Trading Style

Trading Style: Weltmode im Dialog
Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt
November 8, 2012 – August 31, 2013

Why are we so taken with decorating our bodies? It certainly isn’t specific to women, or specific to now, or even specific to one culture or group. Humans seem to have always wanted to make big parts of our bodies small; small parts big; light bits dark and dark bits light. It is curious, but certainly far from new.

Curated by the museum’s Director Clémentine Deliss, this exhibition presents the stuff humans have long used to decorate and adorn our bodies. Alongside objects from the museum’s archive are exhibits of contemporary responses invited from the fashion labels A Kind of Guise (Germany), Buki Akib (Nigeria), CassettePlaya (Britain), P.A.M./Perks and Mini (Australia). Each was given the opportunity to respond to the museum’s extensive archive with the goal to “reconnect historic ethnographic artefacts to contemporary practices”.

On the lower level of the museum, visitors face a remarkable collection of decorative things: baskets and sandals, hats of every shape and size (including spiny fish skin), feathers, beads… Tiny Chinese shoes made for bound feet are displayed beside huge gold earrings from Mali; the size of the two objects disconcertingly similar. A beaded hair clip spells out the brand name Adidas, while hair combs carry a hand made version of the Nike logo. Throughout the exhibition, historical photographs provide some contextualisation of original use, but the archival objects on display now speak to each other across chronological and geographical differences.

This exhibition is the second time the museum has worked with their archive in this way, adopting a similar strategy for the previous exhibition “Object Atlas: fieldwork in the museum”. The unintended upshot here is that the archive makes for more engaging viewing than the contemporary responses. Skill and attention to detail commonplace in craft traditions of the past are no longer the bread and butter of contemporary practice. This means the contemporary work on display needs to be viewed through different eyes and is flattered most by an attention to gesture rather than detail.

The selected designers took up residencies at the museum during 2012, living and working in Weltkulturen Labor on the museum grounds with access to lab spaces, project rooms, artist studios and guest apartments. While few aesthetic similarities are shared, the designers are united in their distaste for conventional methods of mass production and mass consumption of fashion. Each exists in what the exhibition publication refers to as a “horizontal fashion landscape that emancipates itself from the Haute Couture of Paris, London, Milan or New York yet competes on equal footing when it comes to style and sensibility.”

Two video screens on the ground floor gallery show past and present: a loop of footage from the Weltkulturen’s extensive film archive (referred to by the museum as its “optical repository”) and interviews with the contemporary designers. A telling contrast between the present and past is set up between these two video screens. The archival footage contains no sound, nor is there a suggestion that any had been sought at the time of filming. Nonetheless, the speed of tacit knowledge from the past makes for remarkable viewing. Hands fly across the screen, able to form and control materials at a startling pace, while the maker’s face betrays an almost absent-minded expression of familiarity.

In contrast, the contemporary footage contains stunning still photographs that capture the responses of intrigue and awe by the designers when working with the museum’s archives, but their spoken explanations make for uncomfortable viewing. This may have been complicated by the editing out of the questions each spoke to in response, or the simple danger of retrospective explanations. Crucially, the contemporary footage does not capture the making process, which is a loss.

The cover image of the excellent exhibition catalogue also graces the façade of museum: somewhere very hot, a topless white woman stands beside a dressed black man. It is a single image that sums up so much by reversing the colonial expectations of race and gender. For once, it is white skin that is treated as object and curiosity, while the black male gaze knowingly confronts the camera lens. Inside the catalogue a series of full page spreads pair black and white images drawn from the museum’s archive and shots from the invited designers’ look books. The images reappear as a montage in the exhibition and capture the recurring poses and attitudes we strike in front of the camera lens: our fascination with style is nothing new.

Selvedge Magazine (May/June 2013: 86)