Review: Fashion Curating Now Symposium

By Stephanie Herold

Fashion Curating Now invited the sartorially minded to muse about the theoretical sticky points, practical brouhaha, and technological advancements faced by fashion as it takes its foothold alongside ‘art’ in museums. The one-day symposium was held at Parsons the New School in New York and was supported by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and Visual Art Finland. Annamari Vänskä, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Fashion Studies at the University of Stockholm, also curated a parallel exhibition at Parsons entitled Fashion Interactions with Hazel Clark, symposium organiser and Research Chair in Fashion at Parsons.

Fashion Interactions. Photo Susana Aguirre.

Fashion Interactions. Photo Susana Aguirre.

Janelle Abbott at her workstation, Fashion Interactions. Photo Susana Aguirre.

Janelle Abbott at her workstation, Fashion Interactions. Photo Susana Aguirre.

The most provocative debate at Fashion Curating Now occurred between Vänskä and Nathalie Khan, an independent curator and lecturer in Fashion History and Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins; like legions of scholars before them, they grappled with the shocking pink hued elephant in the room, or the issue of whether fashion can be considered art. As curator of Boutique – Where Art Meets Fashion (2012), which involved pairing artists with fashion designers to create new works, Vänskä focused on the intersections between these two disciplines to highlight how “fashion and art intertwine and how they take care of one another.” Throughout her talk, Vänskä also questioned if fashion was undergoing the process of artification in museums, which she defined as “situations and processes in which something that is not regarded as art in the traditional sense of the word is changed into art or into something art like.”

In contrast, Khanh considered the “notion of the artist as a fashion outsider or insider” and “what happens if the line between inside and outside is crossed.” She screened “Art Dump,” a memorable Chicks on Speed musical performance from the 55th Venice Biennale (see a similar performance here). The group’s lyrics blazoned “if the art is done, dump it on the dump,” highlighting art’s obsolescence once it loses cultural value. Although Khanh stated clearly that fashion is not art, viewers made the connection between these seemingly disparate disciplines as the video recalled discarded used clothing.

Both Alexandra Palmer, senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Judith Clark, professor of Fashion and Museology at the London College of Fashion, drew on their curatorial experience to shed light on the practical and material realities of producing increasingly popular fashion exhibitions. Palmer candidly described the daily grind and meticulous tasks of a fashion curator in a large museum. She also defined a problem they face when curating exhibitions as “mov[ing] visitors beyond looking at the clothes like they are shopping, and to get them to look more closely and think about fashion more critically – not personally.” Her talk prompted me to question if museum patrons shop art, and if changes to fashion’s definition and installation could help foster the urge to look. Is it a problem that visitors want to wear the objects on display?

Judith Clark delivered a practical lecture about “Props and Other Captions,” which asked if “information usually devoted to museum labels can be invested in meaning-heavy props.” Why read and dash, when you can encourage people to see? She cited, for example, a banana prop from Chloé Attitudes, her exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, that she displayed alongside Classically-styled garments. In Clark’s narration of the exhibit’s accompanying video, she likened the banana to the Classical imagery in Giorgio De Chirico’s painting “Uncertainty of the Poet.” She argued that props, as a form of sculpture, aid museum viewers in their mediation of fashion; perhaps in drawing their attention to a larger, common motif or theme, props help prevent shopping? In this way, art and fashion become enmeshed in the museum.

MoMu3 X Bulo by Frederik Heyman and Wout Bosschaert. Jacket in woolen jacquard weave with kashmir pattern, decorated with silk trimmings, ca. 1885, MoMu collection. The image is a still from the film:

MoMu3 X Bulo by Frederik Heyman and Wout Bosschaert. Jacket in woolen jacquard weave with kashmir pattern, decorated with silk trimmings, ca. 1885, MoMu collection. The image is a still from the film.

Both Kaat Debo, curator at the Mode Museum in Antwerp, and Shelley Fox, a fashion designer who is also the Donna Karan Professor of Fashion Design and the director of Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design and Society program, touched upon the power of the digital to bring fashion out of museum walls and fashion week tents and onto the information superunway. When it launches in 2017, MoMuMedia will offer a digital curation platform that gives young designers a place to show their work while remaining under the umbrella of a larger institution.

Fox showed her Spring/Summer 2003 collection digitally as an early patron of Nick Knight’s Show Studio.  Photographer Chris Moore replicated the look of live action runway photos by photographing two models in a London loft. The designer commented that runway shows are not always necessary, especially for a collection without a clear narrative or emotional appeal. For young designers, digital presentations allow them to save money, perhaps better served to buy canapés to feed key buyers at a showroom presentation. Commercial issues were present at Fashion Curating Now and reminded us that, although fashion may occupy a privileged position in the museum, it is part of a larger financially driven system.

During a private conversation with Annamari Vänskä, she revealed to me that fashion [professionals] want to participate in artification processes to “gain cultural prestige.” With this prestige, fashion gains entry into cultural venues such as the museum, where its artistic and historical aspects may be more fully explored alongside its commercial concerns. This variety of sartorial thought seems less likely to occur at Forever 21 or on the runway, though perhaps due to the increased presence of fashion in museums, new technological platforms, and shifting public consciousness, critical discussion will disseminate more widely. Thanks to academics, curators, and designers who push its historical boundaries, fashion is increasingly on our minds rather than simply on our bodies.

Further Reading:

Geczy, A. and Karaminas, V. (2012) Fashion and Art. London: Berg.

Miller, S. (2007) ‘Fashion as Art; Is Fashion Art?’ Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 11:1, pp. 25-40.


Stephanie Edith Herold is enrolled in the MA Fashion Studies program at Parsons the New School in New York City. She is also happy to be Editor-At-Large at WORN Fashion Journal. In past lives she taught high school English and attended chef school. 

Review – Fashion Curating Now Symposium

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