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"Fashioning Fashion" At LACMA

Tess Goodwin |
September 30, 2010 | 3:52 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Robe à la Française at new LACMA fashion exhibit (Photos by Tess Goodwin)
Robe à la Française at new LACMA fashion exhibit (Photos by Tess Goodwin)
Part of the new Resnick Pavilion, Fashioning Fashion is an exhibit that includes some extremely rare pieces of clothing and accessories from 1700-1915. The extensive collection includes a cage crinoline, floral silk shoes and ruffled bustles in near-perfect condition. It also includes an extensive array of men’s vests and jackets, which are very hard to find, according to the exhibits two curators, Sharon Takeda and Kaye Spilker.

The curators acquired the collection from “two dealers who had been collecting separately for 25 years and then decided to merge and really create a very strong and complete collection,” Takeda said.

LACMA had purchased a few items from these dealers before, so Spilker asked one of them if they had anything of interest. They sure did.

The dealers sent Spilker and Takeda the disk of images and “[they] looked at it and thought it was a superb collection, in very good condition.” But of course, they had to go see it. 

The pieces were stored at a warehouse in Switzerland and as soon as the curators saw the items in person, they knew they had to have the entire collection for LACMA. 

“This was an extraordinary collection that we wanted to acquire to kick the value of our collection way up and fill in some of the blanks,” Takeda said.

Some of those blanks were filled with a fabulous collection of men’s ensembles (including a green plaid silk taffeta coat), children’s dresses and undergarments, all in what appeared to be pristine condition.

Not to be undermined, the dresses were also breathtaking. The opening piece is a silk satin metallic robe à la française and is exquisite enough for a queen. Another stand out dress was a purple velvet Victorian with a high collar and pink silk twill inlay, shown with black gloves and a parasol.

But the best pieces were the undergarments, which included a black leather bustier from England in 1900 and a pale pink lace corset with ribboned garters and bows. 

Particularly impressive was the presence of an 18th century French panier, which is a large hoop-skirt that accentuates the hips. Marie Antoinette famously wore a panier that extended her wedding dress several feet on either side. The collection also includes a multitude of different bustles, which were used mostly in the 19th century to extend the derrière of the woman under her dress.

Also amazing were a pair of black leather thigh-high “fetish” boots lined in red. They looked as if they belonged to a courtesan or a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge at the turn of the 20th century in Paris. 

Although every piece was beautiful and important in its own way, both Takeda and Spilker agree that the most unique piece of the collection is a vest from the French revolution that has mottos and symbols embroidered on it. 

Victorian velvet dress detail at LACMA Fashioning Fashion exhibit
Victorian velvet dress detail at LACMA Fashioning Fashion exhibit
“Many current designers would have a background in designing pieces like the ones exhibited and be totally inspired by the details and construction,” Takeda said. 

John Galliano says in his preface about the exhibition that “[the vest] is genius. I love the hidden messages and use of heroic symbolism and dandy analogy. . . . For me fashion is there to empower, but you can also play with it, and use it to disguise and conceal. The vest is a brilliant example of all of this. I wish I had been commissioned to design this vest; it is a masterpiece of fashion and function as well as showing sadness, sympathy, beauty, and wit.”

“You could kind of compare it to todays tee-shirts. It has a message. It was someone who had political ideas and wore them literally on their sleeve,” Takeda said.

Spilker and Takeda have worked together for many years and even came out with a book, "Breaking the Mode," that analyzes fashion’s change in the past 30 years.

“This collection is the initial. The mode that was broken. It shows how fashion changed at a much slower pace and for different reasons whether it was political or social,” Takeda said.

Overall, this collection is supremely beautiful and tells a story of Europe’s political and social conventions through clothing and accessories. Anyone who has any interest in art, history or fashion should view this exhibit before it is put into storage for preservation.

The Resnick Pavilion and the Fashioning Fashion exhibit will open to the public with a community weekend on Oct. 2-3. Tickets are free and can be reserved at lacma.org.

Reach staff reporter Tess Goodwin here.



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