I paid a respectful nod to Karl Lagerfeld on the day of his death (yesterday, February 19) by visiting Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The last fashion exhibit I’d seen at the PMA was “Shocking!” The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli in 2003, and despite being only nine or ten at the time, I remember being astounded by the ardent displays of gratuitous color, pattern, and texture. But despite boasting “one of the oldest and largest costume and textiles collection[s] in the country,” Fabulous Fashion’s curated selection depicted a stale antithesis to the Schiaparelli collection.
I couldn’t help but compare the gray walls of the dimly lit PMA showroom to the atmospheric fantasies of the fashion shows I’d seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Heavenly Bodies, Manus x Machina, China: Through the Looking Glass and Art of the In-Between) and at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Alexander McQueen: Savage Bodies). I’m well aware that my privilege is showing, but how can one compare the pulsating music, fusion of elements, set designs, and curated dramas of the shows at The Met and the V&A to the unadorned drabness of the PMA’s Fabulous Fashion?
Returning to the exhibition at hand, however, Fabulous Fashion began with a clean two-piece dress designed by Christian Dior in the Spring of 1948. The dress was a tired foray into the world of the mid-20th century “New Look,” complete with “rounded shoulders, [a] small waist, full hips, and [a] long full skirt.” Despite advertising a fashion collection of “some 30,000 objects” I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the garment and its accompanying placard, which merely described the palpable elements of the piece and offered little insight into the sociocultural implications of the silhouette.
Next in Kristina Haugland’s curated series was a hot pink number designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior in 1998. The idea, of course, was to show how fleeting concepts of color, shape, and femininity can be, but again, the didactic label accessorizing the “vibrantly colored” suit, belt, camisole, and bag left me craving a little more narrative, and a lot more chronological cohesion.
The exhibition’s climax featured a three-tiered, blue backlit cluster of faceless black mannequins donning evening gowns from designers Pierre Cardin, Jacqueline de Ribes, Roberto Capucci, and Oscar de la Renta. The gowns’ supplementary placards lacked substance and instead relied on routine descriptions of the obvious–yes, that satin evening dress is is asymmetrical, yes, that Pierre Cardin bodice is “almost completely hidden by four enormous taffeta bows,” and yes, I know that I’m a harsh critic, but I’m also quite familiar with using long, lifeless descriptions to take up space (Art History, anyone?)!
To end my review on a positive note, however, I did spend quite some time ogling several individual pieces in the exhibit. Notables included a metallic sequined dress in shades of blue, purple, and aqua that was hand-painted by Philadelphia native Tina Leser in 1947, a short evening dress “cut in the fashionable little girl look” in 1968-69 by Geoffrey Beene, and a pair of red gingham platforms designed by Vivienne Westwood in 1993. I also made sure to study a Chanel suit and scarf designed in 1972-73 by Gaston Berthelet so as to pay homage to Lagerfeld.
So in short, save for a few notables, the exhibition left me missing the Met and hungry for more a more comprehensive historical narrative and a more immersive voyage into the world of haute couture.