The Sartorial Smell

Recently, I've been musing the relationship between Fragrance and Fashion. In preparation for my Masters,  I have been trying to explore different books, essays and articles about curation and museum studies. Whilst volunteering at the Fashion and Textiles museum, I get the chance to read the books they stock in the Museum Shop when invigilating the Gallery or during quiet times in the shop., which is a huge help for academic preparation. One such book is a text I have briefly come across before, called Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice. However, this time, I really absorbed more of the theory and notions presented in this book. I particularly enjoyed reading the chapter by Harold Koda and Jessica Glasscock, documenting the 'evolving history' of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I have been fortunate enough to visit twice - in one year may I add.
Dianna Vreeland at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at 'The World of Balenciaga' exhibition, 1973

Whilst many museum and curation theorists and practitioners disliked, or at least disagreed with, the work of Diana Vreeland for the Met, I find her techniques really interesting. I find her style of curation interesting for many reasons, which I may or may not research further in my academic endeavours, however, what I read that became most intriguing, is that many of the things she introduced for fashion exhibitions, that at the time were faced with criticism, are still being used today, in both curation and commerce.

A page from 'The World of Balenciaga' exhibition book, 1973

In the 1973 exhibition held at the Met based, 'The World of Balenciaga', focused on, quite obviously, Cristobal Balenciaga, Vreeland placed empty bottles of Balenciaga's fragrance, Le Dix, were placed in the air conditioning units to scent the gallery space, in the theory that "nothing evoked the emotional connection of memory more than sound and smell'. [1]

Adverts for Balenciaga 'Le Dix' perfume 

Interestingly, the current exhibition at Fashion and Textiles Museum, 'The World of Anna Sui', is also scented - and uses the same title structure 'The World of...'. Both the downstairs and upstairs sections of the exhibition space are scented with two of Sui's whimsical fragrances. Similarly, music is a great part of the exhibition, with a curated playlist that plays throughout the space. Undoubtedly, many of the senses are fully engaged in this exhibition; sight, sound and smell. Although, it can be said, that without a careful watch, many guests also try to gain a sense of touch too - by touching the garments on display (this has led me to some research in the presence - and removal - of glass in a museum and how this chances the visitors experience. Watch this space).

I digress.

I would be interested, should I get the chance, to ask Dennis Nothdruft if there was any connection or inspiration drawn from Vreeland in the creation of this exhibition.

This relationship between the Sartorial and Scent developed into more general research about Fashion Houses and Fragrance, as seen on a Facebook post below:
Screenshot of the Facebook Post I wrote for the Fashion and Textiles Museum

Following all this research about fragrance, I visited the Perfume exhibition at Somerset House, but more about that next time....

[1] Harold Koda and Jessica Glasscock, Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice, Chapter 1, page 28


Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured at Fashion Space Gallery

The delayed 'Part Two' of the Fashion Museum day trip review is focused on the current exhibition at the Fashion Space Gallery. 

This space is within the John Princes Street campus of London College of Fashion. Despite being a stone's throw away from Oxford Circus - it is situated kind of behind Zara, and near the huge H&M on the corner - I believe it is arguably one of the lesser known fashion exhibit spaces in London. Which is a shame, as it is free to visit, and strives to have innovative displays throughout the year. 

About four years ago I went to the Fashion Space Gallery to see "Coco Chanel: A New Portrait by Marion Pike" and shamefully I hadn't been back since. Not for lack of interest, as the exhibitions in the last four years sound amazing - from Simon Costing's Impossible Catwalk Shows, to Warpaint: Alexander McQueen and Make-up, and not forgetting Museum of Transology (which fortunately is now in Brighton and I will not miss it this time). I just simply forget that it is there. I've been to Oxford Street numerous times in the past four years. In fact, last summer I was interning in the H&M press office / showroom for 5 weeks, and didn't once pop in during a lunch break. 

However, the current exhibition, Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured, really caught my eye as a recent Fashion History Graduate about to embark on my post-grad studies in History of Design and Material Culture. 

Entering the space, visitors are faced with a definition reading the following:

Present1 Imperfect2
1. Disorderly apparel reconfigured
2. A playful project that tested the principal elements of exhibiting fashion: object, body, text, installation. A conversation between exhibition-maker Jeffrey Horsley and curator Amy de la Haye inspired by apparel which is damaged, worn-out or perished.
Object: fragile apparel framed by modular structures
Body: proposals that allude to the human form
Text: playing with format to express actual and associative narratives
Installation: configured as gallery and studio space to share working processes

Alongside this were some post cards, which I assumed were free to take - so I did. The postcards shows closeups of the garments, illustrations of the bespoke display cabinets and other fascinating images from around the exhibition space. 

The layout and structure of the exhibition was different to what I had expected, but ended up being what I loved most about it. I was aware that the pieces on display were going to be in a less-than-perfect condition. Horsley and de la Haye use 'Disorderly Apparel' to describe items that are badly damaged. Items that would usually be overlooked within a museum archive or collection, partly due to the costly and timely nature of restoration of garments, and equally in part to the fact that badly damaged garments do not take well to been mounted on a mannequin. This means that most museum costume and fashion collections have pieces that will never be shown to the public, and may lay dormant amongst acid-free tissue paper until they eventually perish beyond repair. 
This exhibition, however, took several fragile items and made them the focus of the exhibition. From a pair of burnt Victorian leather gloves, to a century old shattered silk evening dress by the once leading London Couture House Redfern, to the more contemporary leather jacket template by Alexander McQueen, each piece of display were in varying degrees of decay. 
What fascinated me the most was the backdrop of photocopied notes, annotated pages of books and ideas adorning the walls, each relevant to their nearest garment. Whilst this working process is usually kept behind the scenes, Horsley and de la Haye explain their decision in the following:
Text is a routine method for interpretation and engagement. Present Imperfect playfully subverted the conventions of text panel and label. Narratives – actual and associative – such as time, transience and trauma are suggested as possible themes for finding meaning.
In order to share working processes and reveal multiple alternative narratives, the installation was configured as gallery and studio space. An intention is to highlight that within the evolution of any exhibition numerous choices and ideas are explored, rejected and chosen.
In my opinion, the garments played a lesser role in this exhibition, and the process and planning displayed surrounding them took the forefront. Although I can appreciate the importance of the object in telling a narrative - I spent several months of my bachelors focused on, and learning about, object based theorists such as Lou Taylor -  I was far more interested in the behind the scenes processes that are involved in making an exhibition. Seeing the curators scribbles and ideas laid out in front of me was far more exhilarating than simply looking at a garment and reading a text panel. 
My only point of contention would be that, aside from those inherently interested in museology, fashion history or curation, it may not appeal to many others. For example, a group of teenage girls came into the, honestly, quite small space when Sarah and I were there and their confusion was palpable. After taking a few pictures, including some selfies, and not reading a single piece of paper on the walls, they left, turning the wrong way in what I can only assume was the search for more - of which there was not. Seconds later they walked past again, having realised that this room was the only part of the exhibition, and left, presumably to fulfil their sartorial needs on Oxford Circus. Although it is great that teenage girls are actively seeking out fashion museums, as I previously mentioned the Fashion Space Gallery is almost a 'if you know, you know' type venue, I felt this particular exhibition may not have appealed to the kind of Fashion Exhibition they were after, or used to.  
However, as Fashion Historians and aspiring curators of dress, Sarah and I loved it! I certainly left feeling inspired and more knowledgeable in the field of exhibition making. As much as you can read a textbook about how to put together an exhibition, seeing the scribbled notes and messy minds of Horsley and de la Haye ignited my desire to enter this field even more. 


Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion. at the V&A

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went on a multiple museum day out in London, visiting three fashion exhibitions and a talk. Since finishing my undergraduate degree, I am more conscious that ever to keep my fashion history interests, thirst for knowledge and desire to research alive. Therefore, Sarah and I planned a strategic day out on a day we both fortunately didn't have work. 

As this day was so packed with culture, I am going to divide my account into three, a post for each event or exhibition to give each the recognition that it deserves. Thus begins Part One...

We began at the V&A and ensured that we took full advantage of the brand new 'Exhibition Road' entrance, leading to the innovative Exhibition Road Quarter of the museum. I thought it was beautiful how the architect(s), Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A) combined the old with the new in this bright and beautiful structure. Two of the pillars that create the archway entrance are original arches of the 19th century screen designed by Sir Aston Webb, complete with war wounds and visible signs of their impressive history. 

Fortunately, Sarah has a V&A Membership, so we both got to enter the exhibition for free, me as her guest. What pleasantly surprised me at the entrance desk of the fashion exhibition space was a sign stating that 'photography and sketching [was] encouraged'. I don't believe I have ever been to a fashion, or any fee-charging, ticketed exhibition in fact, exhibition in the V&A that allowed photography. Of course, people still take a sneaky photo here and there, but on the whole, it has been forbidden in the past. This sign appeared to be a catalyst for new techniques in curation unveiled throughout the museum.

I, undoubtedly, took full advantage of the ability to take photographs of the exhibition. As I prepare for my Masters, I am trying to hone my interested into one area of fashion history. Currently, I am increasingly drawn to the curatorial / exhibition making side to this subject, and the study of fashion within the museum environment. This interest comes from various sources, from the extensive  revision I had done for my final year exam, to beginning volunteering at Fashion & Textiles Museum,  and my continued work researching and cataloguing the private archive, THE ARC. Therefore, being able to take reference photographs at 'Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion' will, no doubt, come in very useful in the near future. I did wonder whether the reason photography was allowed was a decision made by the house of Balenciaga, or whether it was a mutually agreed term between the designer and the museum, as perhaps things like copy-right of images are harder to negotiate when an exhibition combines many different designers. Being that Balenciaga lent many of the pieces from their own archives, they would whole responsibility for how the images are used. Similarly, photography and sharing on social media is a great form of promotion and, essentially, free marketing and advertising. [1] Whatever the agreement was, the fact that photography and sketching was, not just allowed, but in fact encouraged, was a great development.

Many things about this exhibition stood out as innovative and invigorating. A key technique that was used in the exhibition was X-Raying the garments, so that the otherwise unseen structural features of the clothes become visible. 

Another amazing feature of this exhibition was the wide variety of sources on display. Many of the garments on display we shown in all stages of their creation, from Cristobal Balenciaga's sketches, to initial mock ups in calico (or similar), and also videos that demonstrate the intricate constructions of the garments. I feel this exhibition would have been fascinating, not only for fashion historians such as Sarah and myself, but also fashion students, as the detail and in depth focus on construction was unlike any exhibition I have been to before. 

Another really engaging part of the exhibition, was the tangible elements that featured at various points throughout. Firstly, as shown above, was a station in which you were provided with one piece of paper that had instructions on how to fold and tear in order to create a one seam dress coat, in the style of the Balenciaga version on display. I can only assume that this was a very inexpensive addition, after all, it was simply paper. However, it was so interesting, and fun at the same time. A repeated topic within debates surround fashions place in museums, questions arise around the seeming frivolity and fickleness of fashion, and whether the subject matter is too low-brow, unintelligent or 'fun' for the museum. 

I've mentioned before that I believe there is a certain sense of escapism when visiting a museum. Part of escapism, for some, can be elements of having fun and enjoying oneself. I think this practice station at 'Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion.' could add to a visitors sense of escapism. I also liked that it encouraged the viewer to be the creator. While, of course, Balenciaga was the focus of this exhibition, to celebrate his talent and skill, it was nice to let visitors have the opportunity to, themselves, become creators. 

There was also a dress up corner, which I am a huge fan of. When a fashion museum has a dress up corner, I love it a slight bit more! 

The final part of the exhibition I wanted to address was the upstairs section. For those who have not visited the fashion and textiles gallery at the V&A, it is important to understand that the space is circular in design. The permanent fashion collection runs around the outer section of the space, in  a chronological format. The fashion exhibition space is in the centre, and mimics the circular shape. Downstairs, it is easy to forget about this, due to glass cabinets and displays that appear angular and rectangular. Upstairs, however, always seems weirdly shaped, sparse and almost irrelevant to the downstairs exhibition, despite being part of it. For 'Balenciaga', the upstairs did feel like a better use of space. The walls had been built up, so you didn't look down upon the permanent fashion collection over the railings, and instead the walls were filled with quotes from designers who claim to have been inspired by Balenciaga. This, at least, made it feel far more separate and focused. Similarly, the arrangement of display and curatorial space arrangements were, in my opinion, far better! The space was laid out with one focus cylinder in the centre, which had a projection of a dress onto it. Each display case lead towards this point, making the space linear, yet working with the circular space in a seemingly logical manner, with no wasted space or emptiness. This, I believe, was an improvement. 

However, I did find, as I always tend to with the upstairs section of any fashion exhibit in this space, that the pieces on display were not exactly...relevant, for lack of a better word. Upstairs held contemporary designers who, as I mentioned previously, were 'inspired by Balenciaga'; from use of tailoring, colour or architectural structure. Now I do see where this idea comes from, and I can appreciate that fashion is cyclical etc. However, some of the garments appeared to be very much 'clutching at straws' in their link to Balenciaga. Perhaps they were pieces from the V&A archive that had never been displayed, or at least not for a while, and needed a bit of attention paid to them? Perhaps they needed to be included for a matter of funding or sponsorship? I will probably never know the answer to these questions, but I can conclude that that fact I didn't take a single photograph of the upstairs of the exhibition, probably means I didn't find it that interesting, or want to remember it!

That being said, overall 'Balenciaga. Shaping Fashion.' was a brilliant exhibition, in terms of curatorial innovation, visitor integration and engagement and level of artefacts on display. In my view, this wasn't just a 'fashion exhibition', it was a celebration of the craftsmanship that inevitably goes hand in hand with haute couture fashion. 

I will leave you with my final case from the exhibition, and no surprise at all, it is a display of several black Balenciaga garments. 

[1] The idea of the commercial aspect of fashion museums of living fashion houses or designers is a really interesting subject that I have been doing some research on, but have yet formed a cohesive academic opinion and argument on, so I will leave this as it is, until further notice. 


Google's Art & Culture App

On hearing the theme of the Met's summer fashion exhibition, Rei Kawakubo / Commes des Garçon: Art of the In-Between, I straight away started researching flights and hotels in Manhattan for a few days in order to visit it. Ultimately, I am not in the position to spend at least £500 to visit this exhibit, as much as I was trying to convince myself that I could - and live on basic's baked beans for the foreseeable future!

However, my desire to explore Art of the In-Between has just been fulfilled through Google's Art & Culture App! This app provides an interactive and in-depth virtual experience of going through the exhibition, complete with text panels, images of the installations and video clips. As a Fashion & Dress History soon-to-be graduate, I am all too aware that physically visiting an exhibition is pivotal in the learning, understanding and absorbing of an exhibition. The actual experience of seeing garments, experiencing the atmosphere and loosing oneself in the museum experience is irreplaceable. Museums are places of escapism, of enlightenment and to immerse oneself into a liminal space. There will always be a need, if not necessity, for the museum.

However, sometimes it is logistically impossible to visit all the exhibitions that you desire. In this way, the Google Art & Culture app enabled those interested in enhancing their cultural knowledge and appreciation for the arts, without economic, distance or time constraints. I was surprised to see just how thorough the descriptions and images were. It follows the exhibition through all the rooms and sections, with in-depth descriptions and explanations and incredible images of each room / installation. 

The app has 16 other exhibitions from The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, including a fascinating section going 'Behind the Scenes' at the Costume Institute Conservation Lab, a space that many people have only imagined it to look like.

Aside from the Met, Google Art & Culture app also give it's user virtual access to many other incredible  galleries and museums. Currently on the app's homepage there is a link to the article,  'Explore Stylist Locations Around the World in Street View', which includes the Palace of Versailles, ModeMuseum Province Antwerpen, Museo Frida Kahlo and Parsons School of Design amongst many others. This means you can take in culture and creativity from across the world from the comfort of your own country. In fact, there are 2888 museums / galleries available via Street View on the app!

According to reports by the Business of Fashion, the aim was “to bring 3,000 years of fashion to the Google Arts & Culture platform...The initiative is based on the premise that fashion is culture, not just clothes. Led by Kate Lauterbach — a Google program manager who began her career at Condé Nast in New York and later worked for J.Crew’s Madewell — it aims to digitise and display thousands of garments from around the world, stage curated online exhibitions, invite non-profit partners like museums and schools to script and share their own fashion stories, and leverage technologies like Google Street View to offer immersive experiences like virtual walkthroughs of museum collections.'[1]

Google have been digitising the art world since 2010, when an engineer named Amit Sood kickstarted the Google Art Project, which enabled users to virtually walk through art galleries and museums across the world, making cultural artefacts accessible in extraordinary detail to millions of internet users. The project has since grown into the Google Cultural Institute, which is non-profit and housed in a grand hôtel particulier in  Paris. The Google Cultural Institute has partnered with over 1,300 museums, showcasing a range of different artefacts and art pieces to users worldwide.  

However, their current the main focus seems to be on fashion, more specifically fashion's relationship with art is new. With featured content such as 'The True Cost of Fashion' and the aforementioned 'Art of the In-Between' exhibition, this focus is incredibly interesting for me, as I am currently in a limbo-like state, somewhere lost between awaiting my undergrad results and staring at an incomplete Master's application. Yesterday, the 8th of June, marked the last day I was able to take books out of the library until I (hopefully) enrol onto my preferred Master's course, which leaves about 3 l-o-n-g months that I would be intellectually limited. Although I am able to use 'desk reference' books at my university library, with the help of the Art & Culture app I will be able to soak in fashion and art history from the comfort of my new flat. 

Although this seems very much like a sponsored article, due to my apparent love of the app, I genuinely just find it amazing! I only just discovered it this morning and I have already given myself a migraine from just browsing the different exhibitions and museums that it has to offer (true story - my vision has only just come back, and I'm sure staring at this screen is likely to make it resurface!). A large part of my degree was debating where fashion is art. Lauterbach said to BoF "We wanted to show that fashion is much deeper than just what you wear; that there’s a story behind it, there’s people behind it, there’s influences that come from art, that come from music, that come from culture more broadly; and, in turn, what we wear influences culture. We really wanted to put fashion on a par with art and artists." Which is definitely something worth considering, and may even pose as a research topic for further work. 

The Google Art & Culture app is free to download, and I would say it is an absolute must have for anyone interested in fashion, art, design or craft, both the history of and contemporary examples.

You can download it on iTunes here or on Google Play for Android here

[1] Vikram Alexei Kansara, 'Why is Google digitising the worlds of fashion archives?', Business of Fashion, 8 June 2017.