Fashion History Talks! In conversation with Colleen Hill of The Museum at FIT

“I’ve come to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter if fashion is art. Fashion can simply be fashion – it is beautiful, it is creative, and it is important – and I think that is enough.” –Colleen Hill

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André Courrèges famous “Lunettes Eskimo” sunglasses photographed by William Klein for the March 1, 1965 issue of American Vogue and the cover of Hill’s new book Paris-Refashioned, 1957-1968, a companion to the exhibition at The Museum at FIT of the same name.

I have always been a firm believer in the inherent magic, wonder and awe of fashion–the art of dress, if you will. A dress by Alexander McQueen or Paul Poiret can move me as deeply as a painting by Odilon Redon or Casper David Freidrich. This idea that dress can and should be treated the same way as the most traditionally esteemed forms of art is at the heart of New York City’s The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), one of the few museums in the world dedicated exclusively to exhibiting and celebrating fashion, and the work place of Colleen Hill, Curator of Costume and Accessories, whose latest exhibition Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968 is currently on view until April 15th.

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Donyale Luna photographed by Guy Bourdin in a Paco Rabanne design for Vogue, April 1966.

The 1960s fashion scene is perhaps best captured in one word: Youthquake! A term that immediately evokes dancing, mini-skirted teenagers was coined by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to describe the rise of young people as fashion authorities in the 1960s. It was a period that witnessed the success of a new generation of British ready-to-wear designers who set the tone for fashion, ousting Paris from its thrown and redefining the very nature of how fashion was made, consumed and worn. A popular narrative perhaps, but one that is not entirely true as Hill reveals in her new exhibition which rightfully positions Parisian designers at the forefront of the 1960s fashion revolution, both as innovators and tastemakers in their own right. From the young ready-to-wear stylistes such as Emmanuelle Khanh and Sonia Rykiel to the upper echelons of the haute couture that included designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and André Courrèges, Paris’ contribution to the 1960s Youthquake is on full display at The Museum at FIT until April 15th.

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A 1966 evening dress by Paco Rabanne currently on display in Paris Refashioned, 1957-1968.

Paris Refashioned is the latest addition to the extensive resume of Hill who, with the museum’s treasure chest of over 50,000 garments and accessories at her fingertips, has authored five books on fashion in addition to curating numerous illuminating exhibitions including Exposed: a History of Lingerie (2014), Sporting Life (2011), His & Hers (2010-11), Eco-Fashion: Going Green (2010), Seduction (2008-9), and most recently, Fairy Tale Fashion (2016), my personal favorite.

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I am delighted to have Hill as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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I.D. (Emmanuelle Khanh), dress, 1966, gift of Sandy Horvitz.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? Fashion as a means of self-expression has been important to me since childhood. As I began to study the history of fashion later in life, I became fascinated by how closely fashion relates to identity, politics, sexuality, sociology … I could go on! Fashion’s significance is much deeper than many people realize, and because fashion studies is a relatively young discipline, I find that there’s a vast number of topics that still warrant exploration.

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Chloé (Karl Lagerfeld), evening dress, 1968, gift of Melanie Miller.

In your opinion, is fashion art? The increased presence and acceptance of fashion within museums is a clear indication of fashion’s growing status within the artistic hierarchy. Yet certain major fashion designers – such as Karl Lagerfeld and Miuccia Prada – have distanced themselves from the notion that fashion is art. Although my initial reaction as a budding fashion historian was to disagree with those designers, I’ve come to think that perhaps it doesn’t matter if fashion is art. Fashion can simply be fashion – it is beautiful, it is creative, and it is important – and I think that is enough. I don’t know that it needs to “prove itself” through designation as an art form.

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André Courrèges, boots, 1964, gift of Ruth Sublette.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: My favorite designers for curatorial purposes tend to fluctuate regularly, depending on what project I’m working on. If I am selecting based on my personal tastes (meaning what I would want in my own wardrobe), I would select André Courrèges and Consuelo Castiglione.

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Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, raincoat, 1966, gift of Ethel Scull. 

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? Caroline Evans’s books always prove to be inspirational, especially Fashion at the Edge. I’d also like to mention Joel Lobenthal’s book Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties, which I discovered at my local library when I was a child. It was my first real foray into fashion history – and I still adore 1960s fashion.

The companion book to Hill’s exhibition can be purchased here. 

**I had the pleasure of meeting Hill in 2012 when, as a graduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I co-curated an exhibition with Tracy Jenkins entitled Youthquake! The 1960s Fashion Revolution under Hill’s direction.

 

The Art of Christopher Kane Fall/Winter 2015 RTW — An Ode to Art and Fashion History

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Five distinct looks from Christopher Kane’s F/W 2015 RTW collection. Photographs courtesy of Catwalking.com via the Financial Times.

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Christopher Kane S/S 2007 RTW.

Christopher Kane’s Fall/Winter 2015 ready-to-wear collection beyond celebrating “feeling[s] of attraction and sensuality,”[1] was, in my eyes, a celebration of art and fashion history—not in the literal sense, but in a nuanced manner unique to Kane. Yes, the sexual references abound—phallic-looking slip tabs and silver-tipped pumps, which alluded to nipples, but perhaps it may be my inclination as a fashion historian to also see the historical references in this collection. Kane’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection demonstrates his immense talent and skill to move beyond his supremely well-received freshman collection from Spring/Summer 2007 of bodycon bandage dresses in neon colors to designing collection after collection that are thoughtful while being subversive, wearable yet provocative, all the while playing up the inherent qualities of his chosen materials. This particular collection, more than any, celebrates the art of dress in its tactile materiality. OChristopher Kane FW 2015 RTW_46f the several notable ensembles in this collection, the lace dresses comprised of sinuous nude figures that writhe and wrap around the model, were perhaps the most alluring. The highly stylized figures outlined in black were actually drawn by Kane and his team during life drawing classes held at the studio. Stylistically, they are redolent of Henri Matisse’s nude dancers from his renowned painting, The Dance of 1910, but Kane’s treatment—each figure pieced together, I see a nod to mid-1930s Surrealism à la Elsa Schiaparelli.             Matisse_The Dance 1909 The uneven hem formed from the figures’ cut out feet that aptly dance around the models’ ankles remind me of Schiaparelli’s masterful use of trompe l’oeil in her “Tears Dress” from the Circus Collection of 1938 designed with the help of artist Salvador Dali. Furthermore, Kane’s choice to use lace for the nude figures evokes human body hair, beautiful and grotesque all at once.

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The Tears Dress, printed evening ensemble by Elsa Schiaparelli, February, 1939. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Meanwhile, a shimmering blue and red draped velvet dress seemed to hark back to the heavy, draped fashions of 1913.

1913 Comparison

Vogue, December 1, 1913, 64.

Other historical references include a giant, characteristically 1960s floral Swiss lace that was used in its entirety to create a dress or at times trimmed a chainmail mesh shift that itself coincidentally recalls Paco Rabanne’s mesh “Rabanette”

Floral Comparison

All over embroidered daisy dress by Emanuel Ungaro and photographed by Richard Avedon. Vogue, March 1, 1966, 171.

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Jane Birkin dancing with Serge Gainsbourg in a Paco Rabanne mesh metal dress from 1969. Courtsey of Pacorabanne.com.

A diaphanous, seemingly ladylike sheer dress, embroidered with more outlines of nude figures, could have easily been a chiffon dinner dress by Jean Dessès from 1954.

Desses Comparison

Blue chiffon dinner dress by Jean Dessès. Vogue, March 1, 1954, 117.

Tim Blanks of Style.com also saw a nod to Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking jacket in the first look of the collection.[2]

Le Smoking Comparison

Yves Saint Laurent’s “Smoking” evening suit. Vogue, September 1, 1966, 291.

Despite Kane’s numerous references to fashion history, their presence never dilutes the overall strength or novelty of this collection. Nor do they come off in the least bit gimmicky. Rather, Kane transforms and reinvents what have become banal decade-associated tropes and merges them with elements that are distinctly his own.

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Glittery green lurex ensemble at Christopher Kane F/W 2015 RTW.

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Currents of an “electric orgasm,” Christopher Kane F/W 2015 RTW.


All runway photographs, unless noted, are courtesy of Style.com. Notes: [1] Jo Ellison, “Christopher Kane – London Fashion Week AW15 Show Report,” Financial Times, February 23, 2015, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ffaf1b76-bba4-11e4-aa71-00144feab7de.html [2] Tim Blanks, “Fall 2015 Ready-to-Wear Christopher Kane,” Style.com, http://www.style.com/fashion-shows/fall-2015-ready-to-wear/christopher-kane