Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own
Fashion and Textile Museum, London (October 20, 2017-January 21, 2018)
The Fashion and Textile Museum (FTM) is currently holding an exhibition titled Louise Dahl-Wolfe: A Style of Her Own, which beautifully captures the emotion and evolution of the photographer’s work while also presenting her personal journey of creative expression. Specifically, however, the FTM installation homes in on Dahl-Wolfe’s long-term creative partnership with Harper’s Bazaar, a number of individual projects, and her famed visual iconization of the modern wartime woman.
Taking a thematic approach, the exhibition’s point of entry is an engaging and uplifting display of vintage Harper’s Bazaar covers. A sense of true glamour, sophistication, and poise is present within the imagery, but the poignancy of color is where Dahl-Wolfe clearly shone. Described as having the ability to create a “smyphonic feast” from a talented eye for color combination, her passion for balancing hues is clear in her work for fashion publications. Having photographed 86 covers, 600 color pages, and thousands of black and white portraits, her dedication to the fashion industry has proved to have been a life-long affair.
This relatively small introduction of colorful fashion spreads fades into a larger room of black and white images. In spite the lack of color, an overall elegance pervades this room, with pastel colored walls elevated by a striking ceiling display of up-turned umbrellas. This room documents her early works, portraits, and depiction of Hollywood glamour. The images portray an initial preference for documentary style imagery, before developing a more stylistic approach necessary for fashion photography. While a narrative exists within the impressive body of work, some of the additional materials lack substance or context. There are printed artifacts displayed in cabinets, and a mannequin clothed in garments featured in the imagery, both evoking memories of lackluster visual merchandising in a once-popular department store. While the nature of the work presented is primarily one-dimensional, a balcony area dedicated to Dior couture dresses offers a garment-focused fashion display, dialoguing with the classic fashion imagery displayed nearby. Although the concept could have been potentially interesting, highlighting the importance of clothing and dress to the photographer, the display lacks aesthetic intrigue. Simple mannequins are aligned in a linear formation, and faded spotlights provide little enhancement to the profiled garments. (For examples of greater experimentation in garment display, it is worth considering the use of set design and moving image involved in the Chanel section of the exhibition Hair by Sam McKnight, recently held at Somerset House, London. The effect there created an entirely new space within the context, ensuring the brand was able to retain its own identity, despite being integrated into an extensive curation of material related to the hair stylist.) A branded addition to a gallery space is often a difficult act to achieve with success, considering the commercial associations with branded content. Particularly in a fashion context, branded exhibition spaces are easily compared to retail spaces, owing not least to the attraction of similar audiences.
While navigating the FTM, I further considered a lack of sensory elements and questioned the potential of integrating technology to enhance the overall experience. I’m not suggesting that technology be used just for the sake of it, rather that it be used educationally, or as a way of subtly offering atmospheric enhancement. A commonplace technique in retail environments, the idea of subtle sensory implements including smell, sound, and touch, to allow for more memorable encounters, is something yet to be fully explored within gallery and museum spaces. Imagine if there was a specific scent that you could really associate with each exhibition you went into? Or if there was mood-enhancing sound offered, beyond the realm of clunky audio guides. These enhancements are particularly suited to fashion exhibitions rather than those of other visual media.
Again, in relation to the space itself, the museum could perhaps have benefited from enticing the viewer to stay longer in the environment. Is it still enough to show only objects in an exhibition offering? With high competition from alternative leisure spaces including retail destinations and multi-functional working environments, surely the need to create a lasting impression is more urgent than ever within exhibition contexts. An example of an intelligent use of space in an arts venue is 180 The Strand – a disused office block in central London that has been transformed into an ever-changing cultural space. The venue also benefits from communal areas such as The Store concept retail and cafe space, which is purposefully curated to function as a meeting place and co-working area. Much like FTM, 180 The Strand doesn’t hold a permanent collection, but instead transforms every few months to focus on a new event or exhibition. As a contrasting example of a creative organization existing without a static collection, 180 The Strand cleverly utilizes the space available to highlight the architecture and impressive landscape views on offer. Although this space is perhaps targeting a different audience, and has the obvious benefit of being a large-scale building in a central location, the FTM could take inspiration from the ways the organization has achieved traction both on and off exhibition schedules.
Although the Louise Dahl-Wolfe exhibition was arranged according to themes such as ‘Bazaar Covers’, before moving on to Early Works, Portraits, Hollywood and a Dior section, the positioning of certain areas was sometimes a little questionable. For example, an add-on section about the current context of Harper’s Bazaar offered a familiar and relatable element to an otherwise historical perspective of fashion magazines. Ambiguously displayed in the space usually reserved for the closed-off “Learning Centre,” a letter from current editor Justine Picardie and an array of covers from recent years are profiled to highlight the magazine’s continued creativity. Although the concept here is potentially appealing, the space is uninviting and lacks continuity with the rest of the curation. Particularly given the more contemporary subject of this room, greater interactivity and potential digital enhancements could have been integrated to inject more energy into this section of the display.
Overall, the exhibition was a simple collation of imagery and ideas which, on one hand, is all a historical account of a photographer really needs. From another view, the exhibition could have been lifted with more of an established identity throughout. While the descriptive statements in each room were well-crafted and informative, a stylistic placement of quotes and ideas could have enhanced the exhibition. Bibliographical elements depict Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s overall artistic career, noting everything from her talent for color, to her ability to depict rural life and poverty through portraiture. Perhaps it is the scope of the photographer’s work which presents the biggest challenge for exhibition curation here. While situated in this instance at a fashion-specific site, the material could have taken a different angle had it been housed in a fine art or photographic exhibition space. The outcome is somewhat disappointing, given that the exhibition’s subject has an enchanting potential to capture and distill moment in time. Particularly as a topic presented in isolation, the opportunity to really showcase this creative talent should be maximized with the most innovative techniques. This opens the question of whether fashion related museum exhibitions should present their material in a strictly informative and educational format, or whether they should take inspiration from other media and methods of display, taking risks in experimental narrativization and design.