Exhibition Review: Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making
Queens College Art Center (October 5, 2017 - December 15, 2017)
Queens College Art Center offers a fitting home for The Fabric of Cultures, a multifaceted pedagogical exploration of fashion that has developed over nearly two decades. Since its founding in 1987, the Art Center has been dedicated to supporting the educational and cultural goals of Queens College—providing the means for “participating in and upholding a democratic society through learning, adaptation, and critical thinking.”
The Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making, is the specific result of a year-and-a-half-long experiential learning research project led by Dr. Eugenia Paulicelli, Professor of Italian at Queens College and Director of Fashion Studies at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. The exhibition brings together the pedagogical foundation of Dr. Paulicelli’s research with the work of artists, designers, and students ranging from first semester freshmen to doctoral candidates. The project delves into the act and labor of making, intersections between the local and the global, individual and collective cultural practices, and collaborative modes of production, taking an inclusive approach to the study of fashion, bridging across disciplines and stages of the academic journey.
The exhibition gallery at the Art Center sits on the sixth floor of the Rosenthal Library, forming a semicircle around an open rotunda where students pass busily below. Surrounded by bookstacks and reading rooms, the cheery, well-lit space invites a dialogue with the objects on display and encourages conversation with fellow visitors. Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted with a T-shaped installation by artist Paula Gabriel. The contemporary work, titled Life Narratives, was purpose-made for the exhibition, taking as a starting point the significance of the T form in fashion cultures, including the kaftan, the kimono, and the T-shirt. Gabriel’s installation, a multimedia work in paper, paint, and fabric, acts as an anchoring point for the exhibition, drawing together the threads of national identity, personal fashion, and communal making. Opposite, a mannequin wears an ensemble by Antonio Marras. The exaggerated train on the skirt is constructed from vintage pinstripe trousers given new life through roughly done, yet exquisitely executed, embroidery and painting. Marras’ emphasis on imperfection rejects the concept of the finished garment. Instead, he asks the viewer to honor the memories held in objects and to reflect on the possibilities of a creative process where everything is in the process of being recreated, where an “edge without a hem awaits a hand to finish it.” Paulicelli, in the role of curator, deftly places a selection of material objects created by students during The Fabric of Cultures classes and workshops alongside Marras’ work. These pieces, crafted by both undergraduate and graduate students, were constructed using upcycled materials including a beloved pair of jeans and a cherished T-shirt, letting them live again as new garments, accessories, homewares, and works of art.
Select student essays are included in the exhibition catalogue, where they examine the role of fashion in our explorations of ourselves and our environments, and reflect on fashion itself as a form of pedagogy, instructing our education of our desires and our bodies. In one essay, graduate student and patternmaker, Christina Trupiano, relates her experience of recreating “The Tanagra Dress,” originally designed by Italian activist Rosa Genoni in 1908 to wear to the first Italian National Congress of Women. Trupiano’s creation reanimates Genoni’s iconic design, which until now was only preserved in photographs and written descriptions. Working from images of Genoni in the dress, as well as photographs of Italian diva Lyda Borelli modeling the design, Trupiano conceptually deconstructed the garment and brought to life a 21st century replica of the dress, made from deadstock charmeuse and Georgette silk in her New York Garment Center workshop. Beyond the technical accomplishment of executing this garment, Trupiano explores the dress a representation of feminism and activism, and its historical connection to the evolution of the Made in Italy movement. The dress is on display in the exhibition alongside a short film by Massimo Mascolo and Claudio Di Napoli titled “Dress in Motion: The Tanagra Dress Reframed.” The filmmakers focus on the form of the dress on the body, worn separately by two student performers, who move freely in the timeless garment and read excerpts from the speech Genoni gave at the Italian National Congress of Women in Rome.
The Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making looks pointedly at time and temporality in fashion, and the dichotomy between history and theory in the evolving methodologies of Fashion Studies. On display from the Rare Manuscript Collection at Queens College is a 1598 edition of Cesare Vecellio’s La Cosa degli Habiti, an encyclopedic inventory of Renaissance vestimentary codes relayed through a refracted view of class, gender, and politics, with an attentive focus to the means of fashion production. The thoughtfully chosen contemporary objects in this exhibition offer further instruction, from the quintessentially Neapolitan tailoring displayed in Cesare Attolini’s jacket from La Grande Bellezza (2013) to fabric innovations on view from the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator’s TEK-TILES project, to a Ferragamo capsule collection produced with a new sustainable textile made using waste from the citrus industry. Each object speaks to the complex materiality of the clothes we wear and the power of fashion as a symbolic force in our collective imagination.
Visit fabricofcultures.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu to learn more about the project and exhibition.