I went to The Met’s Comme des Garçons exhibition and people really didn’t get it.
The Costume Institute’s spring show always creates buzz. With one of the most comprehensive costume collections in the world and with leading fashion scholars and curators at their disposal, the spring exhibition sets the bar for fashion in the museum.
This year, the exhibition focused on Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo. Titled Art of the In-Between, the exhibition explores how Kawakubo straddles the line between various dualities found in fashion.
Led through the exhibition by the written guide (itself simple but cleverly designed and worth mention), the visitor is taken on a journey through Kawakubo’s world. Each duality features a quote by Kawakubo along with a cerebral contextualization of the pieces. As the visitor progresses through, reading about Kawakubo’s in-betweenness, the displays begin to make more sense and reveal Comme des Garçons’ avant-garde beauty.
At least that’s what I found as a scholar of fashion theory and history.
I’m not sure that’s what the average Met patron found. As I immersed myself in the designs and accompanying explanations, I also noticed an uneasiness among some of my fellow visitors. While many snapped pictures away on their phones, I also found others confused and lost.
While I realized the fashion merits of the garments themselves, I did find the exhibition guide helpful in emphasizing the message. But for some, even this didn’t quite hit the target. The last set of patrons I overheard were a couple of millennials. Looking at the Fact/Fiction displays, one woman read the guide’s explanation to the other. She read, “Blue Witch heightens this surrealism through distortions of scale that create a storybook-like sense of disorientation and destabilization.”
True, this statement features a lot of big words and hearing it out loud could make it a bit tougher to comprehend than reading it yourself would. However, the friend replied, “Well that is the most confusing thing I’ve ever heard.”
I feel this exchange captured the mood I felt at the exhibition: a little outside the average patron’s realm and removed from what’s expected from a storied and traditional art museum like the Met. While I don’t believe it’s a bad thing for museums to branch out, test boundaries and encourage patrons to broaden their worlds, I’m afraid that going too far alienates visitors. Fashion exhibitions bring in necessary income for museums – institutions where funds can be hard to come by anymore. Making these exhibitions so inaccessible that visitors cannot connect or comprehend what they’re seeing will distance new patrons. I can’t imagine any of the people I overheard recommending Art of the In-Between to their friends.
It’s a hard line to tread, however. Simplify it too much and you risk distancing yourself from those looking for a more cerebral experience. This can be especially hard for fashion exhibitions as they are still in the process of proving their place in the art museum through rigorously researched and academic shows.
As far as Art of the In-Between is concerned, I’m afraid it didn’t quite succeed in the balancing act (despite its apt name!). It was undeniably a beautiful and thought-provoking show for the fashion set. However, half the patrons seemed perplexed and dissatisfied while only half fully appreciated it. Then again, the beginning of the exhibition guide explains, “Season after season, collection after collection, she upends conventional notions of beauty and disrupts accepted characteristics of the fashionable body. Her fashions not only stand apart from the genealogy of clothing but also resist definition and confound interpretation.”
Maybe those visitors got it after all.
Want to read more observations from Art of the In-Between? Find it on reddy-to-wear.com.
About Karina Reddy
Karina Reddy holds an MA in Fashion Communication from Central Saint Martins. In addition, she studied at Boston University and London College of Fashion. With an undergraduate degree in history, her research at Central Saint Martins explored how the body was fashioned in the 1920s. A self-proclaimed museum nerd, she has a keen interest in fashion museums and volunteered at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. You can read more of her writing at reddy-to-wear.com.