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.
Fashion. If you’ve been reading along for the past year or so, it might be quite evident that what fascinates me the most about fashion is its capacity of communication: through our choices of clothing we send messages to the world about who we are, what we think, how we view the world. But fashion—the clothes we wear—is also about reinvention. In moments of change, fashion and self-fashioning are among the main tools used for the creation and expression of our new identities.
Sara Berman’s closet, now on view at the Met Museum, reveals the story of her life and her reinvention as a woman.
Past the galleries of Medieval art, with fairy tales narrated by the tapestries on their walls, and welcomed by a short glimpse of the most beautiful Chinese ceramics, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits the Costume Institute’s latest creation: Manus x Machina. The exhibition, which transformed the renown Lehman wing into the cupola of a Florentine Renaissance church, opens with the dress that inspired it. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld as the closing garment for his autumn/winter 2014-15 haute couture collection for Chanel, and made with synthetic diving-suit material, its surface soft as a whale’s skin, the dress extends about 6 metres backward, its train showcasing the most perfect intersection of manus and machina. The brocaded pattern was first hand-drawn by Lagerfeld, then pixelated with a computer aid. Rhinestones were inserted using a heat press, and the gold paint and pearls were embroidered by hand, taking the artisans no less than 450 hours of manual labor in the completion of this masterpiece. If the dress presents a pregnant figure, made specifically for the model who wore it down the catwalk a few years ago, it also presents the conception of the most recent creative vision of the curatorial genius that is Andrew Bolton, curator in chief of the Costume Institute.
It’s print week in New York, meaning that these days are all about celebrating the art of prints in the city. So I decided to join the party and write about the most recent exhibition by the department of Drawings & Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520–1620.
As you might have seen on my Instagram, on Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend the Preview of the current exhibition at the Met Museum Costume Institute: China: Through The Looking Glass, and I’m completely obsessed with it. Although I’ve only attended a few exhibitions at the Costume Institute and my opinion is probably not the most educated one, this one is my favourite so far and I can’t wait to go see it again!
I am not really sure if the exhibition was meant to have a precise order or not—and this is a problem I’ve found common in many of the fashion exhibitions I’ve attended—so I decided to follow my instinct and make my way through it using the order that seemed most logical through me. I started on the Anna Wintour Costume Center Galleries and then made my way up to the Chinese Galleries in the second floor. Although it did make sense most of the time, sometimes the way I transitioned from one gallery to the next was not very smooth. But it was all beautiful, despite the order/disorder, and magical.
The moment I entered the principal gallery of the Costume Center I felt immersed in an atmosphere of mysticism, a land unknown to me, but somehow familiar, from all the images I’ve seen from it throughout my life. The music was intense and the film clips from The Last Emperor helped create this atmosphere, where a time long gone in China was recreated through the art of dress. In the movie, it is possible to see the wonderful dresses worn by men and women alike, where red—probably the most powerful colour in China, according to what I’ve learned from my Chinese friends—and rich, colourful, even golden, embroideries were the main protagonists. The costumes from the film clip create a perfect conversation with the garments being exposed in this part of the exhibition, as contemporary creations from Western fashion designers are juxtaposed to historical garments that were actually worn by the Emperors back in the time. From the beginning of the exhibition, the interaction between East and West is more than clear, reflecting the main intention of Andrew Bolton, curator of the exhibition.
The smaller gallery of the Costume Center provides a short escape from the intensity of dynastic life in China. Transporting me to a later, post-dynastic period, I saw the beauty of the Qipao, both in a variety of film clips and the designs inspired by this classic, yet sensual shape of dress. The film clips emphasise the love stories of the women wearing the Qipao, and the music is more than perfect to create a nostalgic atmosphere of the love gone. Eros (2004), for example, shows not only the story of the woman, but also the making of the beautiful dress she wears. In The Mood for Love (2000) the dress hugs the woman’s body, perfectly highlighting her natural curves, and the camera angle, which focuses on this lover’s body, definitely shows a sexualised perception of the Qipao—and the Chinese woman as well—showing a perfect example of what Laura Mulvey calls the cinematic “male gaze.” The film clips and the music accompanying them builds up the perfect mood for the gallery, where love—or the absence of it—is definitely the main theme. There is also a sense of multiculturalism, again, of the interaction between China and the West in the music. I particularly adored hearing the song Quizás, quizás, quizás as part of the soundtrack, as it reminded me of my childhood and clearly raised all types of emotions in me. And because exhibitions are particularly successful when they manage to make the audience emotional, this was definitely the point when I fell for this one. I was beaten!
Right next to the wonderful atmosphere of love in the film clips, there were several dresses, all arranged next to the other, showing more contemporary, Western interpretations of the Qipao. Designers included Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, John Galliano for Dior, and even Jean Paul Gaultier. The Qipao is definitely one of the greatest symbols of China in the west, it is simple and versatile, and can be adapted to a large variety of colours, textures, and maybe even fabrics. No doubt it has been a great inspiration for many Western designers, and I’m really glad it got its own little gallery in the exhibition.
On another note, despite the curator’s idea of showing the interactions between China and the West, the fact that the exhibition is actually called “China: Through the Looking Glass” inherently implies that it shows a vision of China through the Western eye. There is a question of stereotyping and colonialism that definitely needs to be addressed, and the exhibition itself managed to include it. In the first floor, a tiny lobby that separates the first part of the exhibition with the next, explores some of the cultural appropriations of China in the West. We see the Mao suit used by Tseng Kwong Chi as a vehicle to explore Eastern stereotypes in the US in the 1980s, part of his “East Meets West” series, and how Vivienne Westwood later used the suit as part of one of her collections in 2012. We also see red guard uniforms appropriated by Galliano for Dior in spring/summer 1999, and even how Andy Warhol used Mao’ face in his art, which was also included in Westwood’s dresses. This cultural revolution, which took place in the late 70s and the 80s, which influenced the American and European avant garde, is said to be inspired by President Nixon’s visit to China in 1973.
With all this rain in New York today I can’t help but want to stay inside all day and never go out. I truly love hearing the raindrops hit the hard surfaces on the city, and rainy days like this one are more than perfect to sit inside reading a good book—right now Waiting for Sunshine, by William Boyd, although I still don’t know if I love it or hate it—and cuddling with the perfect cup of tea—Earl Grey with a hint of milk, in my case. But rainy days in the city are also the perfect occasion to visit one of the hundreds of museums/galleries you can find in New York, and go calmly through one of their exhibitions.
I recently visited the MoMA—which I actually hadn’t done in what seems like a very long time—to see their Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980 exhibition, currently on view until July 19. The exhibition celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the exhibition held previously at the museum, Latin American Architecture since 1945, a landmark survey of modern architecture in the region, and revisits the positions, debates, and architectural creativity in the region, from Mexico and Cuba to the Southern Cone between 1955 and the early 1980s.
According to the exhibition, the period studied was one of exploration and complex political shifts, which saw the emergence of a new Latin America in the global landscape, where the development and culture of the region were slowly starting to emerge as the “Third World.” Latin American architects had the chance of exploring new techniques and create their own sense of aesthetics, responding to the social and political movements occurring in the region, and this is reflected in the large architectural oeuvres built between 1955 and 1980.
In order to show such a shift, the exhibition showcases architectural drawings and models, vintage photographs and film clips, as well as newly commissioned models and photographs. These pieces intend to show how architects met the structural challenges they faced in the region with formal, urbanistic and programmatic innovation, and include important landmarks such as the library at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the building complex surrounding the Plaza de Toros in Bogota, and the magnificent campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
The result of this period in Latin American architecture, as the exhibition explains, are the challenging architecture and urban responses to the ongoing issues of modernisation and development in Latin America, which have adapted according to the different economic and political contexts it has faced throughout its recent history.
Although I would never dare to call Latin American architecture innovative or creative as this exhibition does—but then again I am completely clueless in that matter, so maybe my opinion is not right at all—I really enjoyed seeing it. The videos in the first part reminded me of those endless hours watching documentaries on mid-twentieth century Latin American economic history as part of my coursework in my last year of college, and trying to understand how economic development came in the region and how countries struggled to make the internal economies grow.
It also made me remember, with a sense of nostalgia, the buildings that I grew up ignoring and somehow hating, wishing we had the palaces I found in Paris or the skycrapers I saw in New York. It made me realise that Latin America, as we know it today, is a young region, and it is still in progress. We have our characteristic buildings and our own architectural history which, I could see in the exhibit, makes a lot of sense in the region. In the end, it has always been a region that has struggled to maintain political and economic stability and, although it is finally reaching that goal in recent years, it still has a long way to go.
Photography: Laura Beltran-Rubio