Home arrow Volume 11 Issue 1 Spring 2015 arrow Polticts of Fashion: Fashion of politics: review
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dx on bay street

DX Design Exchange photo by Joe Lewis 

Politics of Fashion Fashion of Politics

September 18 2014-January 25 2015
 DX Design Exchange
234 Bay Street, Toronto



While curators have the power to create a context and support it by choosing works. artifacts and art from a collection held by an institution or from outside and by adding the work of contemporary makers who work illustrates their POV/ theory their choices are occasionally so unspecific they could tell any story. This is the case of Politics of Fashion Fashion of Politics. While most of the pieces chosen from private collections where nice to see they had slight connection to the proposal set forth by the co curators guest curator international fashion icon Jeanne Beker and DX curator Sara Nickleson. While feeling implied to write something about the show but needed to clarify for myself why I felt the curators had not supported their own proposition.

On Nov 10, 2014 at the Royal Ontario Museum i heard a lecture by Louise W. Mackie Curator of Textiles and Islamic Art Cleveland Museum of Art, tiled Power Textiles from Islamic Lands it was informative and spoke of the Politics of Fashion in Islamic Lands in a much more evolved way then the current show at the Design Exchange does. Granted she was looking at the was and means of controlling production and import/ export regulations over a period of several centuries rather a 56 year period like "Politic of Fashion Fashion of Politics"

For example she told of a 15th century sultan cancelling royal commission of the silk weaving in order to exploit local sericulture, by exporting raw silk to Italy at a profitable return, resulting in local weavers need to produce a lower quality of cloth and sell it in the open market having lost their guaranteed income from a very competitive "keeping up with the Jones" elite.

This talk has me waiting for her forth coming book "Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th-20th Century" published by the Cleveland Art Museum and Yale University Press due out soon. http://www.clevelandart.org/art/curators/louise-mackie

katherine hemnet slogans

Interior view of elevator with replica Katherine Hemnett "Slogans"  photo provided by DX

I am greeted by an elevator door covered in posters.  Like most of the hoardings surrounding urban constructions sites, they are black and white with text in the reverse of the background, suggestive of the slogans of British designer/activist/educator Katherine Hemnett’s “Slogan Ts,” which have been around since the early 1980s. (This ‘décor’ was identified to me by Museum employees as designed by someone on staff and having nothing to do with the exhibit, when I asked about it). On the wall beside the elevator are didactics layered and torn, looking like the shredded layers of posters on telephone poles. These and the elevator suggest a “street” approach to the design of the exhibition. The show was designed (put on) by Canadian fashion designer/curator Jeremy Lang. It is a subtle event that seems messy, a mistake even, at first, and at some point, in spite of what I was told by the staff, the other shoe drops and it becomes clever. In keeping with the street vibe, the first area of the exhibition you enter is identified as “Ethics and Activism,” and its “Protest March” artifacts and fashion. As with the Textile Society of America 2012 Symposium entitled “Textiles and Politics,” “Politics of Fashion: Fashion of Politics” looks at the theme in a number of ways. The show is presented in parts: “Ethics and Activism,” “Gender and Sexuality,” “Consumerism,” “War and Peace,” and “Campaign and Power Dressing.”  Moving you through the space in this way, thematically, is one thing, how the garments and objects speak to these “topics” is another.

war decore

 In the War and Peace area this pillar covered in images from the bombing of Hiroshima is the anchor for a display of Japanese Design nicknamed by the fashion world as Hiroshima Chic photo by Joe Lewis 

Since this is a moment when the curator and context, rather than content seem to be defining what is seen in public museums and galleries, it seems unfortunate that collected objects in this exhibition outshine the flimsy context, which, in turn, shows a lack of commitment or vision in the curators to fully address the context.  For me what represents the “Politics of Fashion” are the rules and regulations that govern the production of raw materials, their processing into garments and how they are distributed into the marketplace. Fashion trends that cash in on social movements are something barely related to these processes and there is a naive assumption that these movements have an effect on the market place. It is a sign of the fluidity and adaptability of the marketplace that it seeks to both undermine and supply the products seen to support these “movements” and appease/absolve the guilt ridden consumer of its direct responsibility. That leaves a consumer whose sole remaining responsibility is to consume and keep the marketplace active. If child- free-labour necessitates that the labour force be forced into the sex trade so that the market place can provide “child-labour-free” products to the market place, so be it.


On the wall, you are told in large print by guest curator Jeanne Beker (Fashion commentator and celebrity interviewer who hosted Fashion TV from its inception) and DX curator Sara Nickleson, that the show will explore how fashion is a “mirror of society” by highlighting how clothing has been used as “a tool for communicating identity and political expression” … how “designers have used this discipline as a tool to express their own ideologies and create wardrobes for like-minded people.”  Spanning 1960 to the current day and presenting over 200 works, the exhibition suggests that fashion contributes to social progress. While I am willing accept this premise and amused by how much of what I have already seen is about eroticizing violence and imposing a value system on things because you can, I am much more interested in the clothing than the context. I can ignore what I have seen and continue. After all, context is so adaptive and anything can be used to prove whatever agenda is being put forward, it is therefore more distracting than informative if it’s not supported by some scholarship. The context also suggests shopping for source materials by the designer or clothing by their clientele is a political action, something that causes actual change in the laws, the rules and regulations around manufacturing, import and export of raw materials and finished products.  But shopping isn't political. Suggesting it is without explaining why, defeats the point of placing this context on the show. I am also not sure if there is a point in directing the way a viewer looks at things when it is just as likely they will see it from their own point of view.


remade coat


Ethics and Activism section (which is the first area you enter) Christopher Raeburn Remade Coat a/w 2013 made from waterproof military bivouac bags from the collection of Christopher Raeburn photo by Joe Lewis

The inclusion of Christopher Raeburn’s “Remade Coat” a/w 2013 made from waterproof military bivouac bags and Canada’s own Jeremy Lang’s “Parachute Dress” brings a deeper and wider meaning to “Ethics and Activism,” as choice of fabric and ideas of reuse/sustainability sourcing and labour practice are brought into the discussion. Photographs by Oliviero Toscani bring the inclusive one-world story line/concept along; this is repeated elsewhere in the exhibition in a display of the current jeans from Diesel and their social networking advertising campaign. All of these objects/displays have a visual appeal, yet the effect the PETA display had on me was disbelief. Even though they are artifacts from PETA, this section has the look of a bad grade school science fair.  It seems more of a joke mocking PETA and therefore makes taking the activism attached to the other works in this section seriously a bit difficult. So the context/ premise of the rest of the show comes into question. If Vivienne Westwood’s Climate change display and the PETA display where switched, this deflation of my expectations wouldn't have happened. PETA didn't shock, it disappointed.


 photo provided by DX

Gender and sexuality is often represented by unisex clothing and topless women’s garments which may or may not provoke outrage in the press (now known as social media) but not much political action other than perhaps the arrest of the topless woman and seldom the arrest of the queer basher of the unisex fashion dresser: Does “They were asking for it” sound familiar? The rational dress reform movement of the Victorian era, with its female supporters, caused much the same outrage going topless did by wearing bloomers and abandoning corsets, which were the acceptable norms. Seeing anonymous hippywear and the flamboyant haute couture of Jean Paul Gaultier and nearby designer unisex and androgynous outfits gives you the opportunity to compare silhouettes, rather than political thought.  Rad Hourani’s “Maison Martin Margiela Artisanal Leather Poncho,” 2013, made of reused vintage leather jackets, is basically the same shape as Westwood’s 1975 sack coat. Skin tight or baggy to the extreme, clothing seems to be able to disguise and accentuate gender at the same time if these selected garments are to be seen as representative. The Klaus Nomi “Tuxedo Jacket” (maker unknown) is a replica of a Marlene Dietrich tuxedo jacket from the film “Morocco” with extra shoulder pads and a more tapered waist, accentuating the V shape that mirrors his hair line, rather than suggesting an unknown sexual identity.


v westwood coat
Vivienne Westwood Duffle coat 1975 located in the Sex and Gender section photo provided by DX
While political events may have directly affected the individual designer, how it affects the designs presented is far from clear. I suppose the laws that deal with queer bashing differ from country to country, and hate laws may enable the clientele who purchase and wear unisex clothing legal recourse if they happen to get beaten up while dressed in them.  Other than Vivienne Westwood’s “Make Due and Mend” WW2 childhood, which does inform her design (and which is featured in two of the five sections in this exhibition), this context while depicted by the choices of clothing just seems underdeveloped.   Perhaps a pair of bloomers or some other Victorian example of radical dress reform might have started the conversation more effectively than a topless bathing suit.


That said, in the next area, which is two sections:“Consumerism” and “War and Peace,” all my disappointment went away. Somehow, suddenly, everything worked, and the idea of having historic pieces provide a basis to contextualize the immediate aftermath of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is much more effective than the Katherine Hemnett slogans that greet at the elevator on the way to the show.     

 beggars coat

The work of Japanese Designers: Rei Kawakubo)
Comme Des Garcons, in front "beggar coat" 1983 behind is Yohji Yamamoto Long Collar Coat 2014 both examples of Hiroshima Chic 

 The garments and objects in the “War and Peace” area included a selection of men’s military coats and jackets which have become standard cuts in menswear: Trench coats and aviator / bomber jackets.  The selections of “Hiroshima Chic” from Japanese-born designers is stunning. With the forced opening of Japan to the West after the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, the Japanese design/art aesthetic has had a major influence on western design. Less than a hundred years after, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a profound change to that aesthetic. The Japanese designers presented in the “War and Peace” section of the exhibition came of age in this “post Hiroshima” period and each shows an influence from the post-war dance movement called Butoh created by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo. This dance form is known for the slow-moving contorted shapes of the dancers, and the ways in which the costumes/rags they wore, shift. The section evokes firsthand images of the post bombing landscape that were published as the horrors of the aftermath became imprinted on the next generation. “Comme Des Garçons, Beggar Coat” 1983 by Rei Kawakubo (b. 1942 ) is a prime example of this.




War and Peace-section Hussein Chalayan Afterwords 2000. photo provided by DX

The installation, “Afterwords,” 2000 by Hussien Chalayan, a grouping of wearable furniture, is a direct reference to the life of refugees, the forced and often hurried evacuation of populations due to military actions/ battles. With an accompanying video demonstrating how the slipcovers on the chairs and the round coffee table can be worn and what remains folded into luggage and carried with you shows the rather brilliant concept and poignant necessity of this design work. It speaks directly to his family experience and is the only work in the show that goes beyond and actually validates the context of this show and makes the visit to the show worthwhile. 


Jackie and Moa


Jean-Charles De Castlebajac Jackie O caftan 1980 and Vieanne Tam Moa Dress 1995  photo Joe Lewis

“Campaign and Power Dressing” is a clever grouping that is self-explanatory, with a range of clothing belonging to a politician: Maggie and Pierre Trudeau’s wedding outfits, a candy apple red silk dress by Oleg Cassini, the man who provided the look for Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy. The section also presents so-called “Mao dress” and the hand painted Jacqueline Kennedy caftan by Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. This display is more tongue-in-cheek where the iconic outfit of the wife of the politician  (the power behind the throne), or the image as in the “Mao dress” becomes a pop culture object rather than mainstream/fast or couture fashion. Being able to buy Oleg Cassini ready-to-wear made “Jackie” a fashion icon that the average person could emulate. Her style was so strong that the sales of the “Pink Channel Suit” she was wearing when her husband John F. Kennedy was shot went viral, so to speak. The power of advertising at its most perverse, perhaps.  (That suit is not in the show). 


Politics of Fashion: Fashion of Politics was an awkward and underdeveloped show from a curatorial point of view, but in terms of the material on display, it was satisfying. Granted, the Design Exchange is an institution that collects and exhibits industrial design. The institution concerns itself with mass produced and applied design, and while fashion is within the purview, the choice of political context in which this design work was situated, unfortunately appears outside of its mandate.


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