I'd hoped to post over the weekend with some images from our graduate showcase--there were several striking exhibits of the MFA candidates' work! And, i'll make that post shortly, as soon as i can get all the photos together and edited, but i was unfortunately waylaid by an emergency root canal. Ugh, i'll gladly go the rest of my life without doing that again. There's little more all-consuming than extreme toothache, i think. Thankfully though, it's a quick recovery afterward; once i had the procedure Monday afternoon, i was on the fast track back to functionality.
A couple of exhibits of interest are presently up at Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art
. "The Art of Affluence: Haute Couture and Luxury Fashions 1947-2007,"
currently runs through June 30, 2010, while the newly opened "The Heights of Fashion: Platform Shoes Then and Now"
closes in May of 2010. If you follow these links, you can see a few examples of the pieces on display.
On Tuesday, I went with a group from work--four other faculty/staff members, and five graduate students--to check them out. We try, as a department, to take a research trip involving something of this sort at least a couple-few times a year. (Past examples: visits to other couture and costume exhibits, historical clothing archives, and professional symposia.) I'd been doubly-irritated with the tooth situation as the trip's been planned for quite a while and i didn't want to miss it, nor the opportunity to write it up here. So glad i was able to attend after all!
If you've never been to the Mint--I hadn't--it's a striking Federal-style building in the midst of sprawling, lush landscaping. Their website states that it "initially served the region as the first branch of the United States Mint, coining $5 million in gold from 1836 to the outbreak of the Civil War. A grassroots community effort during the Depression saved the original...building designed by William Strickland from demolition and moved it to its present Randolph Road site." Admission is reasonable ($9) and parking is free (!); it'd be a great place to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the grounds. We didn't, though; we lunched beforehand at the eclectic, funky Southern-style diner, Dish
. The Mint also has a sister Museum of Craft & Design, in downtown Charlotte a short distance away, which i'd like to get back to check out at some point.
The Mint has a decidedly confusing layout in general, with galleries spilling one into another and no cohesive flow from one exhibit to another--one minute i was looking at 8'-tall portraits of King George III and the next, i found myself in the midst of a Warhol exhibit entitled "Cowboys and Indians." I suppose this can partly be chalked up to the fact that it wasn't designed to be a museum at all, but it seems like some kind of consideration and forethought could be put into steering foot-traffic in a more logical, welcoming sense.
All the specialty exhibits were decidedly small--single rooms with a handful of pieces. In some cases (such as the 10-12 paintings in the "Cowboys and Indians" gallery), i found this a successful means of display, allowing me clean, uncluttered access to focus on the art. In others, it felt sad and almost desperate, as if the museum wishes to offer too much to too many with too little.The Art of Affluence: Haute Couture and Luxury Fashions 1947-2007
We took a docent tour of this exhibit, which was a bit disappointing. Even though a colleague of mine had called ahead well in advance to inquire whether anyone would be available to talk to us on a professional or academic level about the collection and the exhibit, our guide's spiel seemed more suited to a group of high-school students than scholars and artists who teach and create couture production. For example, at one point she made reference to "allowances from our parents," asked whether any of us knew what a corset looked like, and later inquired, had we done any sewing ever? I don't mean to complain about the docent herself--she was kind and enthusiastic with an obvious love for the work. I'm sure her talk would have been great for most community and student groups touring the exhibit. I wondered though, since we did contact them in advance about our group, why hadn't anyone briefed her about the nature of our tour? The coordinators neglected to provide her with archival gloves so even the interior finishing views we'd hoped to arrange weren't possible. I guess resources are what they are, and you get what you get.
The exhibit hall reminded me of the display galleries at the Museum at FIT
--largely comprised of banks of mannequins on low risers along the walls, low-lit, with notes in the foreground and posted alongside--except where the Museum at FIT is a succession of several long galleries, this exhibit was stuffed into a single room. There are maybe around 30 ensembles, total, on display, with a couple more cases featuring clusters of shoes and handbags.
One of the displays i spent the most time looking at was a single case containing an Yves Saint Laurent original shoe (a flute-heeled spectator oxford with a winklepicker toe), a high-end "knock off" of the design, and a budget version. The case is situated in the center of the gallery so that observers may see all three shoes from 360 degrees, and compare the subtle differences that set the designer original apart from each lower tier of production. You can see the different structure of the lasts used to create each slightly-different toebox shape, the progressively more luxe lacing material, the use of high-quality leather contrasted against less-expensive leather and vinyl, the different shapes and heights of heel. It was a great illustration of levels of quality in cordwaining artisanship and variations on a central design theme.
There are a handful of standout pieces in this exhibit--a Dior New Look dress in a multifiber four-color translucent jacquard shot with metallic accents, for example, and a stunning satin-and-tulle red Valentino evening gown--but it's heavily padded out with pret a porter
pieces for the "Sweetie-Darling" set. A bespoke mod dandy's ensemble by Mr. Fish stands opposite an off-the-rack Hugo Boss suit. A couple of forgettable lingerie dresses try to hold their own against one of Zandra Rhodes' riotous ensembles. One of my colleagues remarked that she'd never seen a couture exhibit so heavily influenced by the taste of its curator; i'd agree that it was very narrow in its aesthetic range, though whether that's due to the personal tastes of those who assembled it or possibly the limited scope of the Mint's latter-20th-century collection, i don't know. The Heights of Fashion: Platform Shoes Then and Now
The "Heights of Fashion" exhibit was a distinct disappointment.
It's contained in a single gallery smaller than my dyeshop, in which the walls are painted a jarring pumpkin orange, for no apparent aesthetic reason. Given that the majority of the shoes and boots on display are dark shades--black and tones of brown--a lighter contrast wall would have helped to illuminate details of construction and design, particularly given the low light so often demanded for the preservation of fabrics and leathers.
The arrangement of the exhibit itself is haphazard as well--one case containing samples of extreme footwear from various cultures and periods (Chinese lotus shoes and Japanese geta, for example) is positioned inexplicably between a pair of thigh-high fetishy "ballet boots" and a collection of mens platform loafers and oxfords, while two cases of "Goth" and "fetish" footwear divide overview displays of the 1970s and 1930s, respectively. There was no observably logical way to move through the exhibit and experience it in a historically or culturally meaningful way. Everything felt thrown-together, as if the exhibit expected to rely entirely upon the "novelty" of the items exhibited to carry it.
As with the couture exhibit, the few true gems here hide amongst chaff--a pair of black scalloped Roger Viviers, some tricolor patent Caboots mens platform loafers, the sky-high spiked oxfords from Vivienne Westwood's supermodel-hobbler line, all are interspersed in multi-pair displays on the sidewalls, surrounded by cheaply-made forgettable designs, poorly lit, poorly labeled, and difficult to inspect.
The modern platforms from the last decade exhibited are an outright embarassment. In a case representing "Goth" platform styles, there were a couple pairs of cheap Demonia/Pleaser studded and spiked boots, while in another "fetish shoe" case were the standard stripper-heel fare from lowball ripoff-brands like After Eight. These cases were the niche-cordwaining-design equivalent of a "fine portrait photography" gallery sign pointing to a display of arms-length cellphone snapshotz, but devoid of any attendant Dada irony.
Where, i wondered, were the extravagant original designs by New Rock, Luichiny, Swear, John Fluevog, and Pennangalan/Craig Morrison, whose couture fetish, club-kid, and Goth style designs had inspired the imitations displayed? I realize that they were, presumably, working with what the museum had in their collection, but certainly even a few well-placed ads soliciting loans of shoes of these sorts would have yielded much more exemplary representatives of these styles of platform footwear. After making such a point about the levels of quality between couture and descending-cost knockoffs with their Yves Saint Laurent shoe display in the earlier gallery, the predominance of cheap factory-produced work in the platforms exhibit shocked and jarred me that much more.
One element of both exhibits that seemed truly puzzling was the cavalier, silly conventions of labeling--some exhibit boxes' accompanying text began with goofy jokes (Example: "Q. How do you walk in these?" "A. You don't let go of the pole!"). On more than one placard, emoticons were featured. I suspect these sorts of inclusions were meant to appeal to younger museum-goers, but served only to trivialize the displays.Permanent Historic Costume and Fashionable Dress Collection
There are a few historical gems
to be found amongst the offerings from the permanent collection--a couple of 1830s gowns (also poorly displayed in a "diorama" style alcove with no strategic mirrors to show the backs of the garments) and an otherwise lovely 18th-century multicolor brocade robe a la francais
which had been dubiously "restored" with the addition of trim clearly made from polyester satin ribbon. They had a general collections catalogue in their gift shop which depicted some of their other standout historical collection pieces
, including a Fortuny original and an L.P. Hollander wedding gown (unfortunately not currently on display) that looked from the photos to be in even more pristine condition than our own Hollander ensemble
I do have to give the gift shop some props for their array of excellent offerings--it's a small shop but the merchandise is well-chosen and heavy on good-quality books and exhibit catalogues. Much of their overstock from past exhibits is still available at can't-refuse prices--$5 for a folio catalogue from "To Have and To Hold: 135 Years of Wedding Fashion," for example, a title our party purchased several copies of! Unfortunately, they don't do online sales, but you can call to purchase items to be shipped.
The Mint's Costume Collection is a relatively newly recognized formal archive of work--director of fine art Charles Mo has mentioned in several interviews that before he came to the museum, the couture and historical costume pieces owned by the museum had been essentially treated like gramma's old clothes rather than the culturally-significant and finely-crafted artwork that it is. Though the collection was established in 1972, the gallery devoted to its exhibition dates back only to 2005. I gather from our docent that they are working with extremely limited funds (as are most arts institutions these days)--"Everyone's got their pockets sewn shut right now," she said. I also inferred that much of their labor comes from community volunteers rather than trained archivists and conservators; in light of that, i can understand why and how the robe a la francais
on display got "restored" with JoAnn's Spool-o-Ribbon, but it's no less unfortunate for the piece in question. It's exciting to have another established archive devoted to the preservation and exhibition of costume, particularly recognizing it for its unique position at the intersection of art, craft, history, anthropology, and culture; i hope to see the Mint's exhibits in this area grow, mature, and expand in future.
All in all, though i've been quite critical, I do recommend a visit to check these out if you're in the area, or as a day-trip--there are a few gems to be found on display for couturiers and costume production artists. It's not worth distance travel though, unless you've got other reasons to be in Charlotte. The Mint is an institution to watch though, for forthcoming exhibits of this sort. They definitely have the potential to put together some future exciting offerings from their collection.
Now that the theatre season has ended and spring semester is coming to a close, this marks a good kick-off for the summer, which usually brings a bit more content in the realm of exhibit reviews and museum coverage. There'll be some millinery work, too, and soon...