notice that the displays of Orientalist fashion echoed the theoretical discourse put forward by Edward Said in Orientalism, his foundational text on postcolonial theory. As a student of international relations, my brother went into the exhibit with a mind primed for the cultural impetus of Saint Laurent’s designs. As we made our way through the museum, he could not help but comment that Saint Laurent had problematically fashioned his collection out of a homogenised Western imagination and depiction of the Orient. 

In order to construct his vision for the show, Saint Laurent referenced Western literary works and histories that convey a dominant image of what the Orient represents. Saint Laurent drew on his own imagination to create designs that reflected the frames, tropes and categorisations of the Orient as described by these Western authors—without having ever travelled to these countries (save for Japan) himself. Although Said’s book was only published a year after Saint Laurent’s 1977 ‘Les Chinoises’ collection was unveiled to the world, the display today nonetheless challenges us to reconcile the production of Orientalist knowledge and fashion with our own understanding of how Western history depicts and represents the Orient. Linked to this is the idea of cultural appropriation that evokes the same themes of colonialism and oppression still largely dominating political and societal discourse to this day.

Image taken of ‘Yves Saint Laurent: Dreams of the Orient’, Musée Yves Saint Laurent, Paris

At the same time, is important to consider the exhibit in light of the manner in which Saint Laurent originally expected the designs to be viewed. For instance, the exhibit deliberately includes the word ‘dreams’ in the title, a fitting word choice that allows one to appreciate the collection as a dream representing a fantasy of the exotic beauty Saint Laurent imagined the Orient could offer viewers through fashion. Irrespective of the political implications, the sheer beauty, artistry and craftsmanship of the collection are undeniable and should not go unnoticed. Saint Laurent’s clothes remain true masterpieces and their elegance, finesse and uniqueness should be appreciated in the specific cultural context and historical processes in which they were designed.

Perhaps the designs can only be fully appreciated if we view them as an exhibition of a collection that reflects a particular cultural, historical and political understanding present in 1977. However, if these same designs were sent down the Fall/Winter 2019 Saint Laurent catwalk, would we be able to continue to acknowledge their beauty and artistry, or would we feel compelled to criticise them for their cultural appropriation?

A Review: Grace Wales Bonner’s ‘A Time for New Dreams’

Figure 1: Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1), 2012, branded red oak, zebra skin, black soap, wax, rug, courtesy of the artist and @hauserwirth, photo by the author

It is a rare occasion in London – dashing to an exhibition viewing on a Friday morning, knowing full well the minute it finishes you will have to jog (Edina Monsoon, c.1992 style) across Hyde Park and back to your desk before the lunchtime window ends – when a meditative silence mutes the mounting traffic, perpetual hum of voices and underground announcements, and clattering cacophony of horns surging to a swell just metres away.

It is unnerving, and the precious nature of such transportation is achieved through Grace Wales Bonner’s thoughtful reimagining of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s familiar space. Here, an open portal is carved out through which the visitor can travel to #atimefornewdreams. 

Wales Bonner is most predominantly recognised as an innovative British Menswear Designer. A Central St. Martins graduate, her inaugural Autumn/Winter ’15 collection at Fashion East, ‘Ebonics’, received resounding praise and was featured in the V&A’s Fashion in Motion programme. In 2016, she received the LVMH Young Designer Prize and was recently awarded the British Land London Design Medal (2018) – I’m not being fan-girly-gushy when I say that Wales Bonner is a remarkable woman. 

Laraaji, Transformation, 2019, personal objects, ephemera, sound, courtesy of the musician, photo by the author

A Time for New Dreams is a bringing together of multiple interdisciplinary creative practices: music, fashion, art and design. The exhibition effectively functions as an assemblage of works that explore Wales Bonner’s given themes of mysticism and ritual, accompanied by a fascinating constellation of events and happenings. These range from meditation workshops led by musician Laraaji to a live reading by South London composer, playwright and artist Klein. The vast array of objects, artworks, photographs, memorabilia, books and ephemeral flowerpieces collectively provide a rich blend of multisensory stimuli. As you move through the exhibition, you feel the weight of important and varied histories being carefully layered and interwoven in the creation of a shared narrative. 

Left: Grace Wales Bonner at the exhibition’s press view
Right: Kapwani Kiwanga, several works from the series Flowers for Africa, 2014/5, signed protocol by artist including iconographic documents, photos by the author

I have this sense of freedom, some acknowledgement of my ancestors and a history that’s come before. It’s an open space for me to be able to feel quite free in the way that I reference histories or I enter different territories and worlds. I’m always interested in the idea of fluidity and the mixing of references … I always think about is rhythmicality.
—Grace Wales Bonner in conversation with Ishmael Reed

There is gloriously complex and nuanced storytelling present in the curation of A Time for New Dreams—the accompanying publication alone is the stuff of dreams! The contribution of each work to The exhibition’s wider composition prompts contemplation of Wales Bonner’s exploration of the use of shrines and improvisations throughout black histories—the exhibition’s driving force. Two of the artist’s shrines are featured: ‘the exhibition focuses on the shrine as a symbolic pathway for imagining different worlds and possibilities’ (Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams exhibition catalogue, 5). 

Grace Wales Bonner, Shrine I & II 2019, Altar objects, courtesy of the artist, collection of photos by the author

Wales Bonner’s Shrine I  is a direct portal to her intellectual and ancestral lineage. The material included traces certain ideas of brotherhood that have impacted her identity and creative process: the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves’ exhibition catalogue for Theaster Gates’ 2014 The Black Monastic exhibition, a looped video installation that includes footage of Ishmael Reed playing Tadd Dameron’s ‘If You Could See Me Now (2008), a copy of Nigerian poet Ben Okri’s introductory An African Elegy (1992), a treasure trove of Wales Bonner-specific paraphernalia. It is as though Wales Bonner’s Shrine I were a miniature of the wider exhibition, a prototypical maquette that alludes to the exhibition’s portal-like structure: a gallery that has been transformed into a vessel to carry London’s weary to a space-time of alternate worlds and different possibilities.  

Eric N. Mack, Capital Heights (via stretch), 2019, assorted cloth, Spandex, cotton, silk, polyester, rope and straight pins, courtesy of the artist and @simonleegallery, (right) Wales Bonner discussing aesthetic practices during the exhibition’s press view (18 Jan 2019), both photos by the author

Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams
19 Jan – 16 Feb 2019, Serpentine Sackler Gallery 
To learn more about it this (sadly) month-long exhibition, go to @serpentineuk / @walesbonner or https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/grace-wales-bonner-time-new-dreams

Sources

Ishmael Reed, ‘Diving into the occult with Grace Wales Bonner and Ishmael Reed’, Interview Magazine, 18/01/2019. Online edition. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/grace-wales-bonner-ishmael-reed-conversation.

Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable, A Time for New Dreams, exhib cat., Serpentine Galleries, London.