Culture And Commerce May 2007

Dress Sense

Why fashion deserves its place in art museums
From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "Art Museums in Fashion"

A sampling from current and recent exhibits.

Also see:

Art Museum Fashion Exhibits
A guide to the exhibits discussed in this article.

On May 7, the rich, famous, and beautiful will parade into the Metropolitan Museum of Art wearing their best, or most interesting, clothes, pausing for photographers along the obligatory red carpet. Once inside, the 700 guests—actors and models, designers and socialites—will dine and dance and preview the museum’s newest exhibition, “Poiret: King of Fashion.” The occasion is the “party of the year,” the Met’s Costume Institute Benefit Gala. Co-chaired annually by Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, usually with a movie star (Cate Blanchett this year) and a fashion designer (Nicolas Ghesquière), the party is not just a chance to wear and admire beautiful clothes; it’s a lavish and efficient fund-raising machine. Tickets start at $6,500 per person, with tables for 10 running as high as $100,000. Last year’s gala raised $4.5 million for the museum’s fashion department.

While only the Met commands that sort of glitz, fashion collections throughout the country are enjoying a new prominence. When the Philadelphia Museum of Art opens a new building this spring, its space for costume and textile exhibitions will nearly triple. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts recently devoted its main special-exhibition gallery to a display of straight-off-the-runway selections from 10 Paris houses, the first costume-department exhibit to occupy that space since 1989. For the first time in its 28-year history, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles included fashion in an exhibit, “Skin + Bones,” which examined connections between architecture and clothing design. The Meadows Museum in Dallas is currently featuring a retrospective of Basque-born couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga’s mid-century work, across from galleries devoted to such Spanish masters as Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya.

But despite huge public interest—or perhaps because of it—fashion departments still find themselves constantly required to justify their existence. Dennita Sewell, the Phoenix Art Museum’s curator of fashion design, sputters her frustration with presumably sophisticated New York critics who seem to begin every review of a fashion exhibition not by asking whether the show’s concept is valid or the pieces are good but whether museums should show fashion at all. “Somebody has poured their heart out working on this show, and the first question is ‘Why are you in here?’ Gosh, can we move on from that? It just—I mean, the collection has been here since 1966. Why are we still discussing this?”

The Boston exhibit’s comment book records a debate between fans, mostly women, who praise the museum for displaying an “inspiring” and “seldom seen” art form and detractors, mostly men, who decry its descent into commercialism. “What’s next? Victoria’s Secret’s Xmas Collection?” writes one. “People in the museum world complain that fashion is not art, and they think it is unworthy of being in an art museum,” says Valerie Steele, the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Fashion is really seen as the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity.”

Behind the criticism of fashion as an artistic medium is a highly ideological prejudice: against markets, against consumers, against the dynamism of Western commercial society. The debate is not about art but about culture and economics. Critics who decry fashion collections are less troubled by the prescribed costumes of dynastic China or the aristocratic dress of baroque France than by the past century’s clothes. With its fluctuating forms and needless decoration, fashion epitomizes the supposedly unproductive waste that inspired 20th-century technocrats to dream of central planning. It exists for no good reason. But that’s practically a definition of art.

Prejudice aside, it’s hard to come up with objections to fashion collections that don’t apply to other museum departments. Fashion is mass produced? So are prints and posters, often more so than haute couture. Ephemeral? So are works on paper. Utilitarian? So are pots and vases. Customized to an individual? So were suits of armor. As for the fickle­ness of fashion, the history of Western art is a story of changing styles. And however much critics may despise commerce, many undisputed masterpieces were works for hire. “Paintings were marketable goods which competed for the attention of the purchaser,” writes the historian Michael North in Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age. Michelangelo and Ghiberti got paid.

The real question is not whether museums are too good for fashion but whether they’re good enough. Clothes are unique sculptures, dependent on a supporting human form and created to move. Yet museum mannequins stand still. Clothing is made to be seen and touched—the tactile qualities of fabric are as essential to the art as a garment’s color or shape—but light and fingertips dim colors and degrade fabrics. The first rule of fashion exhibitions is Do not touch.

Any fashion exhibition is thus a compromise. But, of course, altarpieces weren’t meant to be ripped from their candlelit sacred context and put up on museum walls to be admired by non­believers. The Elgin Marbles were supposed to be on the Parthenon. For many works of art, a museum is an artificial setting— a zoo, not a natural habitat. Some zoos, however, are worse than others.

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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of The Substance of Style (2003) and The Future and Its Enemies (1998). Her blog, the Dynamist, can be found at More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of

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