The most devoted fashion followers will be familiar with the sinking feeling of missing an exhibition. Oh what many of us wouldn't do to fly back in time and visit one of Diana Vreeland's shows at the Met; take for instance the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective in 1982, or La Belle Epoque in 1982. There are few who wouldn't fancy a look round the Maison Martin Margiela exhibit of 1997 in Rotterdam, or to revisit the holy grail fashion exhibitions of the 21st century, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011: Met, 2015:V&A) and Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams (2019). The appetite for fashion exhibitionism remains ripe, however traditionally their existence has not been documented and critiqued in the rigorous manner that art exhibitions have been. That's why the London College of Fashion's (LCF) Centre for Fashion Curation (CfFC) have launched a platform dedicated to the practice.
Finding also that there was no extensive resource text for the MA Curation course at London College of Fashion, the centre's co-directors, dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye and exhibition maker Judith Clark, decided to develop the ultimate fashion exhibition index, as an extension of the 2014 text they created with Jeffrey Horsley, Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971.
The lack of records of fashion exhibitions pre-internet, reflect the naive view which endures today, that fashion is too self-absorbed and fickle to relate to the world around it. 'Because fashion is constantly changing, the implication is that it’s of no lasting value, and even the status of it in the museum was always a double-edged sword', de la Haye tells me. She has worked with multiple art institutions across her career, and more often than not, found that fashion ‘wasn’t regarded to have the same gravitas as sculpture or ceramics’. It's also a gendered issue, she adds, as traditionally, art curators are male and dress curators, female. Both de la Haye and Clark tell me that they've never read a review of an exhibition which has reflected their original intention, which once again, is a result of the different treatment fashion exhibitions receive in comparison to their art counterparts.
‘Even today, when you read a fashion exhibition review, it invariably describes the content, the designers and the people who might have worn those clothes. It very, very rarely critiques the curatorial interventions that have been made. It’s rare to get a critique of an exhibition which isn't purely descriptive, which is actually very surprising today’, de la Haye points out.
The index which the pair have developed with the CfFC is a vital missing research tool which captures the lineage of fashion exhibition making, and in turn, the value of clothes themselves and what they reveal socially and politically about a moment in time. ‘We both became obsessed with capturing the history of our discipline', explains de la Haye.
A public resource available for anyone to access globally, the new site is an on-going project, serving not only as a free teaching and learning aid, but as a tool for journalists, academics and researchers. The exhibitions included have been curated chronologically and listed with their original exhibition text to allow for visitors to place each show within the context of one another. This layout also provides a ‘glimpse of what people were preoccupied by in relation to fashion in any given year’, says Clark, who also points out that although the exhibition texts may feel outdated, that's often because they are. This is a 'series of documents', the exhibition maker stresses. ‘It is a sign of the times what people choose to privilege in relation to an archive. The site is an invitation to look again.'
‘As well as being able to analyse individual exhibitions, what the site provides is the opportunity for comparative analysis', de la Haye adds. 'For example, do curators accessorise garments with jewellery? How were hands used - were they there for an emphatic gesture, to hold a bag? Were they gloved, not gloved? Were they accessorised with jewellery? You could write a whole obsessive essay on hands. In the past it would have taken forever to try and find those resources, because a lot of them aren’t available on the internet.'
To illustrate this, they have begun inviting contributors to respond to the timeline in their own specific areas of expertise. De la Haye has written as essay on the rose in fashion, whilst as the artist Leanne Shapton has responded to an exhibition curated by Clark, The Dialogues: 130 Years of Lanvin (2020), via a series of illustrations which draw upon details from the show in Shanghai, alongside the Fra Angelico 'Lanvin Blue'; a colour that the French fashion house is closely associated with.
They're very clear that these responses do not warrant a series of exhibition reviews, but instead highlight the myriad jumping off points one can run with, simply by being aware of this fashion lineage. ‘There are multiple ways to look at an exhibition. We hope that it will become increasingly politicised, that it will really create a different question around what it is we’re collecting', Clark explains.
Over time, the pair plan to go further back in time to more exhibitions which pre-date the internet and are therefore even more challenging to get a hold of information for. They're already in contact with academics on an international scale, and hope to be able to take even the most obscure gallery's archives online. They'll be ‘providing a resource that an individual gallery might not be able to create, for an individual gallery who might not be able to join in a story, or to make their claims. Just because it wasn’t online doesn’t mean it didn’t happen’, Clark highlights.
What it all comes down to, however, is where it all began - with the students. ‘It’s meant to be really engaging for our students, and unapologetic in its brief’ says Clark. 'This is a vote of confidence, in terms of investing time and energy into our teaching, and into our students’.
Explore the archive here.