Fashion in ‘America’

In America: A Lexicon of Fashion and In America: An Anthology of Fashion, were the titles of the two fashion exhibitions at the Met in New York that spanned the 2021/22 seasons. After missing the 2020 exhibit due to the pandemic, I was looking forward to resuming my pilgrimage to what each year promises to be the defining experience for fashionistas. Except, this year, this time… 

Let’s start with the titles of the exhibits. What does ‘In America’ refer to? One might note the all too common conflation of America and the USA, and it became quickly evident that this was the case here too. But there is more to it. What, or perhaps where, is ‘in America’? Do the titles refer to ‘American’ fashion as a particular instance of an inherently transnational phenomenon, a part of a global ‘fashion system’? Or, alternatively, does this suggest a sartorial ‘ontopology’, as Jacques Derrida defined it, ‘an axiomatics linking indissociably the ontological value of present being [on] to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general?’ Is there an ‘American Fashion’, a fashion that inherently belongs to ‘America’? Or, finally, is it ‘expressing America’, representing an American identity throughout the ages? 

The exhibit tries to cut through this ambiguity with a poster in the entry hall to the first exhibit (A Lexicon of Fashion), only to muddle things further: 

(c) Andreas Behnke

There are quite different arguments made here. Firstly, America is like a ‘patchwork quilt’, a plurality, yet at the same time a unity. The ‘e pluribus unum’ theme clearly echoes here. Secondly, in contrast to Europe and its ‘haute couture’, American fashion is characterised by simplicity, practicality, functionality and egalitarianism. It is unclear to me how this essential definition corresponds to the ‘patchwork’ description, which suggests a much more varied expressiveness of ‘American fashion’, one that might include ‘European’, ‘Asian’, or ‘African’ elements of sartorial style. Thirdly and finally, the ‘patchwork’ idea, which describes the USA’s societal identity, is reduced to the expression of personal sentiments such as ‘delight’, ‘joy’, ‘wonder’, ‘desire’, ‘assurance’ and ‘confidence’. Clearly, these are not emotions ‘held together by a common thread’. 

This, it seems, is an exhibition in search of a theme. [Insert link] With the ‘personal sentiments’ turned into headpieces/signifiers placed on top of individual mannequins and gowns, presented in isolated boxes without any connectivity or ‘common thread’, any idea of plurality translating into unity collapses into personalised expressions of emotions.                

Hence the relationship between signifier and signified is not only unstable, but arbitrary and obscure. Why this dress is linked to ‘Awareness’ is puzzling, to say the least. 

Some other ones are easier to read: Diane von Fürstenberg’s iconic wrap dress might plausibly be read as an expression of ‘Freedom’.

(c) Andreas Behnke

Yet overall, the signifiers tend to limit the proliferation of meaning that inheres in fashion. They did not allow the fashion to ‘spill over’ and inspire various and varied interpretations. This in fact agitated me the most, as I paid more attention to the headpieces than to the garment, with the repeated question ‘what does this have to do with that’ constantly undermining the aesthetic experience of encountering fabulous fashion. And, as my fabulous wife observed, who made Andrew Bolton king and let him decide what the garment’s meant? Designating meaning in this sense is a power grab. 

There was some more creative engagement with the idea of ‘America’, though, one that took the exhibit beyond the idiosyncratic and into the realm of the political. Some garments excels in deconstructing American ‘unity’ and identity. There was Willy Chavarria’s Falling Stars sweater.

(c) Andreas Behnke

And Jonathan Cohen’s dress representing ‘Unity’: the U.S. flags multi-coloured stripes falling to the ground.

(c) Andreas Behnke

Perhaps the most powerful expression of the current demise of the U.S was offered by Sterling Ruby’s Veil Flag: ‘a black-washed wrap that nods to the American flag in its palette and patched form’. This, much more than the boxed garments in the main exhibition, engages with deeply trouble state of the United States. 

(c) Linda Bishai
(c) Linda Bishai

I realise that so far I have offered mostly a review of the conceptual context of this exhibition. I felt frustrated that fashion was reduced to ‘illustration’ of an alleged ‘lexicon’ (never mind the fact that a ‘lexicon of fashion’ would deal with central sartorial concepts, such as cut, pattern, texture, colour, hemline, bias and so on). But how, actually, could fashion speak to, and represent, an increasingly divided and antagonistic American society? The above examples offered some suggestions, as they place fashion in this social, rather than personalised, realm, or rather in the interstices between the personal and the social where fashion unleashes its symbolic power. 

Fortunately, because it was possible to appreciate the fashion on display, even if boxed and insulated as it was in this exhibit, fashion wins over poor curating again. It exceeds and breaks the thematic, conceptual and national constraints imposed upon it and asserts its own realm. This, of course, I have written about before. 

Next up: the second part of the double exhibit. And a bit on the pleasant experience at the FIT.

One thought on “Fashion in ‘America’

  1. Excellent commentary on a troubling exhibition. I found labels and categories irritatingly arbitrary even as, as you say, the clothes spoke very well for themselves. There is something sublime in the particulars even as the whole leaves one wanting for better framing. Looking forward to the next installments!


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