Fashion Exhibitionism: The style-centric exhibits taking over the world’s greatest galleries, museums and art spaces

Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Judged either by the vulgar mathematics of marketing or by higher, more refined artistic standards, fashion exhibitions are flourishing. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, a show that ran at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011, attracted 661,509 visitors, making it one of the 10 most popular attractions in the Met’s 143-year history, right up there with the Treasures of Tutankhamun and the Mona Lisa.

Besides scoring big numbers, the show also ranked high on a scale of aesthetic satisfaction. “It was really about an artist who spoke very emotionally through his work,” says Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, who saw it three times and speaks of it as “the most extraordinary fashion exhibition I’ve seen.”

In 2013, the exhibition boom continues. Steele and her curatorial team tackle an explosive subject with Queer Style, opening at FIT next September. The first major show to explore the gay influence on fashion, it’s been a long time coming, but its arrival this year seems thrillingly on-trend, 2013 having got rolling with an inaugural address in which U.S. President Obama gave a shout-out to Stonewall and a showing of Chanel haute couture that concluded with lesbian brides.

And transgressive seems to be trending. Costumes worn by rock music’s great gender bender are featured in David Bowie is, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (March 23 to July 28).

Artist Rebel Dandy Sartorial Anarchy Ike Ude
Sartorial Anarchy #5, 2012, by Iké Udé. Photography by Iké Udé/Eila Heller Gallery + Iké Udé

Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion is an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art from April 28 to August 18. Going beyond the usual suspects (Beau Brummell and Oscar Wilde), the show also recognizes latter-day fops, such as Iké Udé, the Nigerian-born artist, and Sebastian Horsley, a clothes-conscious London artist and reprobate—he died from multiple drug ingestion in 2010—who once had a retrospective show called Hookers, Dealers, Tailors.

At the museum of fashion in the Louvre this summer, the topic will be specific: Behind the Seams: An Indiscreet Look at the Mechanics of Fashion (July 4 to November 24) is a show about the variously engineered underwear, his and hers, that over the centuries has shaped the fashionable silhouette. In Toronto, footwear will be fetishized. The Design Exchange, busy establishing a more popular profile, will present a retrospective of the glamorous cobbler Christian Louboutin (June 21 to September 15). And the Bata Shoe Museum is offering Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture (April 25, 2013 to April 22, 2014), designed by Karim Rashid.

When it comes to total sartorial splendour, a highlight of the 2013 calendar is the reopening of the Musée Galliera in Paris next fall with a major retrospective of Azzedine Alaïa. Even though this fashion museum has been closed for renovation since 2009, its director, Olivier Saillard, has been hosting shows in extramural venues and becoming, as Lynn Yaeger said of him in The New York Times, “the modern master of contemporary costume museum performance-presentation.”

Last year at the Palais de Tokyo, an institution dedicated to contemporary art, Saillard staged a piece called The Impossible Wardrobe. It starred Tilda Swinton, who, wearing white gloves, modelled museum pieces too venerable to be worn—including a coat that had belonged to Napoleon—by merely handling them. Her performance amounted to a morbid but droll meditation on old-school custodianship.

Last spring at Les Docks, a hip new cultural centre located on the revitalized banks of the Seine in the east end of Paris, Saillard curated an exhibition that featured all of the all-white Spring 2012 collection from Comme des Garçons. To present a designer line in its entirety—and in season—might have seemed to be blurring the line between appreciation and promotion. In fact, Saillard found Rei Kawakubo’s work so poetic, so far from commercial conventions that he thought of it as a snowball flying in the face of a fashion world caught up in success and branding.

The Metropolitan Museum discourages solo exhibitions by living fashion designers. Operating as special consultant to the Costume Institute, Diana Vreeland put up such a show in 1983—a retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent, who was still alive, that came in for a harsh smackdown. In her 1986 book Selling Culture: Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America, cultural historian Debora Silverman dismissed the exhibition as “a giant advertising campaign.”

Punk from Chaos to Couture
A Chanel look featured in Punk: Chaos to Couture. Photography by David Sims/The Metropolitan Museum of Art;

Today, however, the reputation of Vreeland, who died in 1989, has been earning fresh praise. Held in connection with Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, both a book and a documentary film by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Diana Vreeland After Diana Vreeland was an exhibition and a symposium that took place in Venice last year and paid particular attention to her curatorial career.

Like the pages she had edited in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Vreeland’s shows at the Costume Institute from 1972 to 1989 were known for their pizzazz. Historical accuracy was sometimes sacrificed in favour of drama and allure. Nevertheless, Judith Clark, who helped curate the exhibition and organize the discussions in Italy last summer, has published essays that defend the joie de vivre of Vreeland’s approach.

Now curator in charge of the Costume Institute, Harold Koda began as an intern. He was involved in his first fashion exhibition as Vreeland’s assistant on The Glory of Russian Costume, which opened in December 1976. The Met’s next big show is Punk: Chaos to Couture, from May 9 to August 11.

Between Catherine the Great and Johnny Rotten, things have changed. Koda points out that the time has passed “when institutions were willing to lend their most important, most fragile treasures.” Catherine’s wedding dress has not left Russia since.

There have also been shifts in thinking of a less practical, more philosophical nature. As Vreeland always knew, fashion requires an immersive environment. That doesn’t mean perfuming the galleries, as she liked to do, but crowd-pleasing installation matters. “What has finally occurred to everyone—and this is really relatively recent, I’d say in the last 10 years—is [the importance of] how you present it,” says Koda, decoding the evolution of the fashion exhibition. “The scholarship that you’re conveying can be the same, but how you’re presenting it is going to make it something that people will get off their duffs [for] and come to the museum to be exposed to.”

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier
The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

As an ideal example of this new breed of exhibition, Koda cites The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, which originated at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011 and is still on tour. After Montreal, Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, Rotterdam and Stockholm, it will arrive at the Brooklyn Museum in late October.

Because MMFA director Nathalie Bondil is always interested in what she describes as “the mind behind the craft,” the Gaultier show celebrates artful designs at the same time as it illuminates the couturier’s thoughtful vision of diversity and inclusion. All the while it delights the eye, tickles the ribs and leaves jaws dropping with mannequins that talk and have human faces that move.

Of course, in the wrong hands, a fashion exhibition easily devolves into hagiography, or “fabulousness,” a word used by Alexandra Palmer, curator of textiles and fashion at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. When she took part in a discussion of Diana Vreeland’s legacy at the Venice symposium, Palmer made it her business to talk about women such as curator Stella Blum, whose contributions to the success of the Costume Institute tend to be overshadowed by Vreeland’s celebrity.

Palmer is not wrong to take a stand for traditional curatorial principles. In recent years, fashion retailers have been passing themselves off as curators. “Curate,” a word that once had something to do with the curing of souls, now lends respectability to merchandise.