“Intimate Architecture: Contemporary Clothing Design”

Hayden Gallery, M.I.T.

Fashion exhibitions in an art context are often little more than bad jokes which serve neither community. For the most part they are amateurish displays of glamorous haute bourgeois garments pinned on borrowed mannequins with bad wigs (or, frequently, no wigs). Institutions that wouldn’t allow a ginger jar to be mounted on a badly proportioned base think nothing of forcing an 18th century gown onto the armature of a 20th century mannequin. Equally inappropriate are the postures that the mannequins are assembled to hold; poses unthinkable for a person of a certain time are routinely incorporated into displays where fiction has a significant edge on fact.

In America, Diana Vreeland’s exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have set an eccentric standard for the beast. The Vreeland shows are enormously and deservedly influential in the worlds of fashion and art. They provide, however, very bad examples for others to follow (and followed they have, like lemmings). It is important to note that Vreeland has consistently abandoned the role of curator in favor of that of impresario. Her exhibitions are in the tradition of Sergei Diaghilev’s flamboyant 1906 “Exposition de l’Art Russe à Paris,” in which he hung a ransom in icons on a gold cloth stitched together from antique chasubles. Diaghilev’s exhibition was a fantasy of Russia; like Diaghilev, Vreeland can always be counted on to jettison reality in favor of theatrical artifice.

The hitch in Vreeland’s extravaganzas is their flirtation with a kind of tacky improvisation which results in swags of glittering synthetic fabric used for proscenium framing and set off by disco lighting. Vreeland’s weird use of accessories, too, often tells you more about her approach to cheap chic than about the period that is presumably being surveyed. But then there are the music and the ensemble groupings and the revelatory selection of garments—in short, there is Diana Vreeland. There is no formula, only a highly individualized personality. Hence trying to imitate Vreeland is a doomed enterprise. So what’s a fashion curator to do?

A good route would be to take a couple of tips from Susan Sidlauskas’ “Intimate Architecture” presentation at MIT, an exhibition admirably installed by Daniel Pike. The mannequin, with its false vocabulary of suggestive movement, was nowhere in sight; its place was taken by a simple armature consisting of torso, arms, neck, and occasionally the lower half of the face. Plaster-cast in fragments from commercial display mannequins, these armatures provided a complimentary support for the garments but did not either impart social attitude or editorialize/fictionalize function. Since they lacked articulated limbs and were suspended by monofilament, there was no need to deal with accessories. The suspension had the further benefit of allowing the garment a freedom of movement; indeed, part of the beauty of the show was the delicate rustle of fabric caused by the movement of spectators through the gallery. Further, fascinating information concerning the garments’ structure and potential for movement was revealed by marionettelike arrangement of filament that extended a sleeve, raised a hem, or opened a cape. Whenever possible a garment was hung at some remove from the wall so that all of it was visible. A particular delight of the installation was that much of it seemed to be floating in space—a strategy that was enormously complimentary to the elegantly structured clothes on exhibit.

The installation strategy could have worked for clothes of any period. It was, however, in service to eight contemporary fashion designers, each of whom it represented with insight and grace. The bulk of Sidlauskas’ choices—Giorgio Armani, Gianfranco Ferre, Krizia (Mariuccia Mandelli), Issey Miyake, Ronaldus Shamask, and Yeohlee Teng—have at least two important attributes in common: inventively structured clothes and a classic design vocabulary. Left and right of center were selections representing Stephen Manniello and Claude Montana, the former’s work looking like Arcadian moderne, the latter—represented only by hats—looking punkishly romantic. All are masters of draping and cutting, contemporary exponents of a centuries-old design tradition.

However, they are not architects; they are fashion designers. “Intimate Architecture” is a red-herring of a title which obfuscates the virtue of the work it is presenting and which suggests equivalencies that do not exist. What seems to have gotten in the way of a clean, understandable exhibition is the need for a thesis that would somehow get it beyond the advancement of a particular fashion sensibility. Interestingly, Sidlauskas’ catalogue essay is wonderfully informative in its discussion of individual contributors; only the framing strategy, with its eager dives into architectural and art history, comes off as wishful academicism. For example, Sidlauskas states that “as revealed in the clothing in this exhibition, the imposition of a geometric abstraction on the body rescues both designer and wearer from the caprice of organic line.” And: “The recurrence of armor-like forms in this exhibition suggests a need to impose a statement of order at a time when cultural anxiety has exaggerated the need for protection and definition. Geometric shapes serve to protect the wearer and distance the viewer.” My perception of the garments in “Intimate Architecture” suggests an alternative rationale: to wit, that the imposition of a geometric abstraction allows both the designer and the wearer the possibility of exploring a personal signature without disengaging from market or lifestyle trends. And the recurrence of armorlike forms suggests—by virtue of their nonfunctional, ironic appropriation—a mandarin fascination with the sublimation of the practical to the decorative. Geometric shapes serve to exoticize and elevate the wearer.

Designer Teng, in her catalogue statement, gets closest to the truth of the matter: “Clothes have magic. Their geometry forms shapes that can lend the wearer power.” Period. The clothes displayed in “Intimate Architecture” are ultimately about the transferral of power from garment to wearer. They are ritual accoutrements for contemporary social ceremonies. Since the designers represented are all competitively involved in the marketplace, their clothes are also about second-guessing the psychology of the buyer. Some suggest functionalism, some mobility, some glamour—all suggest seduction (an aspect brilliantly explored by Robert Mapplethorpe’s catalogue photographs of body builder Lisa Lyon modeling the designers’ clothes). I would, in the end, have better enjoyed “Intimate Architecture” had it engaged the real sociological implications of its content rather than imposed an architectural construct which only served to confuse the issue.

Which brings me back to Vreeland and her peculiar sensitivity to the context and impulse of fashion. Her sins are all ones of commission and enthusiastically acknowledge that fashion is predicated on excess. Sidlauskas, by trying to make an instinctive, creative process into a lockstep strategy, misses the romantic aspirations which are Vreeland’s meat and potatoes. I admire Sidlauskas’ quest for a more rigorous approach, but wish it had not been sidetracked into alien territory.

Richard Flood