Fashion conquers the Dutch museum world. In 2013 Rotterdam’s Kunsthal kicked off with the much talked-of exhibition about late Jean Paul Gaultier. The question was whether fashion, often seen as empty shallowness, fits in with serious art. But, like art, the deeper meaning of fashion hides behind aesthetics. And now fashion exhibits are opened by the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. What do they tell us about ourselves in both the history and the future?
Spotify tip while reading about fashion in museums:
The future of fashion is now
The future of fashion is now in Boijmans van Beuningen is a vast exhibition showing the boundaries of fashion. Or, rather, exceeding them. You can see clothes in uncommon shapes, some of them transparent or adorned with technology. You can even find dissolving suits due to chemical reactions. It is all fascinating and it looks impressive, but what it’s really about is the manipulation of the body. Designers deal with it all the time: the sturdy ideas about what’s pretty and what’s not. They experiment to bend these ideas a little bit. Or a lot.
My two favorite designs in the exhibition were by Iris van Herpen and Rejina Pyo. The exhibition was named after Van Herpen’s statement that the future of fashion is created ‘by focusing fully on the present’. One of the things she means is that modern technologies create new possibilities by experimentation. And so Van Herpen’s installation is not only the first 3D dress I ever saw, she stuns me by slowly dripping a fluid magnetic material on it. Making the dress grow and shape beyond perfection, this unfriendly design will still ‘move’ by lack of textiles.
But Rejina Pyo’s dresses are the aesthetic queens of the ball. They question the conventional shapes of fashion to the extreme, still having the most attractive color fields. Ironically, they answer to what humans are psychologically wired to love. And that is fashion; connecting beauty ideals with a modern twist.
Romantic fashion innovations
And then it appears that the past of fashion is never far away, either. Gemeentemuseum The Hague shows the exhibition Romantic Fashion. Mr. Darcy meets Eline Vere (until March 2015). It puts 19th century fashion in a historical context, even drawing lines to the present. Dresses by Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier find legitimate places in the exhibit because they draw heavily from 19th century designs.
And speaking of the manipulation of bodies; 19th century ladies put bums of enormous proportions under their skirts, creating spectacular silhouettes that are unique in human history. Those designs were innovative, alright! But seeing all this I am impressed with the ability of contemporary couturiers to invent ever more innovative designs.
1835 wedding gown in Gemeentemuseum The Hague
Fashion has a history
The two exhibitions make me realize how the function of fashion and beauty ideals are at the heart of human presentation. Even if you discard fashion, you still think about your clothes to make a statement. Even if you think fashion is shallow because it focuses on appearances, you find that you’re not free of it. Throughout history, dress has fascinated men and women alike, having to match the images they have of themselves.
Likewise, the futuristic designs seen in the Boijmans van Beuningen exihibition show the next ideals in the presentation of ourselves. The beauty of fashion history in a nutshell: we curve the boundaries of what we know, but what we know has a long, long history.
To grasp much of that history you will benefit from hearing about the 19th century. I found a fascinating video on the website of the Gemeentemuseum The Hague that shows you how that Romantic century defined fashion for all of us. With plenty of cool facts to know.