Fashion Talks Back
A new show at the Met proves we are what we wear.
Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By EVE TUSHNET
blog.mode: addressing fashion
Eventually the Cockettes will use up the past and the future and have to rely on the present for their material.
"That's disgusting--that's just disgusting. It says it's a dress, but it isn't."
The three women behind me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "blog.mode: addressing fashion" show were reacting with outrage and betrayal to a John Galliano dress made for Christian Dior Couture--a dress made to look sort of like a dress form and sort of like a mutant. The "dress" seemed to have been stitched together with air quotes, displaying its weirdly placed padding and raveled seams. One of the disgusted ladies had thought, at first, that it was a display meant to educate viewers on how dresses are made, while another had assumed that some of the hanging fabric had simply fallen off the dress by accident.
But no: It was supposed to look like that. The Galliano dress showed one possible road (or cul-de-sac) that self-conscious fashion can take. Fortunately, most of the rest of the show used its self-consciousness to craft a language of fashion and a poetry of womanhood, technology, and even death, rather than the exhausted muttering of fashion that can only talk about itself. "blog.mode" is a strangely themeless show. It displays recent acquisitions of the Met's Costume Institute, covering four centuries. The show does indeed have a blog, and even a "blog bar" in the gallery where viewers can comment on the exhibit--"This is just darling," "I don't get it . . . probably never will"--but it's not clear what the 1990s Internet fetishism adds to the show.
The fast-changing, self-reflexive, all-consuming surf of the Internet may parallel contemporary haute couture in some ways, but "blog.mode" doesn't quite seem to know what to do with those parallels. Nonetheless, the show has some provocative and even stunning pieces, and a few themes do slowly emerge. Perhaps the most interesting questions raised concern women and symbolism: Why are women the alphabet of the language of fashion? While menswear may, in fact, be the more innovative side of fashion (as argued by Anne Hollander's Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress), here men are an afterthought, represented by one or two outfits. Certainly this approach fits the popular image of fashion, an image dominated by gowns and heels and skinny women with aggressive bone structure.
A second question arises: What's the difference between fashions that make women look like other things, and fashions that make women look like women? The first kind of fashion is obviously strange. Sometimes it works (a lacy bonnet makes a lady look like she's crowned with flowers; a swoony pink Vivienne Westwood dress is sunset on the ocean) and sometimes it doesn't (a silvery Yeohlee Teng dress called "Bellows" is, indeed, bellows-shaped, and basically looks like Industrial Mr. Potato Head), but it's always an odd thing to do to a beautiful woman.
Why do we like this stuff, instead of finding it creepily estranging? Do we like it because it's estranging? Does the distance from natural beauty enhance that beauty, perhaps by reflecting the universal human condition of exile?
And when we're not making women look like flowers or insects or shipwrecks, we're saddling them with bustles and corsets and hip-padding, as if without these figure-exaggerating constructions we might not notice that women's shapes are lovely. This approach seems even weirder, and yet it has persisted over the tidal centuries of fashion.
The show features fashion talking back to politics: Yves Saint-Laurent responded to the strident 1970s calls to put political commitment over bourgeois beauty with an adorable, colorful, flowy hippie-chick dress. Fashion talks back to religion: Simon Costin drew on J.K. Huysmans's A Rebours to craft an anti-reliquary with vials of his artist friends' bodily fluids, and a "Memento Mori" necklace featuring huge talons, "rotting Victorian jet," and rabbits' skulls with hematite eyes. These pieces are terrific, resentful horror-show art, despite their adolescent dependence on the Church they attempt to demolish.
Fashion talks back to technology: There's a fun "Remote Control" dress, a hard shiny pink carapace that opens by remote control to reveal a huge spray of tulle. The overall effect is very "Barbie's Dustbuster," a playful commentary on the clash between techno imagery and the usual nature imagery associated with women.
Fashion even talks back to death, not only in the A Rebours pieces but in the far less accomplished Miguel Adrover outfit made from the late Quentin Crisp's mattress. This holey, homeless-chic piece is reminiscent of Walker Percy's description of a coffee table made from "a stone slab from an old morgue, the blood runnel used as an ash tray," which he suggests is the result of the modern self feeling itself to be "a voracious nought" that must seek meaning outside itself, yet empties of meaning every object it touches: The morgue slab is intended to be more meaningful than a coffee table, yet it simply becomes less meaningful than a morgue slab.
And of course, fashion talks back to itself: We have Rei Kawakubo's muddily colored short dress made of interweaving swaths of fabric: It's bondagey and bandagey; it's clearly well done, its draping very balanced and almost flag-like, but it's also neither beautiful nor sublime. Detractors accused the dress of reflecting misogyny, but the real problem is that it's drab.
Other meta-fashion pieces work much better, though often that's because they're talking about fashion and something else. Yohji Yamamoto's pleated, coralline red dress, for example, may be a swirly takeoff on the mid-20th-century styles of Madame Grès. But the dress works, in part, because it's also playing off one of the show's recurring themes: the identification of woman and ocean. This identification is sometimes explicit, as in Alexander McQueen's "Oyster" dress, with its shipwreck-tattered bodice and hugely abundant waves of foam-yellow skirt. Other times the sea influence can be seen in the spilling, wavelike wash of ribbons or fabric, making woman's form liquid.
Flowers and the sea are the two images that recur throughout the show. From the first room, with its 18th- and 19th-century gowns plastered with floral colors and shapes, to the final display of a headdress modeled after a Chinese garden, woman is still the hortus conclusus, her flowery fashions paradoxically displaying a garden while concealing the body that garden symbolizes.
Meta-fashion can be frustrating, as the ladies behind me learned. I'm sympathetic to the hope that fashion will eventually work through its self-analysis phase and get back to talking about the permanent things: about men and women, loss and springtime, color and change. But "blog.mode" does prove that our current self-obsessed, wiggily weird period of high fashion can produce clothes that are tart, clothes that are beautiful, and even clothes that are sublime.
Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.