When Fashion is Art

Tanguera with rose tattoo web
‘Tanguera with Rose Tattoo’ © J.H.Hart ’16 Oil on canvas.

I saw two shows at the McCord Museum (http://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/) yesterday. One was positively thrilling: it was the Balenciaga show with much borrowed from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The other show, on another floor, was ‘Marisa Portolese-In the Studio with Notman’, a response to the great William Notman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Notman) collection of photographs archived at the McCord: much much less thrilling for reasons about which I will write.

Balenciaga worked with fabric, fashion, and the human body, but like many haut couturiers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haute_couture) he was as much of an artist as was Picasso or Isamu Noguchi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isamu_Noguchi). I think of haut couture as a type of sculpture. Like any other kind of high or fine art, it is tied to the needs of the historical moment in which it is created, but its appeal outlasts that moment. It is created as a response to its contemporary society’s understanding of beauty, but it speaks to future generations; and it is usually supported by wealthy patrons as most art has been.

Like all great art, Balenciaga’s works resonate beyond the time in which he created them (1930’s-1970’s); and the McCord finished this exhibit with a wonderful room illustrating the continuing discourse that designers like Issey Miyake, Alexander McQueen, Sybilla, and many more had and have with his ideas.

My favorite pieces, the serene, minimalist, wickedly constructed ballgowns from mid-century, wrapped around the body in amazingly beautiful volumes of fabulous fabric. They appeared to be constructed like life-sized origami in which all that showed of the body beneath was the ankles, or a wrist, or a small section of collarbone or upper back-modest but tantalizing!

I really appreciated the way the McCord set up the displays, placing the muslim mockup next to the finished gown, and showing in a nearby video the actual layout of the pattern and how it was folded and sewn to give the effect of seamless simplicity!

To go from this elegant and refined exhibit to Marisa Portolese’s exhibition was particularly jarring, and gave me the disheartening sense of how much we have lost of craft and sensitivity to technology ! Portolese’s huge-sized photographic portraits, supposedly referencing Notman’s studio sittings of women, shockingly reminded me of how impoverished our time has become, both in the quality of the clothing that people accept (and are willing to be shot in for posterity!), and in the banality of the spectacle which appropriates great artists’ work (blown up photos of Van Huysum’s bouquets https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_van_Huysum) to act as background posters in what feels like nothing so much as bloated selfies!

Clothing is a form of communication, of portraiture, and of performance. The subjects of the original Notman photographs (shown in a small walled corner of the exhibit in a chuck-a-block checkerboard that was all visual noise!) would never consider sitting for a portrait that will go down through history in anything less than their best outfits! But Portolese’s sitters, showing up as they did in a collection of uninspired and cheap looking costumes, suggest to me that they feel at heart that fashion is of negligible interest as an art form or that fashion cannot represent their true selves but is only a vanity that should be ignored or resisted.

When Balenciaga showed his collections, he did it without music, making his models walk as if in a trance, not making eye contact with his buyers. He endeavored to put all the focus on the clothes, on his art. And when one of the very wealthy women who bought his gowns wore it to an affair, she was not only performing status and wealth, but she was also showing her support for his art especially as the more abstract pieces hid much of the woman’s body and appeared as a piece of body sculpture that it was.

Under any circumstance, try to see the Balenciaga show which will be up until the 14th of October. First Sunday’s in each month are free for residents of Quebec: you just need to give them your postal code. Enjoy and check out the wonderful hats designed under the Balenciaga label!






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