I attended a lecture at the Museum at FIT last week. I’d visited the exhibition “Arbiters of Style: Women at the Forefront of Fashion” a couple months ago and thought it was a little weak (my usual complaint: “not enough signage!”, but I went to the tour believing that if I got more information about the collection, it would be a more fulfilling experience. I was mistaken. The clothes displayed are stunning, and our group was informed that many of them have not been exhibited before, but the exhibit itself is lacking a cohesive theme: “Women at the Forefront of Fashion” is simply too damn vague. It might have been salvaged by wall text that provided information about the role of women in the fashion industry: how it was a natural progression from sewing for the family at home to assisting neighbors with their garments, to designing textiles (usually with no credit). I’ve read tidbits on the distinction of roles between men and women in the fashion industry, how women were often not credited, how seamstresses were considered mindless, unskilled positions compared to (male) tailors’ supposed talent, etc. There were actually laws passed in many countries outlining strict guidelines for the fashion jobs men and women were allowed to take on– everything from construction to design to tailoring to embellishment. It was even pointed out at a panel discussion at FIT last year that the gender issue remains unresolved: that the vast majority of people working in fashion are women, and yet the majority of highly publicized fashion houses are run by men…. None of these tidbits of information were alluded to, much less explored in the exhibit or lecture.
Instead, the focus seemed to be on “modernity,” which was, I suppose, the tie-in to the subtitle “…at the Forefront of Fashion.” But just as an essay needs a hypothesis, so does an exhibit, unless it is a “works from the collection” type display (which every museum is certainly entitled to).
That being said, I did have a few moments of excitement in the tour. There was an evening dress c. 1840 whose fabric dated to c. 1760. FIT conservators deduced that the original 18th century garment had been reworked to keep up with later 19th century trends. Specifically, a pointed waistband had been added, and — most interestingly — the bodice had been turned around to be worn back-to-front, with ruching added to embellish the new au currant neckline. This ingenious modification enabled the wearer to maintain the fashionable standard of having the clasp in the back, where in earlier years it was the practice to clasp in front.
I’m all about upcycling and repurposing clothes, so this struck me as particularly awesome (I’ve also been known to wear shirts backwards to alter the necklines). It’s taken an economic recession (fast becoming a depression) to resurrect the retooling of clothes, which have become so disposable in recent decadent decades. In previous centuries, textiles were so precious and the labor that went into the creation of clothes so intensive that it was the rule rather than the exception to re-fit, re-accessorize, and retool them. I hope we return to quality clothes with the expectation that they will survive many years and even multiple owners, taking an example from garments like this dress which was in active wear for a full century. I keep my own wardrobe new by periodically altering existing items– it’s amazing how changing the hemline, adding buttons or decorative zippers, or even turning them backwards breathes new life into them.