The Legion of Honor exhibit “High Style Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection” succeeded in bringing a unique and enlightening view of some of the most important examples of fashion made by some of the most important designers of the decades between 1910 and 1980. A selection of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, the exhibit excelled in giving the viewer a detailed and anatomical view of a broad selection of garments.
“High Style Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection” was one of a series of fashion-as-art exhibits with which the Legion of Honor has graced us. The series includes “Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion” (2007), “Yves Saint Laurent” (2008–2009). “Balenciaga and Spain” (2011), “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” (2012) and finally, there is still “Oscar de la Renta” to enjoy (March 5, 2016 – May 30, 2016). I might also add the amazing “Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave” (2011). It does not exactly qualify as part of the fashion-as-art series because the garments were recreations of fashion, remade in paper, but it certainly illustrates the refreshing devotion to fashion at de Young.
Fashion sits in that uncomfortable land between art and craft, yet it can be argued that it occupies more of our lives than any art. Like other arts, its makers for the most part are living on subsistence wages. It mirrors our most popular art—that of film—in that only a few will gain riches and fame from the production of it. Still, even with costuming, part of that larger art, the makers have their skills discounted by those that consume them.
People seem to think that it’s an easy thing, making clothing, though the general public could not do it. It’s quite a conundrum that does not follow logic. Quite often, as in the case of the wedding dress disasters resulting from trying to get a cheap dress on line from China, the lesson is learned the hard way. Money, and its more dear cousin, time, is wasted because the dress received bears little resemblance to the picture presented (usually stolen from the original artist). Neither does the construction meet minimum standards.The panicked bride then finds herself at the door of a skilled dressmaker to either discover a way to make the failed dress wearable, or to have something worthwhile made instead. A good dressmaker can usually find a way to get the dress to fit, but it will never look as good as simply paying for the skills this person has spent decades learning in the first place.
So, de Young is doing us a wonderful service by placing the work of some of the most amazing fashion artists alongside artists of other mediums. As they gain more experience with fashion exhibits, I am seeing they their eye has turned to the details that need to be emphasized in the exhibits that they bring to The Legion of Honor. Many times there is only attention paid to the surface of the clothes. I am seeing a glorious change that had me dancing in the middle of the exhibit. While the Gaultier exhibit presented the clothes in a manner that allowed us to see seams and hidden elements that make his work the work of a master, “High Style” went a step further and provided looping videos and x-rays, highlighting boning placement, and construction techniques of a very complex set of Charles James garments. Showing the skill, detail, and time needed to create couture fashion to the public who has forgotten what well-made clothes look and feel like can only be a good thing in this era of disposable clothing. We would all be well served by reducing the waste that disposable fashion creates. We’d also all do well to assure that a living wage was paid to our garment workers, and designers. With thoughtful exhibits from The Legion of Honor providing structure for these we might actually make headway in that direction.