by Francesca Granata

The literature on fashion curation has greatly expanded in recent years, as the field has witnessed a meteoric rise propelled by the incredible draw of fashion exhibitions—most famously the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 blockbuster “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” Recent assessments of the field include Judith Clark and Amy de la Haye’s Exhibiting Fashion (Yale UP, 2014) , which traces the history of fashion exhibitions, and Fashion Curating (Bloomsbury, 2017), co-edited by Hazel Clark and Annamari Vänskä, who are interviewed in this issue. These works build on earlier writings on the topic in two special issues of the journal Fashion Theory edited by Valerie Steele and Alistair O’Neill, both of whom are interviewed in this issue, as well as important work on dress museology by Lou Taylor.

#5 explores fashion curation through dialogical exchanges with working curators from a range of institutions, both head curators at major museum collections and independent curators working in kunsthalle-like spaces. Harold Koda, who discusses his long-term engagement with the Met’s Costume Institute, most closely embodies a more traditional meaning of the word “curator” as a caretaker of a collection. Koda also had a unique vantage point, having entered the profession under Diana Vreeland at the Met in the 1970s, a pivotal moment for the increased dynamism of the field. Similarly, Kaat Debo is closely identified with the ModeMuseum in Antwerp, where she worked first as a curator and now as its director. Debo discusses the collaborative nature of her work, specifically when it comes to exhibiting living designers and the costly nature of exhibiting dress—something that is often underestimated by non-fashion specialists.

She also addresses the difficulty in striking the right balance between the materiality of the object and the digital engagement needed to relate to younger audiences. The centrality of material knowledge is also discussed by Sarah Scaturro, head conservator at the Costume Institute, who addresses the tightknit relation between conservation and curation in the realm of fashion. Alexandra Palmer, senior curator of textiles and costume at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, discusses her own curatorial work for a large public museum, alongside her role as exhibition reviews editor of Fashion Theory, a position that has allowed her a preferential viewpoint. Valerie Steele, editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory as well as director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who came into the field already established as a writer and academic, discusses the points of connection and divergence between museums and academia. Much like Debo, she welcomes the proliferation of fashion exhibitions while warning about the importance of upholding academic rigor and the needed technical expertise in the curation of dress.

Alistair O’Neill and Maria Luisa Frisa, alongside Hazel Clark and Annamari Vänskä, address the emerging figure of the independent fashion curator, a role also pioneered by Judith Clark (interviewed in a previous issue). The figure of the independent curator is a much more recent development in fashion than in contemporary art, and is certain to shape the field in innovative ways. O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, has explored “alternative modes of exhibition” and curation “not bound by the museum” in the issue of Fashion Theory he edited, as well as in his own curatorial practice. In his interview, he discusses exhibitions he curated for the Somerset House Trust including “Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!” (2013), which exhibited much of the wardrobe of the late fashion icon, plus shows that eschewed actual dress altogether, such as “Guy Bourdin: Image Maker” (2014). O’Neill also has a word of caution regarding museums’ thirst for blockbuster fashion exhibitions, a practice that might take needed resources away from collection care, particularly at smaller museums. Clark (professor of fashion and design studies at Parsons) and Vänskä (a Finnish professor of art and fashion) discuss their curatorial practice alongside their recent research on the topic, which was jumpstarted by a symposium they organized at Parsons in 2013 and culminated in Fashion Curating: Critical Practice in the Museum and Beyond (Bloomsbury, 2017). Frisa, a pioneer in independent fashion curation, came from a background in art criticism to work on influential exhibitions starting with “Uniforms: Order and Disorder,” which she curated in Florence with Francesco Bonami and Stefano Tonchi in 2001.

In this issue, wanting to turn the tables and upend old hierarchies, Frisa discusses what contemporary art can learn from fashion. Noting how exhibiting fashion “provokes both a visual and bodily experience,” the Italian curator points toward the affective power of fashion in its intrinsic relation to the body. In fact, if fashion exhibitions, with their predominance of lifeless mannequins, have been often equated to a morgue, they can also be understood as a prime site for “interobjectivity,” theorized by film theorist Vivian Sobchack as our ability to engage with the materiality of objects as related to our own (University of California Press, 2004).  

Interestingly, many of the subjects interviewed make reference to one another, thus underscoring the relatively small network of fashion curation. Yet the network is fast expanding—and pushing the geography of fashion curation beyond its traditional Western capitals.

Naturally, one figure whose name is invoked again and again is Diana Vreeland (1903-1989), the legendary Vogue editor and doyenne of the Metropolitan Museum if Art’s Costume Institute. Our cover stars Vreeland—or rather, the sculptural representation of Vreeland as rendered by the late artist Greer Lankton. Fittingly, Lankton’s Vreeland doll now rests in the library of the Costume Institute itself.