An afternoon in the Philadelphia Museum of Art—not a bad way to spend a Saturday. Add in the opportunity to see a collection of irreplaceable fashion and free lunch in Chinatown afterwards? Sounds like a Dialogues on Art trip! On March 3, the Hurford Center sponsored a trip to view and discuss the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent closing exhibit, “Fabulous Fashion: From Dior’s New Look to Now.” The exhibit was open to the public from October until the first weekend in March. It showcased a variety of striking ensembles, cataloging around seven decades of fashion evolution. The exhibit examined fashion as an art form, drew attention to the role feminine bodies have played in making statements, and highlighted how an era can shape artful fashion.
The extravagance of the dresses on display made them hardly wearable. Some ensembles hindered mobility, others were too voluminous to be worn in public, and some simply would never make it through airport security. But it was this lack of practicality that turned these costumes into art. Without having to cater to realistic needs, the designers were able to transform clothing into fashion, and fashion into art. Through the use of patterns, colors, shapes, and modifications, several of these outfits defied what is expected of clothing and made statements in and of themselves.
Other dresses focused on the form of its wearer to make a statement. Some pieces, like Geoffrey Beene’s Fall/Winter 1994-95 “Mercury” evening dress, placed focus heavily on the female form. Intended to drape over the body like liquid silver, its simple and revealing nature placed emphasis on the grace of the body rather than the dress. Another of Geoffrey Beene’s pieces, titled “Short Evening Dress” (1968-69), utilized the typical fashion of young girls to contrast with the obviously mature form who wore it. The exhibit focused on such interesting uses of simple fashion and how they contributed to the validity of the pieces as artworks rather than mere articles of clothing.
The exhibit focused on ways fashion defied expectation as well. Such examples include Zandra Rhodes’ “Conceptual Chic” evening ensemble (1977-78), which featured elements of the era’s punk movement. The contrast of the dress’s high-end status with the lower-end connotation carried by the holes borrowed from punk subculture styles created a daring piece questioning convention. Rei Kawakubo’s Spring 1992 dress similarly defied the laws of higher-end fashion, boasting ripped seams intended to, in her words, “challenge conformity.” These two pieces function exceptionally well in demonstrating a less-is-more attitude.
The way events of an era influence fashion is also questioned by the exhibit. For example, many pieces from the 1960s make reference to psychedelia through bright and explosive colors and patterns, the space race through futuristic forms and materials, and evolving conceptions of modestity with ever-rising hemlines. Compared to the dresses of the 1950s, which were more professional and less revealing, the 1960s pieces definitely portrayed evolving ideals. Even the more modern ensembles, such as Bernhard Willhelm’s “Dress, Socks and Shoes” from Spring/Summer 2013 reflect today’s era, playing on humor and relying on visuals of the digital age.
Eniola Ajao ’21, a student who organized and accompanied the Dialogues on Art trip says, “The exhibit brought me to tears. I hadn’t realized that fashion could generate an emotional response. It was really beautiful and inspiring.” For the students who went on the trip, the day ended with questions about where fashion will move next.
Written and photos by Shayleah Jenkins ’22. Edited by Eleanor Morgan ’20.