Exhibition Review: Seams: Coming Together, Falling Apart
Designing Planes and Seams, Harvard Graduate School of Design (Graduate Design Exhibition), Gund Hall, Frances Loeb Library, February 1 – March 25, 2017
What does it mean to design an object that will start to degrade the moment you’ve finished it? This was one of the questions behind Harvard’s Graduate School of Design exhibition, Designing Planes and Seams, which brought together shared aspects of clothing design and landscape architecture. Focusing on the materials and techniques of construction, maps, plans, and patterns are examined in a new light.
The show is a collaboration between the chair of the landscape architecture department at Harvard, Anita Berrizbeitia; Ken Smith, a design critic in landscape architecture; and Harold Koda, former curator-in-chief of the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all of whom are also graduates of the GSD.
Have you ever attended a talk where every time one of the speakers opened their mouth it was like diamonds were falling out? This was my experience attending the talk at the exhibition opening. Mr. Koda’s presentation was like hearing somebody speak in your native tongue after living in a foreign land. He spoke of the way fashion has been overlooked in design theory (and other fields), considered “frivolous” and not worthy of critical or aesthetic inquiry. After months of reading about the history of politics and economics in the PhD program I’m in at Harvard, I drank in Mr. Koda’s presentation like a woman dying of thirst. The group of costume design students from Boston University sitting behind me clearly agreed.
The exhibition is small, in two halves of the graduate design library. One half is work by the graduate design students, highlighting issues of material condition, gradients, and directions of flow. The fashion half of the exhibition is stunning. Against the back wall are four muslin toiles which are recreations of designer garments from the Met’s collection: Vionnet’s handkerchief gown (1920), Balenciaga’s short evening dress (1967), Halston’s evening gown (1975), and Yeohlee Teng “Zero Waste Coat” (1997). Their flat patterns are blown up in life-size scale against a black wall behind them. As if this weren’t exciting enough, in the middle of them is a replica silk velvet Poiret coat and Charles James’ famous four-leaf-clover dress. In bringing these exceptional garments to life, design students created animations that played under each garment, and which showcased the patterns and construction.
I was fascinated by Mr. Koda’s ideas about the inherent vice in both fashion and landscape architecture. Using the James dress as an example, he explained how the dress is degrading under its own weight–and that even the replica is already suffering from the bias stretching and the weight of the dress compressing the understructure. He portrayed this fugitive transitive moment of a clothing object as it is first created and worn as part of its beauty, but also a reason for why clothing has been so overlooked. The “instant obsolescence” built into the western system of fashion should be treated as one of its most interesting and essential components, he said – not as a justification for dismissal.
Perhaps fashion designers will one day be considered the engineers they are.
Kudos to Harvard’s GSD for creating a platform for such an interesting and vital component to the field of fashion.