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The Challenges of Fashion in a Museum

Contemporary Muslim Fashions at the de Young Museum, installation view: Abayas and handbag by Oscar de la Renta, John Galliano, Marchesa, and Stephane Rolland (photo by Joanna Garcia Cheran, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

SAN FRANCISCO — Contemporary Muslim Fashions, the excellent, large-scale presentation of upscale Islamic women’s fashion is installed in two high, long galleries at the de Young Museum, raises two distinctly different issues.

The more important, obvious concern is political. As a massive, necessary exercise in identity politics, Contemporary Muslim Fashions provides a welcome opportunity for Muslim visitors to absorb and articulate expressions of their own culture, and, while offering the larger public an important chance to become informed about traditions that are all to often misunderstood and vilified.

The exhibition is thus an effective major political statement, which should provide support for multicultural tolerance and understanding. Obviously only people who are knowledgeable about fashion are competent to evaluate these displays and the narratives in the catalogue. But all of us can see that reflection about the issues this exhibition raises are very important, and that they range far outside the relatively parochial art world.

There are regional displays using mannequins wearing clothing from Muslim majority countries in the Middle East, as well as nations in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. There is a section on hybrid sports garments, including the burkini. And, finally, there is a staging of upscale Parisian fashion as it has been customized for Muslim women.

Contemporary Muslim Fashions at the de Young Museum, installation view: Ensembles by FIZIWOO, Melinda Looi and Bernard Chandran (photo by Joanna Garcia Cheran, image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The second, much narrower concern involves the nature of fashion as art. In recent years, several museums have presented major fashion displays. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heavenly Bodies, an exhibition of designs inspired by Catholicism, was a great popular success — the most popular show ever held at the museum. And so it’s predictable that we’re in for other such museum displays. Perhaps especially since Max Hollein, CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the de Young is a part, has just become director of the Met.

The whole history of the public art museum, from its birth in the late 18th-century, has involved expansion. Think of how medieval European art; art from Africa, Asia, the Islamic world, and Oceania; photography; and, most especially contemporary art has been added over time. The institution has thrived because the introduction of novel forms of art is challenging to the status quo. In particular, of course, there is a now lengthy tradition of Duchampian works that raise questions about the very nature of art. If something is in a museum, then it must be a work of art: that simple statement is taken for granted by visitors. Curators provide the displays, and then they need aestheticians and art historians to explain why these novel artifacts are artworks, what relation they have to the larger history of art.

Is fashion itself art? If so, what kind of art is it? It may seem, initially, that only philosophers and academics are likely to be engaged by this concern. But in fact, reflection on these questions informs the way that everyone responds to a show like this. How, to ask one simple, important question, should fashion be described? The long rows of clothed mannequins in this exhibition look something like sculptures, but obviously the kind of attention we give them is unlike that provoked by displays of, say, medieval or baroque carvings.

Contemporary Muslim Fashions at the de Young Museum, installation view (image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

For one, a critical commentary obviously needs to employ a sophisticated knowledge of textiles: where traditional sculpture is inherently static, fashion is designed to accommodate movement. How, also, are we art critics to aesthetically judge fashion? We need both to evaluate the inherent visual qualities of the fabrics as well as the designs themselves. Presumably, just as we judge painting by its originality and success at employing tradition, so too we need proper historical knowledge of fashion to offer a plausible analysis.

Fashion in the museum offers great challenges for the art critic. There is a specialist literature; the late Anne Hollander wrote brilliantly about fashion and visual art. But so far as I can see, most art criticism has barely touched upon these issues.

Certainly that is true of my own writings. I confess, when I wrote a book about world art history I thought a lot about art from outside Europe. I studied the literature on Chinese painting, Islamic decoration and, to a lesser extent, the writing on tribal art. I was highly aware that aesthetic theory needed to look beyond narrow Euro-central concerns. But I never explored fashion. (I did, however, write some reviews of fashion shows, and one discussion of fashion displays.) And yet, Hegel, who treats art as cultural expression, devotes some pages in his Lectures on Fine Art to the distinctive features of modern clothing:

Our manner of dress, as outer covering, is insufficiently marked out by our inner life to appear conversely as shaped from within; instead, in an untruthful imitation of our natural form, it is done with and unalterable once it has been cut.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, with intelligent, readable essays by 11 scholars. On the weekday afternoon that I visited, the show was not crowded. Since there are almost 250,000 Muslims in the six counties surrounding San Francisco, one can only regret that museum admission is pricey, $28, and that the catalogue, Contemporary Muslim Fashions, also is costly — $49.95. But, then, such ambitious exhibitions must not be easy to finance — and life in San Francisco is expensive.

Contemporary Muslim Fashions continues at the de Young Museum (Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, California) through January 6, 2019.

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