The mini skirt. Claimed to be invented by Mary Quant in London, and premiered around 1964, this now iconic skirt style has become both the symbol of fashion in the 60s and an image of a youth-oriented fashion, still alive today. But while Mary Quant was creating her version in London, so was Pierre Cardin in Paris, surrounded by many other designers that, along with him, created newer, fresher fashionable styles, filled with the livelihood of a younger generation born in the offset of the war. Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Sonia Rykiel… they were all members of the new innovative class of fashion designers that emerged in Paris during the decade, reshaping the decades-old couture scene in France, and reviving—refashioning—the city. This new livelihood is precisely what Paris Refashioned, 1957–68, on view on the main gallery in the Museum at FIT until this Sunday, April 15, explores.
The opening gallery, outside the main exhibition space, reviews the Paris fashion scene between 1957 and 1960, presenting a wonderful collection of garments and accessories from the time in what looks like a 1950s couture salon. In the center of the gallery are two iconic dresses of the time: the A-line “trapeze” dress, designed by Yves Saint Laurent in his first collection for the house of Dior, in 1957, and a “Baby Doll” dress by Cristobal Balenciaga, from the same year. Against each other, they represent the changes in fashion that began in the 60s: Saint Laurent’s dress most likely appealing to a customer much younger than the more traditional style by Balenciaga. But together they suggest the emergence of a new style in fashion, with the hemlines shorter than in years before.
Around the two dresses, enclosing them in a kind of rectangular frame made up of mannequins and two cabinets (one with shoes and one with hats), are three rows of other designs of the time, all suggesting the beginnings of the change to come later in the decade. On the remaining wall enclosing the space are four monitors with videos, providing an interesting juxtaposition with the dresses: from film clips featuring Audrey Hepburn, Françoise Hardy, Sylvie Vartan, and Brigitte Bardot, to clips of fashion presentations and newsreels of the collections designed by Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Emanuel Ungaro, and André Courrèges. They act, somewhat confusingly, as a transition into the main space of the exhibition, while also introducing the viewer with a more “real life” aspect of the clothes being shown in lifeless mannequins.
The main space of the exhibition was, surprisingly, easy to navigate: the mannequins aligned against the walls and on a central platform, aligned to form a sort of path to be followed by the viewers. From the iconic Mondrian dresses by Yves Saint Laurent to early designs by Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé (already hinting, though quite different from the chic-eccentric aesthetic we recognize in him today); from playful, colorful mini-skirts and dresses to the trousers-for-every-occasion proposed by Saint Laurent and Courrèges, the space contains a thorough chronology of the fashionable styles in Paris during the 1960s. The absence of a clear indication of the beginning of the chronology allows some liberty in the direction in which the viewer can choose to promenade, while listening to an exquisite selection of French music, through the exhibition.
I must say that I really appreciated experiencing some order in this usually chaotic space—which sometimes leaves me so confused and overwhelmed that I even wonder why I keep going to exhibitions there. The other really valuable thing about the organization of this space was that the dresses in the central platform were visible from almost every angle, thus solving one of the most common problems in exhibiting fashion: that the viewer is not able to see the entire dress.
But, while this one problem is eliminated, Paris Refashioned is not exempt of other impediments in the exhibiting of fashion.
Alexandra Palmer says that viewers of fashion exhibitions, inevitable, imagine themselves wearing the dresses they see. This came to my mind the moment I saw a beautiful Paco Rabanne dress made up of plastic roundels linked with metal hoops. I saw it, saw the incredible amount of metal hooplinks, and wondered, instantly, how much it would weigh. If only I could extend a hand and grab its skirt… If only I could try it on and feel the touch of the plastic on my skin, the weigh on the metal hanging from my shoulders. But for conservation—and maybe even logistical/organizational—reasons, it might not be possible even in my wildest dreams!
A similar thing happened with a dress by Marc Bohan for Dior: from the outside, it seems a light, flowing garment… but under the layers of silk organza is a rigid understructure, which would hold the dress firmly in place against the wearer’s body—something that, as a viewer, I both wanted to see and experience on my own skin.
Finally, there was a black and white silk dress with canted hemline, created in 1968 by Balenciaga, shortly before his retirement. The shape of the garment he had refined over the course of the decade, and it became so perfect that, when in motion, the dress would acquire a perfectly conical shape. What a sight! But, again, the idea is left to the viewer’s imagination…
All these examples are reminders of the materiality of fashion: experienced by our different senses—touch, view, even smell—it is an essential aspect of the clothes we wear. And there is no doubt that is also essential in the garments exhibited in a museum. But too often, in exhibitions—and precisely because we want to be able to conserve the garments for decades to come—they lose that materiality, presented statically on lifeless, almost body-less, mannequins.
Speaking of mannequins, it is worth noting that most dresses in the opening space are presented in headless mannequins made up of cream fabric and wood. Only the two dresses in the center are presented on contemporary, white mannequins, with lean, long figures, stylized poses and clean heads—possibly as a means of helping them stand out from the rest. The dresses in the main space of the exhibition are also presented in this contemporary type of mannequin, although in various shades. This made me wonder if the “old-style” mannequin was a means employed by the curator as a way of establishing the “before” and the “now” of 1960s fashion. This idea I actually like.
I must also say that, despite thinking otherwise while viewing the exhibition, I liked that the main space features only the garments, without the complementary audiovisual and pictorial material that they often include in the exhibitions at FIT. All the video clips in the opening space provide enough context to see the 1960s garments in motion and understand those exhibited inside the main space. And, although the materiality of the garments exhibited is mostly left to the imagination of the viewer—as it happens pretty much on every fashion exhibition—the range of designs, of styles, and the changes of Parisian fashion from 1957 to 1968 are beautifully presented, and arranged, in this must-see exhibition.
***Photography via the Museum at FIT.