All images courtesy of Fashion/Museum
We are tickled to be able to delve into a universe both familiar and foreign: fashion. Theory, practice, industry and exhibition-- FASHION / MUSEUM's Whitney Alexandra Jones Robertson displays her uncanny knowledge of culture and couture. She is the current object of our affection.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you started the Fashion Museum blog?
I'm a recent graduate of the Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum practice M.A. program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. These days I teach Survey of Fashion (and, next semester, a textiles course as well) to students in the Fashion Design and Fashion Merchandizing programs at Marymount University in Arlington, VA. My undergrad degree is from UVa (in music!) and I'm a northern VA native. I love fashion, dress, and history, and I love museums, particularly the exhibitions aspect. I co-curated an exhibit on Christian Louboutin at FIT as part of my graduate program and it was a great experience- deciding on the exhibit title and narrative, choosing objects, writing labels and didactic text, interacting with the press and the public, working with the conservators and the museum directors, etc. I would love to eventually end up doing something like that. I interned with the conservators at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and I also worked for Karen Augusta of Augusta Auctions, who deals exclusively in historic and designer garments and textiles.
The reason I love the costume history is because it is a synthesis of so many things- history, psychology, sociology, art, and technology, to name a few. It is also a very personal field- at its core, it is about people and what we wear. There is something very intimate about clothing that gives a real insight into its maker and its wearer that I find fascinating. I've had a passion for museums my entire life, especially since I practically grew up at the Smithsonian. I feel that as cultural institutions, museums have an unparalleled power to preserve, educate, and intrigue, and they have been stretching to exciting new horizons recently. I was inspired to start the blog for a few reasons: first, I felt that fashion history was a topic that many people were interested in but few people knew much about, second, because I thought it would be great to have a forum to talk about issues relating to fashions in museums, especially as fashion exhibits become more popular, and finally, because my "day job" (sub teaching) is not in my field, and I wanted to find an outlet for my research and ideas relating to fashion history and museums. (here I will make a quick note- I know it's cumbersome, but I want to make a clear distinction beween "fashion" and "costume." Costume is a term used for the attire and aspects of personal appearance (which together make up "dress") particular to a culture or region. (A better word for costume is "attire," since costume has historically had some theatrical and ethnic connotations, but saying "the history of attire" is too bulky.) Fashion is the progression of styles in dress that are widespread and short-lived. Sometimes we wear fashionable clothing and sometimes we don't; military uniforms, work clothes, traditional attire are dress, but not fashion. I'm going to try to make these distinctions as much as I can, but it's a little clumsy sometimes. Lexicon is something we really struggle with in our field, unfortunately!
Most people think of fashion solely in terms of a retail experience, part of a glamorous lifestyle or just solely a creative endeavor. How do you think fashion exhibitions confirm or challenge any one of these three notions?
The great thing about fashion and costume exhibitions is that they help the viewer think about the many facets of fashion, beyond the retail and "glamour" aspects. The fact that fashion/costume is being exhibited means that the institution views garments and accessories as artifacts that are culturally significant, which in itself is a fairly new development. Fashion studies has finally been recognized for what it is- a branch of material culture- and as such, is receiving more attention from academics and museums. Fashion is also being recognized as art, created by artists (designers, tailors, manufacturers), which is another big step. We sometimes exhibit fashions as cultural objects and costume as art, which also gets into the social and cultural complexities of attire in a really interesting way!
What are some of the tenets of a great fashion exhibition and why these elements need to be in place?
Any good exhibition, whether it is about fashion or not, needs to be object-based. Otherwise, it would make a great book, but there's no point in making it an exhibit. The objects must be able to speak for themselves, to be arranged in a narrative that leads the viewer to a deeper understanding of the overall concept and inspires them to ask questions. Exhibits of costume, and particularly fashion, must resist the urge to be overly "sexy"- we can leave that to the retailers and marketers. An exhibit should be enjoyable and visually engaging while encouraging the visitor to make connections and think about what he or she is seeing. That's one thing I loved about our Louboutin exhibit- the subject was "sexy" but the exhibit put Louboutin in context as a designer and examined his artistic and cultural influences in an intellectual, but interesting way.
Also, I am a big champion of powerful but succinct text. I hate exhibits that have the TLDR (too long, didn't read) factor- no one gleans information from them! Labels and didactics have to be carefully placed, meticulously edited, and concisely written.
Finally, one more thing specific to costume and fashion exhibits- good mannequin dressing is a must!!! Nothing miseducates the viewer and makes the exhibit look sloppy like badly dressed mannequins- not to mention it's bad for the garments and accessories! If you're a museum with only a few garments scattered among others, it still makes a difference to have someone carefully mount them- throwing them on an ethafoam form and letting them hang looks terrible. I am also strongly against the idea of dressing bigger garments down, to make them appear more appealing to today's eye. Some people would like to make, for instance, a 19th-century couture gown made for a large woman look as skinny as possible and will attempt to dress it smaller on the mannequin, which I think is an injustice to the garment and the time period and panders to pop culture sensibilities.
Can you discuss one of the best shows you’ve experienced this year?
I'm sorry to say that in the last 12 months, since I've moved back to DC and am having to pay student loans instead of receive them, I haven't seen nearly as many costume exhibits as I should. If only I had the money to go to NY, or if the Smithsonian would put up some more costumes! If I extend the time-frame a bit, I could talk about the Chanel exhibit at the Met from about 4 years ago? maybe 5? which I thought was excellent, but I wasn't yet a grad student so my eyes weren't completely trained. I really liked the layout and the juxtaposition of the original Chanel and modern Lagerfeld pieces. The catalog is a great work of art with some excellent critical essays at the beginning. The Love and War exhibit at FIT that took place in the fall of 2006 was also very, very well done- I loved the premise of the exhibit (examining softness/hardness, armor/lingerie in women's fashion) and I like the downstairs exhibit space at FIT. The narrative and categories made sense and were easy to follow, the text was succinct, and there were a lot of excellent educational events surrounding the exhibit, including a very good symposium.
Can you recall a show that had a great premise but didn’t work as an exhibition? What do you think could have made it a better exhibition and why?
I was frustrated with certain parts of FIT's Madame Gres: Sphinx of Fashion exhibit from last year, mostly because there was far too much text- more didactics than needed, and each one was lengthier. THere was a book published around the time of the exhibit and I think perhaps because so much was written for the book, the didactics became too long. The rest of the exhibit was nice- I particularly liked the design, which created the feel of a Greek temple. The Met's Nan Kempner exhibit was really frustrating, but I felt like the whole premise wasn't quite there- it felt like the only reason for the exhibit was because there was a big donation of clothing from a 70s-era fashionista and the Costume Institute had to recognize it in some way. I don't like the Costume Institute exhibit space because it's too difficult to figure out where you're supposed to go first. I wanted to understand what I was supposed to be learning from these clothes.
What do you think are some of the challenges of thinking about the fashion industry today? Do you think the industry is changing?
Well, to be honest, the industry itself is not my area of expertise- I dont' know much about merchandizing and marketing. I think that the difficulties with the industry are that haute couture is almost gone and almost irrelevant and that ready-to-wear is low-quality. Very few people can afford good clothing. Even high-end ready-to-wear is often cheaply made, and the "design-for-all" movement (I'm talking Thakoon for Target, etc. etc. etc.) is making interesting designs cheap but the quality of the clothing is still abysmal.
I know you teach university courses on fashion and textiles. What are some of the challenges of teaching these subjects and why?
My greatest difficulty right now is the same as any teacher of a survey course- trying to fit all the information into one semester! I'm teaching an undergrad course that covers the history of fashion in one class, so I have to decide what is most important and what I can leave out. That's hard! Also, I wish I could get more in-depth into discussion with the students about concepts, but it's a large class and there are so many facts they need to know- it's difficult to fit it in.
What do you look for when you’re thinking about a designer’s cultural relevance?
FIrst of all, I think about how new their designs are- whether they're pushing the envelope instead of just recreating or re-appropriating other looks (unless they're doing so in a particularly innovative way). Secondly, I think about how they synthesize their influences to create a unique style. Also, I consider what their designs are like when worn- how they interact with the body, how construction and fit play a role in design and wearability, etc. I think about who wears their clothing, when, and how. I also look at what social ideas are inspiring and being inspired by their designs.
How do you think current environmental, economic and political tensions play a role in what we’ll see emerging in the industry?
Only time will really tell. Fashion and society have an interesting give-and-take, and impacts can be difficult to directly trace. The green trend is going to continue, I think, with more environmentally-friendly fabrics and organic designs. As far as the role played by economic and political tensions, who knows- we may see a more austere look as our disgust with the misuse of wealth grows, or, conversely, we may see an escapist return to luxury or fantasy.
Who are your favorite designers? Why?
The tough thing about this question is that there's a difference between clothes I love aesthetically- things I'd like to wear- and clothes I love conceptually, in terms of how creative and inspired their designs are. Aesthetically, I love Dior because I find the 1950s look very flattering. In more recent ready-to-wear, I like Elie Tahari, Luisa Beccaria, and some other- that is what I would buy if I could afford it!. More conceptually, I love Balenciaga for his mastery of construction and his creativity- he was truly an architect with fabric. Claire McCardell's comfortable, simple, and flattering designs are really classic- I could wear them all the time. As far as contemporary designers go, I am not as crazy about any one or two of them in particular, although I adored the Spring 09 Haute Couture Collection from Chanel (Lagerfeld) and in ready-to-wear, I have my eye on Rodarte- they've been producing some really creative designs.
Interview by Joanne Molina