Oh, blerg. It’s ‘fashion as art’ season again.
This happens every few years – the major public galleries around the country throw their doors and wallets open and devote their main exhibition spaces to blockbuster fashion shows. There was Vivienne Westwood at the National Gallery of Australia a decade ago, the Valentino retrospective at GoMA in 2010, and I vaguely recall an Yves Saint Laurent one happening during a Sydney trip in the heady 1980s (Pixie Skase and Eileen Bond must have been all over that). Right now, we have no less than three fashion exhibitions running concurrently across the country. Everywhere you look it’s corsets, collars and haute couture. There’s The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk at the National Gallery of Victoria, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion at Brisbane’s QAGOMA, and the Art Gallery of South Australia has Fashion Icons: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Musee de Arts Decoratif in Paris. That’s a fair chunk of our major art institutions given over to the fashion industry.
I’ll be honest. I enjoy fashion about as much as a vegetarian enjoys a meat pie, so that’s my first disclaimer – I am naturally biased against fashion and the fashion industry. Clothes shopping makes me turn into my father. I’d rather be doing anything else, and if you’ve seen how I dress you’ll know that already. So when a gallery turns their much sought after space over to the fashion industry, I get a little shirty. I appreciate the artistry behind fashion design. The technical skill, the creativity and the various influences on the designers, many of which come directly from the pages of art history text books. I get all that. I can’t sew for shit and have no real desire to learn, but I have grown up with women who were and are great sewers and one of my best mates is a fashion designer. I recognise the work that goes into what they do and the talent behind it. Truly. I am constantly impressed by what appears once the buzzing of the Elna has ceased. But to put it in an art museum?
It’s funny. If these were works hanging in a textile exhibition, I wouldn’t think twice about it. But they’re not. They’re clothing, and they’re being exhibited as such. These shows are governed by the money, the media, the trends and the celebrity that go along with it. And I guess I resent that an industry already so over hyped, over publicised and so over inflated with its own importance (think Meryl Streep’s cerulean rant in The Devil Wears Prada), is able to encroach on the already meagre slice of the culture pie given to the Australian art scene. Last count there were about 30,000 artists operating professionally in Australia; artists who are regularly creating and exhibiting work commercially. There are god knows how many more out there who don’t come close to making a living out of their art and are therefore excluded from that figure. That’s a lot of artists fighting for a share of the pie. Add a whole other industry into the mix and, well, the models might not be eating the pie but the designers sure are.
Chris Saines, director of QAGOMA, has been quoted as saying that much of the appeal of these exhibitions is that audiences don’t feel challenged by them, that their already familiar relationship with fashion makes them highly accessible shows for audiences to attend, but is that what we want from our art museums? Particularly our contemporary art museums? Isn’t that what we tell ourselves time and time again the whole point of art is? To challenge and make people think? Isn’t that how the art scene has validated their existence for years and years and years? So why take the lazy way out now?
I understand it’s a numbers game, and that these big exhibitions are no brainers for art museums. They’re guaranteed to be high traffic, widely publicised and in most cases profitable. They have significant cultural currency due to fashion’s central position in popular culture. I would just rather see that cultural currency being spent in social history museums where the patronage is desperately needed and where they’re infinitely better suited to conveying the historical relevance held within the layers of these exhibitions.
Two major exhibitions currently being staged at Brisbane museums, Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion at Queensland Museum, and Costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood at Museum of Brisbane, are excellent examples of how well suited our museums are to this role (like I said before, clothing is everywhere at the moment). Both these exhibitions are beautifully staged, thorough, relevant and have queues longer than you’d normally see at a museum ticket counter.
There’ll always be arguments for and against fashion in art galleries. There seems as much support for the continuation of this current trend as there are people like myself who scream “philistine” at the thought. But as we’ve heard cynics pointing out for years – just because it’s in a gallery, it doesn’t mean it’s art.
ART GALLERY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
FASHION ICONS: MASTERPIECES FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE MUSEE DES ARTS DECORATIFS, PARIS
Until 15 February 2015
NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA:
THE FASHION WORLD OF JEAN PAUL GAULTIER: FROM THE SIDEWALK TO THE CATWALK
Until 8 February 2015
GALLERY OF MODERN ART, BRISBANE:
FUTURE BEAUTY: 30 YEARS OF JAPANESE FASHION
Until 15 February 2015
UNDRESSED: 350 YEARS OF UNDERWEAR IN FASHION
Until 1 February 2015
MUSEUM OF BRISBANE:
COSTUMES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD
Until 24 May 2015