Do Clothes Have a Mind of Their Own? Addressing the Psychology of Fashion
Despite the vehement beliefs of industry insiders, the phenomenon of fashion as it exists in the public imagination is one of superficial excess, concerned with extravagant displays of wealth through alien clothes worn, if ever, by a bonkers and wealthy few. And yet, we all interact with clothing on a daily basis. Meryl Streep's cutting monologue on a cerulean blue sweater and the trickle-down-theory of trends in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada springs to mind. At the weekend, Antwerp fashion museum MoMu opened the doors to their engaging new programme of exhibitions addressing clothing in relation to the bodies which anchor it, and the psychological impact garments can have.
MIRROR MIRROR - Fashion & the Psyche, a joint exhibition by MoMu, curated by Elisa De Wyngaert, and Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent, looks inwards to address the impact of clothes on the self in both physical and virtual form. Downstairs, visitors will find a revolving curation of the fashion museum's archives, together with Exploding Fashion: From 2D to 3D to 3D Animation, a research project by Central Saint Martins exploring the role of the pattern cutter in 20th century fashion design.
MIRROR MIRROR - Fashion & the Psyche puts the dressed body centre stage, inviting visitors to consider their own relationship to the clothes they wear. The exhibition is framed to address how fashion reflects prominent issues of identity and self-image back to us, tackling themes such as beauty ideals and clothing as protection in both physical and virtual form. 'I tried to bring together as many different names and perspectives [as possible]', Wyngaert explains. The curator didn't want to tell viewers what to think, so avoided a curatorial approach that prioritised an educational and chronological layout of the kind that often results in curators using fashion objects like puppets to tell a linear narrative which risks boring the visitor in their role as a passive participant. Instead, MIRROR MIRROR invites the visitor to do the work. This show will indeed get those who come through the doors thinking, but not always along the most progressive lines.
The exhibition is divided into three spaces; the first is a series of open vitrines which reflect the visitor's image back at them, signalling their involvement in the show's make-up. They are invited to observe avant-garden fashion by designers who have used clothing to take up space in unconventional ways, challenging what conservative fashion expects of proportion and silhouette.
An item by Issey Miyake cocoons the wearer in the late Japanese designer's innovative pleated fabric, proposing an inward exploration into the space between fabric and the body with clothes which encourage movement and comfort. Similarly, there's a joyful ease to British designer Molly Goddard's frothing tulle dress, whose impeccable craft also hides in plain sight, but considers a wearer who prefers a bolder statement, here in confectionary lemon yellow. Rei Kawakubo's infamous so-called 'Lumps and Bumps' collection for Comme des Garçons S/S 97 and a Simone Rocha dress featuring one off-kilter hip created using a bulbous pannier are some of the other items included in the opening room which illustrate that fashion does indeed hold the gravitas to defy conservative ideas around the human form. So far, so good.
As the exhibition progresses, we segue into the themes of body dysmorphia. Wyngaert cleverly highlights how fashion consumerism has glamorised and dissected the body in order to sell clothes, probing the viewer to consider the stark contrast to the empowering ways Kawakubo and Rocha honed in on the hips to challenge expectations of how a wearer takes up space and presents themselves to the world.
A photograph featuring a dehumanising make-up look by the genius artist Inge Grognard, shown at the beginning of the show, would be better understood placed alongside advertisements by Diesel and Guy Bourdin from the early 2000s and late 1970s. Although MoMu have rightly resisted the urge to lead the viewer by the hand, some visitors may need more guidance to understand the multiple societal and political undercurrents which underpin this show and make it so important, such as how these representations of the body psychologically impact their audience - presumably this was left to the Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent - and the non-white, non-European and non-female identifying viewer who are largely absent from the next section on fashion dolls and mannequins.
There are some remarkable acquisitions here. A miniature 17th century dress from the French court illustrates how fashion trends for the white elite were spread across Europe, long before the time of the journal or fashion illustration, and a selection of post-human dolls by the Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck, used for his S/S 21 fashion film, suggests how the physical human replica is coming back into fashion today. Later, visitors in the know will be thrilled to glimpse the 'first woman Martin Margiela ever dressed' - the fashion designer's first Barbie doll donning a wool jacket sewn together using his grandmother's white thread which remains visible on the seams of the shoulders, and would become the trademark for the brand Maison Margiela.
In the space between these objects, however, there is little discourse on the omission of other bodies from the Western fashion narrative which largely dominates this exhibition. The 2020 film What is a Subject by John Miller touches on how the white male has been fashioned as an ideal body in society, and three photographs of Nigerian designer Kenneth Ize's woven designs modelled on black mannequins in the street together with model and fashion collector Michele Elie's self-fashioned mannequin do present alternatives to the dominant 'neutral' tall, white and thin mannequins used for commerce and exhibiting. And yet, Elie's is clumsily presented next to the work of Japanese designer Ed Tsuwaki with their other worldly swan-like necks, resulting in the suggestion that this black body is also absurd in some way.
The curator tells me that she specifically resisted making gender and race binaries apparent in the curation of the show, instead letting these voices speak for themselves, such as with the hair styles created for mannequins in the first room by Jamaican stylist and artist Cynthia Harvey. However, not enough space has been given to these voices, which risks relegating them to the outside of the largely Western fashion discourse on image and beauty which is surely not this exhibition's intention.
Unfortunately, the final chapter of this show also feels lacking. Looking at contemporary internet culture and the development of the cyborgian self, MIRROR MIRROR addresses how the 'human' is existing in a post-human age through the realm of avatars and the metaverse. The role fashion brands such as Botter, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga have played to engage with their consumer through video games and avatars is addressed, albeit in the smallest space in the exhibition which feels reductive of the dominant current narrative of the metaverse in fashion and culture in 2022.
Screens display Balenciaga's A/W 21 video game Age of Tomorrow, Vuitton's S/S 16 advertising campaign starring virtual avatars, Prada's costumes for a Japanese animated film and Botter's virtual clothing try-on hub. Although this tackles avatars as a tool to engage a younger audience to sell clothes, it fails to fully address the psychological impact avatars are having on beauty image and the self, as explored earlier in the show. For instance, what do avatars offer in terms of better representation in fashion and what work still needs to be done?
The curator confessed to me their own fears of the dangers of avatars, face filters and the like when it comes to self-image, which is admittedly touched on in a film by Ed Atkins exploring the 'suffering machine'. However, it would have greatly benefitted the show to have explored these fears more thoroughly in the context of the fast-developing world of virtually dressed avatars.
Mirror Mirror: Fashion & the Psyche is open 08/10/22 — 26/02/23.
Exploding Fashion: From 2D to 3D to 3D animation runs 08/10/22 —05/02/23.