Published January 14, 2015
Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso ... Christian Dior?
The body is like a canvas in the eyes of many art curators, and museumgoers are increasingly going to see a new kind of "art" — the kind you wear.
Fashion exhibitions like the upcoming examination of glamour at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (search) and the popular display of Jackie Kennedy's White House wear at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are part of an emerging trend at museums.
But should gowns by Chanel or Givenchy be in the same institution as masterpieces by Monet and Matisse, or are museums just trying to make a buck off an obsession with fashion heightened after "Sex and the City" brought labels into the mainstream?
That depends on whom you ask. Suzanne Baldaia, an associate professor specializing in fashion history at Johnson & Wales University, said fashion exhibits are crowd-pleasers, but the art world isn't always awed by shoes and dresses.
"It's something that helps draw people into the museum and that helps the bottom line," said Baldaia. "I'm not convinced the museums feel [fashion] has been raised to the level of a high art."
Clothing exhibits like the highly successful "Rock Style" at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (search) in New York, which featured duds worn by John Lennon and Bjork, thrive on their "wow" factor, but are sometimes seen as less scholarly than, say, a painting exhibit.
"It's easier to get away with doing a dumb fashion show than a dumb fine art show," said Blake Gopnik, chief art critic of the Washington Post.
Still, the public turns out when fancy pants go on display.
"It's almost better than a painting on canvas because fashion is living art, so to speak," said Holly Hirshfield, 32, of San Francisco, who recently attended an art deco exhibit and loved the incorporation of clothes and jewelry.
"Someone actually wore the clothes. The frayed cuff or slightly faded color and odd missing bead or button just bring me closer to the sense that what I am looking at is part of history," Hirshfield said in an e-mail interview.
That kind of reaction is what Baldaia said makes fashion so popular.
"There's an intimacy factor," she said. "Fashion has a fantasy about it, an allure."
The sleek design of silk skirts or beaded blouses might be more highly regarded if fashion was treated seriously, said Gopnik, who added that theatrical lighting, props and accoutrements often accompany the clothing.
"That's something that bothers me," he said. "You would never see a Monet set up with props."
Yet art experts contend that there is educational merit in fashion exhibitions.
"History has always been taught through wars and treaties, but show me the clothes they were wearing, the dances they were doing, the food they were eating and it clicks — the pieces of the historic puzzle fall together," Baldaia said.
As for the question of whether gowns and tuxedos belong in museums along with Degas, Gopnik said he thinks that "fashion deserves to be in art museums as much as any other art form does."
And museums from coast-to-coast obviously feel the same.
A retrospective of African American fashion designer Patrick Kelly's work is on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through Sept. 5. Kelly produced collections for only five years before he died from AIDS in 1990 and is remembered for wild themes like the use of masses of multicolored buttons and a love of flamboyant hats.
Displaying everything from a Bentley (search) to fashion show video footage, "Glamour: Fabricating Affluence" will be at the San Francisco MOMA October 2004 through January 2005.
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art (search) "Ladies Choice: American Women's Fashions, 1950-1965" ran from June 2003 to May 2004 and "Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli" was on display from Sept. 2003 to Jan. 2004.
The Met's Costume Institute has had a succession of wildly popular shows including "Rock Style," "Goddess," which featured classic Greek clothing, "Braveheart: Men in Shirts," "Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century" and "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years."
"Fashion really does tell a story," said Baldaia. "Oftentimes it is the story of women and women bonding in some ways; the story of production, consumption, as well as artistry."
Hirshfield said fashion exhibits give her a newfound appreciation for the craft.
"It amazes me how much I can see of modern fashion when I look at a garment made 100 to 200 years ago," she said. "Some styles, because of their functionality or simple style, have truly timeless appeal."