The Fashion Institute of Technology Museum: A Queer History of Fashion & RetroSpective – a review

I just got back from a visit to Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, where I was able to walk through the galleries and see the two exhibits now on display, A Queer History of Fashion and RetroSpective. Both are free to the public and open until January 4, 2014 and November 16, 2013, respectively.

Photo on 2013-10-08 at 15.58 #3

Here’s the link to FIT’s museum website, below. Again, it’s ugly because I haven’t learned how to make it pretty yet.

http://www.fitnyc.edu/13666.asp

A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk

A look at clothing both created and worn by members of the LGBTQ communities over the past 300+ years, this is an interesting and discussion-sparking exhibit.

Focusing mostly on designer clothing from 1960 to the present, this exhibit offers a lot of information. It’s also well-planned and well-lit, so that almost every piece can be easily seen. Many outfits are semi-hidden behind others, but that speaks to the sheer volume of how many things there are to see. There are clothes from a scattering of the top names of the past century – fashion designers, movie stars, artists and more.

The one thing that disappointed me was the 18th century portion of the exhibit. It includes a 1790s suit, a banyan, and a truly horrible ‘Mollie’ outfit made from a reproduction chemise, a Renaissance Fair corset made from black sparkly brocade, and original shoes, quilted petticoat and red wool cloak.

From my research on gender-bending clothing of the 18th century, I’ve found that an outfit like this was simply not worn in public by anybody other than, possibly, a prostitute. In general, 18th c. LBGTQ people had to hide their true selves almost constantly, because simply being LBGTQ was a crime in a lot of places. Wearing something like this would be to wave a red flag in the face of a bull – not that it would make people immediately think “homosexual”, but the outfit would immediately bring to mind the 18th century debate on the desired tightness and completeness of women’s clothing and how it reflected their morals. Anybody, male or female, who wore an outfit like this would be immediately marked as “morally loose”,  and in 18th century thinking, that wasn’t a far cry from homosexual.

The label did not describe any of this, and didn’t offer information such as where such an outfit would be worn (England, America, France) which could have been crucial in interpreting it. And of course, there is the added problem of the cringe-worthy reproduction clothing.

Finally, the exhibit does not mention two of the most iconic gender-bending outfits there were in the 18th century: the riding habit and the redingote. These garments were a big part of gay and lesbian issues in the late 18th century. While I can understand that the museum possibly did not have originals to put on display, perhaps a picture or discussion could have been included.

I give this exhibit a 9/10. This exhibit presents an awesome topic and illustrates it with outstanding examples of clothing (expect for the 18th century portion). I highly recommend it.

RetroSpective

This exhibit focuses on revivals of fashion elements such as the bustle, hoop skirts and ’empire’ style gowns.

This exhibit is stunningly comprehensive. There are so many garments, accessories and textiles on display that each topic is supported by multiple examples. The exhibit is well laid out and each topic (say, ‘bustles’ or ‘panniers’) is given its own little nook, which makes comprehension of the ideas presented easy. Movies on clothing from the times adds another dimension to the exhibit, and guided tours are available as well.

Most of the clothing is presented somewhat poorly. The exhibit is quite dark where the older clothing is; too dark to see basic details like buttons, embroidery or seams. In addition to the darkness, putting the clothing in ‘nooks’ means that they can only be viewed from one angle. When I tried to lean in a little to see the garments, I set off alarms and was told off by a security guard.

Oops.

I didn’t think that this exhibit was very inspired. The topic of fashion revivals is old, and the exhibit brings nothing new to the discussion except a presentation of the usual topics. There is not a lot of information offered on the labels simply because the exhibit does not stir the waters of this topic: it only skims the surface. I would have loved the exhibit to go into the deeper questions of why fashion goes into revivals, and the way these revivals reflect what’s going on in the culture at the time.

I give it a 7/10. This exhibit is great for visitors with a casual interest in fashion, and since it’s free, it’s a great way to kill half an hour. If you go, don’t expect to learn a lot from it, and don’t expect to be able to see the older garments very clearly.

I’d love to hear others’ reactions to these exhibits. Have you seen them? What did you think?

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About Amanda Goebel

I'm an Anthropology / Fashion History and Material Culture graduate from The University of Delaware, currently working on a Master's in Museum Studies. I'm a living historian interested in costume and culture from years before. I love researching the mundane and the everyday that has changed or disappeared since. I re-enact the 18th century, and I recreate clothing from that time. This blog is where I'll write about my research and projects. View all posts by Amanda Goebel

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