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Exhibition Review: Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured

Exhibition Review: Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured

Fashion Space Gallery (May 12, 2017 - August 4, 2017)

What happens to a garment when it enters a museum or archive? How does its meaning and status change?  Clothing, so closely linked to the bodily and performative nature of fashion is altered when absent the body; its meanings shift, adjust and disperse. Away from those bodies which have worn and made them, clothes often take on the status of exemplars or relics (of an era or of a person). They become either the best of their kind or bearers of an indexical trace. Thus, at times, the display of clothing in museums, can sit between the shrine and the cabinet of curiosities: artifacts, taxonomized, decontextualized and made static, or at odds with the “fleshy”[1] and often messy practices of wearing clothes.

Garments, like all artefacts are “othered” through display. No place is this more apparent than in garments that are marked through use or decay; devoid of the status of perfect examples and carrying perhaps more bodily traces than one might desire, they are rarely displayed and often languish hidden from view. Though in recent years there have been shifts in attitudes towards displaying and accessioning imperfect garments[2] with exhibitions such as Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! at Somerset House,[3] Tattered and Torn (2012) at Empire Historic Arts, and the upcoming Fashion Unraveled at the Museum at FIT (2018), the majority of fashion exhibitions utilize pristine garments, free from traces of both production and use.

It is in this context that we approach Present Imperfect: Disorderly Apparel Reconfigured, an exhibition by curator Amy de la Haye and exhibition maker Jeff Horsley at Fashion Space Gallery in London. Taking imperfect garments as a starting point – artefacts that are rarely considered suitable for exhibition display – this exhibition goes far beyond a reappraisal of worn and damaged garments to play with the form and function of the fashion exhibition itself. In many ways Present Imperfect, is like a garment turned inside out, so that one can see the structures underneath – the underpinnings, tacking stitches and boning which give the finished garment its shape and structure. And like the experience of seeing a couture dress turned inside-out, there is something radical in this inversion, in making the machinations of exhibition curation apparent to the viewer – in laying process bare.

There is something radical in this inversion, in making the machinations of exhibition curation apparent to the viewer – in laying process bare.

The starting point for this exhibition was a hundred-year-old Redfern silk dress, a beautiful garment, with an almost fairy tale story of its origin – found in a bag in the house where it had once been worn. The dress’s silk, leaded like many from this era, is irretrievably shattered, so it can barely be lifted let alone hung on a mannequin to display. De la Haye however, believed that this garment deserved to be displayed and that it was powerful, not just as beautiful but imperfect exemplar of period dress, but for what, through atrophy, it has become. This belief that garments are made resonant and interesting in their imperfections is at the heart of the exhibition. Each object in the exhibition displayed a different form of imperfection, damage or decay; from decayed fabrics – the shattered silk of the Redfern dress and early reflective fabric on a Stone Island jacket, crazed like broken glass – to makeup smears and sweat stains on a dancers’ costume, intentional damage in the form of a pair of gloves charred in a fire, and a work-in-progress maquette of an Alexander McQueen jacket.

This exhibition asks a number of questions: How can one display imperfect garments in a way that embraces, both what they are and what they once were? How does one display something that is unsuitable for display? How do these imperfect garments act upon the viewer?

In answering these, De la Haye and Horsley direct our gaze to the bodies absent from the exhibition: bodies of dancers, fit models, and witches. We catch glimpses of these absent bodies across the exhibition, in the spaces they might have taken up, the placing of a jacket arm or the gestural positioning of a glove without a hand. Recessed casts of the body – like inverted mannequins – cradle garments, tombstone like headings demarcate the height a wearer might have been; the absent bodies of absent wearers are referenced again and again.

There is a rawness here in the manner these garments are laid bare and in their imperfections: They are exposed, which seems at odds with much of the glossier aspects of fashion…surfaces crack and rupture, insides peek through. As a viewer, it is the pair of charred gloves which, for me, produces a particular punctum: the tininess of the hands that wore them, the flesh like leather, the soft scent of burning, which wafts from under the display case, making it seem as though the flames were only recently put out. Stallybrass and Jones write that gloves (garments which, like shoes, are highly reminiscent of the part of the body they protect) “trouble the conceptual opposition between person and thing.”[4] Like many of the garments on display, these gloves act as contact points, museum artefacts resonant with bodily trace. Feldman writes they are a “general category of object that results from physical contact with the body, and then subsequent removal or destruction of the body.”[5] They are indices, markers of absent presence, bearers of trace.

There is a courage in this uncovering; it shows us not only the routes they took but the dead ends and hurdles they confronted, the things they could not or did not do.

What is laid bare here, is not simply the imperfections in the garments, or the workings of a design team: it is the curatorial process itself. This is not only an exhibition about garments but about uncovering and making apparent the research processes, or the ways that ideas and exhibitions are made. The walls of the gallery are lined with photocopied, and highlighted pages of research that Horsely and De la Haye undertook: constellations of the connections they made. We see the articles they read, the lists they made and quick sketches of layouts and details. There is a courage in this uncovering; it shows us not only the routes they took but the dead ends and hurdles they confronted, the things they could not or did not do.

However, there are broader questions here that remain unanswered: How does one presence the absent body in the fashion museum? Should museums display fragile garments even if it hastens their decay?

These questions are raised rather than answered – examined and left hanging in midair.  They are left open and apparent so that we, the viewers, might continue to ask them, to think about them and explore them over time. One hopes that De la Haye and Horsley, in their exhibition making practice, will continue to do so too, to uncover the hidden parts of things and to turn the fashion exhibition inside out.



[1] See Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).  

[2] Bethan Bide, “Signs of Wear: Encountering Memory in the Worn Materiality of a Museum Fashion Collection,” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture 21.4 (2017): 449-476.

[3] This exhibition is beautifully written about in Caroline Evans, “Materiality, Memory and History: Adventures in the Archive” in Caroline Evans and Alistair O’Neill (eds.) Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! (New York: Rizzoli, 2014).

[4] Peter Stallybrass and Ann Jones, “Fetishizing the Glove in Renaissance Europe,” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 118.

[5] Jeffrey Feldman, “Contact Points: Museums and the Lost Body Problem” in Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden and Ruth Phillips (eds.) Sensible Objects (London: Berg, 2006), 246.

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