The seemingly romantic titled Fashion Folklore belies the bold nature of this exhibition and the challenging debates it provokes. Fashion Folklore juxtaposes regional dress (terminologically often described as ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’) and textiles, drawn from the Museum of Civilization of Europe and the Mediterranean (Mucem) collection, with elite Paris fashions which demonstrate their stylistic inspiration.
To stage an exhibition which takes this theme demonstrates impressive institutional assuredness. The buy-in from the fashion industry is a tribute to the gravitas and sensitivity of curators Marie-Charlotte Calafat (Head of Collections and custodian of heritage) and Aurélie Samuel (custodian of heritage.)
Mucem’s regional dress collection was originally housed at the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions in Paris (est. 1937). When visitor attendances reached an all-time low, the Ministry of Culture closed the museum, moved the collection to Marseilles and commissioned a staggeringly beautiful building designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti (in association with Roland Carta) to re-present it. Renamed, Mucem opened in 2013, the year Marseilles was designated as the European Capital of Culture.
Often described as a ‘cradle of civilisation’ Marseilles has (unlike Paris) mixed communities in the heart of the city. In the institution's own words, ‘Both its exhibitions and its cultural programs offer a multidisciplinary vision that combines anthropology, history, archaeology, art history and contemporary art to show the public the multiple facets of the Mediterranean world and its ongoing dialogue with Europe.’
By commissioning scenography from the critically acclaimed Agence NC Nathalie Crinière, responsible for many top fashion installations, Mucem has made significant investment in the positioning, look and feel of Fashion Folklore. The exhibition is mostly arranged by regions and nations, but there are also some thematic displays devoted to rites of passage such as weddings and colour.
Mucem’s collection of Romanian embroidered blouses are displayed on an elongated curvilinear steel dress rail that could easily grace a Yohji Yamamoto store. Threatened with imminent disappearance, these skills (along with embroidery techniques from Hungary and Moldavia) have recently been classified by UNESCO as vital intangible cultural heritage ‘in urgent need of safeguarding.’
One of the blouses formed part of the Parisian haute couturiére Jeanne Lanvin’s private research collection. Beneath is a fashion album featuring a gouache illustration of a very similar design presented for winter 1921- both lent by Patrimoine Lanvin. The text panel invites visitors to consider: ‘Does the borrowing of motifs and techniques without any mention of their original context constitute theft? In other words, can and should traditional dress be protected, certified, and subject to copyright?’
This effectively addresses the critical issues without imposing value judgements and avoiding the highly charged term 'cultural appropriation'. Cultural appropriation describes the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of elements of one culture or identity by members of another – invariably more dominant and powerful - culture or identity. In the case of fashion, this has often caused great offence. It has also generated wealth for designers with no benefit to the originating creative individual or community. Whatever your attitude towards cultural appropriation (as distinct from cultural appreciation) the juxtapositions made in this exhibition are thoughtful, imaginative and, often compellingly beautiful and/or striking.
Regional dress from many regions and countries- including Brittany, Finland, Hungary, Paris, Romania, Russia, Spain and the Ukraine – are shown. Texts explore the study of folklore and its historical positioning as picturesque and/or exotic, the evocation of a ‘fantasised peasantry’ and the long-held misconception that regional dress was timeless. A text panel ‘Estonia, Finland, Ukraine: Asserting National Identities’ highlights how Russian imperialism has led neighbouring countries to assert the distinctive nature of their cultures and explores how dress has played a central role in the construction and defence of national identities.
Curators have mostly rejected the convention of showing flat-cut regional dress on T-bar stands to highlight shape and ornamentation. Instead, they have displayed both regional dress and high fashion on similar style mannequins to foreground how they look on the body. This works well. An exception is a stunning Hungarian, flower embroidered, man’s chemise dating from the early 20th century.
Mannequins with neutral heads are used for outfits with headwear and most figures are painted black, which makes the many brilliantly colourful garments ‘pop.’ Some outfits are - effectively – shown flat, but as if on a dressed body, against a gallery wall. Full-scale historical photographs of people wearing the costumes and models posed wearing high fashion form visually arresting and contextualising backdrops.
The theme of this show could be considered awkward by the fashion industry. However, significantly, most of the fashion items have been willingly lent by designers and fashion house archives. Designers do not have the same control over their work housed in public museum collections. Balenciaga, Dior, John Galliano for Maison Margiela, Christian Lacroix, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Hermès, Dries van Noten, Yves Saint Laurent, Bernhard Wilhelm and, Viktor&Rolf are amongst the designers represented.
A section on Saint Catherine’s Day shows the vibrant green and yellow costumes donned by ‘Catherinettes’ (unmarried women aged 25 years or more). Catherine was the patron saint of milliners, and is one of the curator’s selected fashion parallels. Mucem collects some fashion spin-offs. These include a green and yellow hat with decorative musical notes by Schiaparelli from 1937 and a 1958 hat from Balmain exhibited in this section.
Excluding a Tunisian inspired ready-to-wear outfit by Bernhard Willhelm from 2009 and a Transylvanian manteau (sleeveless garment) from the turn of the 20th century shown with a Riccardo Tisci manteau from A/W 08 (lent by Givenchy Patrimoine), the fashions are all designed for females. A text panel titled Gender Reversal states that ‘traditional; dress’ has,’ … a more enduring hold among women than men.’ And, it situates as ‘gender fluid’ the re-presentation of the masculine Tyrolean headdress and the fez.
Today, Mucem houses the people’s collections and has succeeded in becoming the people’s museum - only 20% of visitors are tourists; in Paris museums it is 80%. I applaud a nation that invests so significantly in its ‘popular’ as well as its ‘fine’ arts.
In today’s risk averse, financially-driven, cultural climate it takes commendable assuredness to engage – and push forward the debate - concerning controversial subjects, ‘contentious’ objects and/or object juxtapositions within museums. Only a confident museum president (Pierre-Olivier Costa) with a deep-rooted confidence in their staff will do so. Fashion Folklore was due to close in October; due to its popularity the run has been extended until January.