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.
As a fashion historian, one of the questions I find repeatedly asking myself has to do with the truthfulness of representations of costume in Latin America before the invention of photography. Although, until relatively recently, posing for a photo included a very delicate selection of the outfit—and it continues to be the case for some occasions—we can assert that the clothes that appear in a photograph are real: they are much more than the idealized product of an artist’s imagination, which, quite undoubtedly, is trained to show the power of the sitter through a series of visual codes, or a perfected copy of the European model, to which the American character is added.
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.
As I have mentioned before, my main emphasis in the research of fashion history focuses on the intersections between fashion, politics and identity. I am particularly interested in the late-colonial and postcolonial periods in Colombia and Latin America, and I am fascinated by the ways in which dress, and appearances in general, became central to the creation of an identity in the centuries where the “old” world was re-shaped into what we live today.
To study these intersections between fashion, politics and identity, however, is no easy task. In the case of Latin America, it is particularly difficult because most areas of cultural production have been understudied, especially in relation to fashion. Moreover, because collections of historical dress are virtually inexistent in the region—contrasting with the rich collections that abound in Europe and North America—as a fashion historian you have to become creative in the use of sources and borrow methodologies from a variety of areas of inquiry from different historical traditions.
Perhaps one of the first lessons I learned in my career as an Economic Historian was that, throughout the centuries, history has been created through the negotiation between traditional values and new emerging norms that evolve with changing societies. Constantly—and regardless of what we may think—most of the “traditions” we know are actually much more recent than we believe they are and, in most cases, as Eric Hobsbawm avidly explains, they are also invented. The Colombian 19th century saw the creation of the traditions that continue to rule the society from a balancing act between the new values of the independence and the old Colonial Spanish standards. Many of them, additionally, emerged from a current of thought heavily influenced by the French Enlightenment and by the writings of intellectuals such as Voltaire and Rousseau.
*This article was originally published in Spanish in vanessarosales.com
Two—or rather, three—years ago, I embarked on what has been the wildest adventure of my life: getting a Master of Arts in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design. I still remember waking up one day and deciding to send my application, rushing to meet my Professors to get recommendation letters from them, trying to find inspiration to write my application letter, and even having to fly out of town to get the required standardised test done. And even if I tend to think doing things last minute doesn’t turn into positive situation, amidst the rush and the stress, I always knew I was going to get in. Somehow, I always knew I belonged to Parsons.