Just what do we expect from clothes? Are they tools of attraction? Statement makers? A means of concealment – physical as well as emotional? Or are they art?

The last seems so incongruous when you are amid the rounds of ready-to-wear shows that have become such big business. Here bottom lines matter as much as hem lines, consumer engagement more than curatorial appeal.

Yet as fashion becomes more about building luxury conglomerates, there has been a spate of museum shows dedicated to fashion lately, from a show of Nan Kempner’s couture gowns at the Met in New York to Kylie Minogue’s costumes at the Victoria and Albert Museum and an upcoming Matthew Williamson profile in October at London’s Design Museum.

Take Coats! Max Mara, 55 Years of Italian Fashion, at Berlin’s Kulturforum Potsdamer Platz, which transfers to Tokyo’s Mori Museum in October. The show attracted 12,000 visitors – compared to 14,000 for the same museum’s Rembrandt exhibition.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the Max Mara show is its approach to a fashion exhibition, with its emphasis on all the elements that go into fashion creation; this is not an exhibition about the designer as a star (although it is really all about the MaxMara brand and the coat that its empire has been built upon), but the designer as part of a creative process that includes pattern-cutters and production. There is also a strong element of inter-action with the public, in a bid to explain the design processes from sketches through to the finished article and even the advertising campaigns of a fashion group.

“The exhibition is making a point about a different approach to fashion,” explains Luigi Maramotti, MaxMara’s chairman. “People are losing the grasp of what is fashion. They focus on the superficial elements but there is a lot of culture connected with fashion.”

Maramotti also believes that fashion, displayed in the right way, has an important part to play in a museum’s repertoire.

“What should be in a museum nowadays? Is it a place for celebration or a place for debate? For me, it’s a place for debate – it’s like a piazza. A piazza is a tradition in Italy as a place where people gather and start discussion. So a museum to be really pushing forward society should be a place for debate like a huge piazza.”

That debate seems to be helping to alter the way fashion is exhibited. When the Giorgio Armani retrospective exhibition, which launched in 2000 at New York’s Guggenheim, opened at the Triennale di Milano last week it had been updated to include more sketches and audio and video tracks tracing the
evolution of the designer’s work; the original exhibition had been criticised for being too static and lacking a broader context. The art links here go a bit deeper: the show was curated by Germano Celant, senior curator of contemporary art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Davide Rampello, president of the Triennale, called the show “a fitting tribute to one of the greatest exponents of modern design culture. Each item of clothing or accessory by Armani is the outcome of a design philosophy built on creativity, planning and production”.

Even though fashion has become accepted in some of the most respected museums it seems not everyone agrees on why it deserves its place there. For Adelheid Rasche, an art and fashion historian who curated the MaxMara exhibition, it is important to remember that clothing only becomes complete when it is placed on a body.

“This is a very important notion – many fashion designers are trying to convince us that they make art, but I would never say it,” she explains. “Well, in the best sense it could be applied art, but it is always applied, there’s always a direction.”

To add weight to her argument, you could consider that the recent Balenciaga exhibition in Paris was held at the Musée des Arts décoratifs’s Musée de la Mode et du Textile. Yet for some, such as Harold Koda, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York who worked on the Nan Kemper show, on last year’s Chanel blockbuster and currently on the Paul Poiret exhibition due to open later this year, there is no confusion.

“I still have residual art-historical notions of hierarchy of art forms, as much as I try to suppress them,” he says. “But even I can say certain things are art, there is just no hesitation about calling a Balenciaga coat art.

“The fact of its practical application of covering the body, that’s obliterated by these other considerations of the conceptual exchange with which an aesthetic object has been formed. I’d argue that you would call it art; or would be remiss in not calling it art.”

If you take the standpoint that art must have a message, a spirit of its own, then on many levels fashion works as an easy entry point to the art arena or, at the very least, the design arena. As Rasche says: “Everyone thinks they can say something about fashion.”

But fashion, like any art or creative endeavour, is best understood in the context of its time as well as with the retrospective understanding that a curated show can bring. So it is interesting to note that, increasingly, fashion is being set in a context. Koda and co-curator Andrew Bolton were careful to create narrative vignettes to bring alive the fashion and toilette of the 18th century in the Dangerous Liaisons exhibition in 2004.

That trend – to put fashion in its place in a greater spectrum – is continuing. The V&A, for instance, is increasingly using it as an important presence in its other exhibitions, which, says its costume curator, Sonnet Stanfill, “is perhaps one element [of fashion display] that may be changing”. In its upcoming Surrealism and Design: Surreal Things some Schiaparelli dresses will be included, just as there was a high fashion content in its recent Art Deco blockbuster. “I think at the V&A we view [fashion] in the context of the history of design,” explains Stanfill. “We’re trying to chronicle and capture examples of leading design.”

Well, as Nan Kempner once said of her array of couture clothes: “My husband, Tommy, thinks it’s hysterical because he used to think it was an extravagance, and now it turns out that I was an art collector.”

Clothes as collectable art? We are right back to those bottom lines again.

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