Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back

Spectres_review_VandABY JESSICA HEMMINGS

“Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back”
February 24 – May 8, 2005
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(photograph by Ronald Stoops)

Fashion exhibitions are plagued with the challenge of displaying garments in a manner that does not deny the bodily presence of the wearer, but avoids the disquiet that mannequins – headless or otherwise – evoke. In Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity fashion historian Elizabeth Wilson notes the unsettling feeling aroused by the sight of the empty garment: “What is the source of this uneasiness and ambiguity, this sense that clothes have a life of their own? Clothes without a wearer, whether on a secondhand stall, in a glass case, or merely a lover’s garments strewn on the floor, can affect us unpleasantly, as if a snake had shed its skin. Similarly, a pregnant woman described how the little frock hanging up in readiness for her as yet unborn child seemed like ‘a ghost in reverse.’”

Curator Judith Clark confronts countless ghosts in reverse in “Spectres.” Turning away from conventional curatorial practice and the importance placed on context, Clark instead proclaims, for the space of this exhibition at least that, “context is discarded.” Instead, early magical realist author Jorge Louis Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” whose narrator laments the “abysmal problem of time” is cited as inspiration. Like Borges who “thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars”, Clark suggests a far more enfolded manner in which material, shape and colour find themselves in and out of fashion’s favour.

The exhibition draws on the collection of the V&A and the ModeMuseum in Antwerp where an expanded version of the exhibition was first displayed. A printed exhibition guide is available, but entirely optional – another gesture that breaks with curatorial conventions. Instead of ubiquitous labels of dates, names and accession numbers the exhibit is punctuated with quotes from Caroline Evans excellent text Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness, giant “sketches: by fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo and mannequin prosthetics by jeweller Naomi Filmer. The latter do much to diffuse the dejected surface of the mannequin, although their beauty continues to have an unsettling edge to it. Echoing Borges in a gesture that seems to epitomize the energy Clark suggest is present in fashion, Evans writes, “It was not that the past simply illuminated the present, or that the present illuminated the past; rather the two images came together in a ‘critical constellation’ tracing a previously concealed connection.”

Here the absent physical body is evoked through a series of fairground attractions that can and do move to create optical illusions and multiple perspectives. The exhibition opens with a mirror image of a cotton Baptism robe and, leaping fifty years, a cotton dress and blouse by Veronique Branquinho. These garments are revealed, both literally and materially, to be reflections of themselves.  But it takes time to realize that one is witness to a reflection rather than the material and the disconcerting ground this visual pun places the viewer upon is palpable throughout the rest of the exhibition. A series of optical devices follow that focus, magnify and distort elements such as a ruffled collar, magnified and paired with its contemporary doppelganger or the kaleidoscope, which makes clear its uncanny ability to assemble beauty from fragmentation. The final illusion distances our vantage point to the present rather than the past to effectively disrupt any sense of security and stability from which a sense of linearity could be recovered.

Perhaps, the most effective, and simple, display of the fairground attractions is “Locking In and Out” a stage of three cogs whose teeth slowly move together and then turn apart mapping references between garments that jump through decades as well as centuries. Inspired by Anna Piaggi’s monthly trend spotting page in Italian Vogue, the cogs reveal a sense of haunting that, like Wilson’s image of the ghost of an unborn child, hails from the future as well as the past.  Strangely, the pace of the cogs are not set to the speed we are repeatedly led to believe is fashion’s relentless pace. Instead these cogs churn slowly, even methodically, suggesting that the pace fashion may in fact be far from fleeting. Evans writes, “And in the same way that musical history lost its linearity when mixed by the DJ . . . so too did fashion and cultural history lose its linearity when ‘remixed’ by late twentieth century designers folding one historical reference back on another. Rather than recreating one period, [the] historical borrowings were multilayered . . . rummaging through the historical wardrobe to produce clothes with a strictly modern resonance.” Nearby a giant puzzle whose pieces include painted sections by fashion Ruben Toledo and segments of garments from the treasure trove of Portobello Road leave the viewer with a set of “modern” solutions whose possibilities are countless.

Clark describes her notion of a gallery “as something akin to the sketch book.” I believe she means a work in progress, the germ of an idea rather than the conclusion. Sketchbooks can, from personal experience, be excruciating to share with the public. Between the protection afforded by those closed pages tentative gestures are begun without idea of conclusion or ramification. Clark’s curation is far from tentative or unpolished, but the notion of opening one’s sketchbook to public scrutiny is both generous and inspired. The results are groundbreaking. This exhibition sets a new standard of curation which, one can only hope, future fashion exhibitions will endeavour to maintain.

Selvedge Magazine (2005)