Our Visit to Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

China Chic: East Meets West

One of my favourite parts of our study trip to New York was spending the day at FIT, where we explored their collections, met with their amazing staff and visited two temporary exhibitions: Fabric in Fashion, which looked at how textiles affect the silhouette of 250 years of Western fashion, and Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT. Exhibitionism was a fabulous and fascinating show that reflected upon some of the museum’s most groundbreaking exhibitions over the last fifty years. Not only did it spotlight some incredible pieces in their collection, both historical and contemporary, but also gave insight into the curatorial thought process. I loved the self-reflexive nature of the exhibition, where objects were grouped by how they were used in past shows. The text panels accompanying various exhibits explained the nature of each show and what curators were attempting to explore. This framing was particularly helpful, as we’re currently working on our Virtual Exhibitions for our MA course, and Exhibitionism essentially mapped out the thought process and approach taken by curatorial and academic all-stars like Valerie Steele. It also introduced me to the work of curators with whom I wasn’t familiar, including Emma McClendon, who we then had the pleasure of meeting as she shared some of FIT’s couture collection with us! Furthermore, it taught me a lot about the goals of the institution to maintain an academic approach in their focused and thoughtful exhibitions, and its role as a teaching museum.

Gothic: Dark Glamour

It was also fun to walk through and catch glimpses of past exhibitions which I hadn’t seen, including Gothic: Dark Glamour from 2009 and China Chic: East Meets West (1999). The labels accompanying each object also listed other shows that they had been used in, highlighting the various ways one garment can be interpreted. The exhibition as a whole was spectacular, visually appealing and cohesive, despite the vast range of objects included. The introductory wall text mentioned how this exhibition helps look towards the museum’s future by reflecting on the past: a sentiment that I think is so vital to considering how fashion collections operate, and to thoughtfully growing and changing as an institution.

Gowns from Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion and American Beauty: Aesthetics and Innovation in Fashion

Athleisure in NY

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

I have been living in London since September, but I am from Canada. So when our class travelled to New York for our study trip last week, for me, it was sort of like going home. I was excited to once again see familiar stores and restaurant chains, as they are part of my native landscape of home comforts. However, now that I think back on our trip, it turns out, surprisingly, that it wasn’t these North American landmarks that made me feel right at home: it was how people dressed. (Maybe not that surprising, come to think of it, for a student of fashion history.) Seeing the way people in New York dress – head-to-toe black athleisure – meant I was back!

 For those of you who are not familiar with the term, athleisure is a style of dress characterised by body-con, athletic-inspired clothing. It became increasingly popular beginning around 2000 as advancements in athletic-wear fabrics stimulated the creation of new light-weight, flexible, high performance and fashion-forward sports garments. Brands like Lululemon are credited for having sparked the trend that has been considered the most important fashion trend of the twentieth century. According to Forbes, the American athleisure industry is worth $44 billion.[1]

All images taken from the official Instagram account of Michi New York (a women’s athletic wear brand)

The question that begs to be asked is: is athleisure really is just a trend? Did the American appeal for versatility and practicality really spawn from athletic-wear brands that launched in the late 90s?

The visits we made to the Parsons, Fashion Institute of Technology and Brooklyn Museum archives would lead me to argue that, in fact, a preference for practical clothing attests to a distinctive American pragmatic attitude to dress that goes back to the first half of the twentieth century. We got to see sketches from various American designers, and it was interesting to see that underpinning their aesthetic were definite links to this established American taste for understated practical clothing. In fact, during the 1930s, Claire McCardell – one of the most influential American designers of the time – was already designing functional sportswear for women.

When I moved to London, it hit me that my ‘go-to’ North American uniform of Lululemon leggings and hoodies, which at home made me blend in with every other college student on my campus, actually made me look extremely underdressed and out of place on the chic streets of London. I was on an entirely different register from the sophisticated, tailored, colourful London look.

Therefore, interestingly, New York made me realize that while personal style may be specific to each person, it is definitely influenced to a certain extent by the surrounding fashion culture.

References: Wilson, Chip. ‘Why the Word “Athleisure” is Completely Misunderstood.” Forbes. April 18, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chipwilson/2018/04/18/why-the-word-athleisure-is-completely-misunderstood/#1c5aa6564697.

New York, New York

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

This trip was my first visit to New York and sneakily coincided with my birthday (nobody was allowed to forget this). We celebrated by walking in Central Park, visiting a rooftop bar with plastic igloos, as well as another bar with live music, including questionable renditions of Oasis.  

A highlight was seeing sketches by Bergdorf Goodman staff artists of couture designs, which represented clothing available to order at their custom salon. These sketches were made between 1950-69 and are from the FIT archives. I was in awe of the Dior sketches, particularly a beige ballgown with sparkling embellishment.  

SPARKLE

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge was another highlight, as that day was clear, bright and just a tad freezing. It also gave me a different view of Manhattan, with the skyscrapers in front of me rather than surrounding me. My flatmates had given me a pink, felty bucket hat not just because it averaged –1 degrees in New York, and but also to take pictures with at appropriate New York landmarks. I took full advantage of this. 

Bucket hat bonanza on the Brooklyn Bridge

XOXO

On our last afternoon, we rushed over to the Met to overload ourselves with a last dose of some of art’s greatest hits. We also gleefully overfilled some frozen yoghurt pots with allllll the toppings before realising the price was calculated by weight. With half an hour to go before we needed to leave, I saw a postcard of John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X and decided I had to see her. I rushed off to the second floor and ended up on the opposite side of the building, and when I got to the connecting room, it was closed. Eventually I managed to go a different way, running through the Temple of Dendur. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and fountain, the calm space contrasted with my frantic run-walking. I eventually found Madame X, just as I realised I had two minutes to get back to the others. Even though I nearly jeopardised our airport timings, it was a great end to the trip. 

The Temple of Dendur room

The scandalous Madame X