Fashion. We love it; we hate it. One thing is for certain: its mutability is enough to make even a Buddhist nun’s head spin (perhaps this is why they stick to those saffron colored robes?). Fashion, like art, is also cyclical: styles come, styles go; styles come back: Witness today’s resurgence of mini-skirts… or was that last season’s trend?
On view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, an attempt to capture contemporary fashion — much of it, dare I say, outmoded by now — Breaking the Mode: Contemporary Fashion from the Permanent Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art is high fashion as high art, and therefore serves as a sort of historical record. Fashion-as-art has a long and venerable tradition—the world once held its collective breath to see what cascaded from the shoulders of Princess Diana (or left them bare); even today we look to the rich and famous to see what we might look like if we, too, were perfectly proportioned or at least frequently photographed.
Walking through the exhibition, its adorned mannequins spinning slowly and staring blankly from fixed pedestals, had the feel of a mausoleum. In the first of the galleries, I turned to my 13-year-old daughter and whispered, “This one looks like a lampshade.” At that quintessentially self-conscious age, she ignored me. But I was soon vindicated: the description of the dress, Issey Miyake’s “Minaret” Dress, unveiled for the elite fashion world in 1994, pays tribute to the light covering as inspiration. Miyake, whose fashion designs comprise an additional exhibition-within-the-exhibition, called into service plastic hoops and polyester to strike this decidedly stiff pose, and yet the end result is suggestive of swaying hips and garden parties. (Albeit parties I’m unlikely to be invited to.)
Breaking the Mode is intended to examine “designers who have challenged the canons of the body’s fashionable silhouette, revolutionized methods of garment construction, rejected the formulaic use of materials and techniques, and exploited new technology in textile production.” It’s hard to know exactly what this means, at least for the average Jo — make that JoAnne — who buys her clothes off the rack at Old Navy or Banana Republic. Those who do follow fashion see the trickle-down effects of haute couture designs made a fuss over at runway shows in New York, even in these middlebrow retail outlets.
But this — the work of designers whose work is purchased by the wealthy and the famous (usually both) — is a rarified world. Designers (curiously, they are almost exclusively male) in “Breaking the Mode” explore all manner of expression: from the tight confines and severe stitches of a space suit to the minimalism of a torn piece of fabric ending in a puddle on the floor.
Breaking the Mode suggests that clothing is, first and foremost, an artistic medium; the body is a canvas.
Among the 40 or so designers included are Jean-Paul Gaultier, Rel Kawakubo, Martin Marglela, the afore-mentioned Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler and Yohiji Yamamoto. Historical selections are offered for a bit of context from Robert Adrian, Christian Dior and Charles James. Breaking the Mode is on view through June 1 at IMA. Visit www.imamuseum.org for hours, ticket prices and information.