Exhibiting The New Fashion

What kind of clothing will our children be looking at in museums in the future?

When I’m in London, my first stop is always the Victoria and Albert museum in Kensington. It houses the world’s best costume collection. Over the years I’ve collectively spent weeks in there, my nose quite literally pressed up against the glass, eyes hungering over panniers, whalebones and crinolettes.

Dress history is the best kind of history to me. Imagining a fellow human, the living breathing body beneath the layers, provides a very direct link from the past to the present. Visiting the First Ladies inaugural dress exhibit at the Smithsonian last month, Jacqueline Kennedy seemed bigger than I’d imagined, Hillary Clinton smaller. Small details for sure, but nonetheless they are details our minds like to inexplicably linger upon.

First Ladies Inaugural Dress Exhibit at the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

With the world-class Balenciaga exhibit at San Francisco’s De Young museum wrapping up last weekend, the Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective opening at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts and the decision to extend the Met’s simply stunning Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” show due to record breaking numbers of attendees—clearly the passion for past fashion is striking a chord.

“Fashion exhibitions are thus the height of fashion,” wrote Suzy Menkes for the New York Times earlier this week on the growing trend of high production, money-spinning fashion exhibits. “The explosion of museum exhibitions is only a mirror image of what has happened to fashion itself this millennium. With the force of technology, instant images and global participation, fashion has developed from being a passion for a few to a fascination — and an entertainment — for everybody.”

Alexander McQueen’s “Oyster” Dress at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City

Has the availability of mass-market fashion made us look at and appreciate fashion beyond the immediate trends to analyze changing style in a social context? Or perhaps the values of creativity, custom design and hand production that we so admire in the work of the great designers, deliver greater rewards than our desire for cheap clothing?

You’d think that the kind of clothing, bourgeois and haute couture, shown in museums would be alienating for the majority of us t-shirt and jean wearers. And yet the growing popularity of clothing exhibitions is testament to interest beyond our need simply for clothes.

The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer once said that nothing is design until ordinary people use it. People around the world want to enjoy an aesthetic quality in their everyday lives. The worry is whether our desire for an aesthetic translates to design that is meaningful beyond an act of consumption.

Cristóbal Balenciaga at the de Young Museum in San Francisco

I guess the big question is what kind of clothing will our children be looking at in museums in the future?  When I see clothing at fashion exhibits like the Balenciaga show I saw recently, I’m reminded of the ethical couture created by the green designers I cover. Like “the Picasso of fashion,” Cristóbal Balenciaga, they are personally invested in their designs, committed to supporting local craftsmanship and the production of handmade materials. It’s fashion that’s not created from fickle top-down design trends but rather from the visionary spirits of designers who claim the earth’s future through clothing.


Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.