Tuesday, September 14, 2010


1: the business of designing, making, and selling fashionable custom-made women's clothing

Last week, A and I went to the Frist Center to see their Couture exhibit before it left. We had seen it this summer, but A enjoyed it so much that she wanted to go again, just the two of us. I hadn’t enjoyed the exhibit all that much the first time around, but I attributed that partly to my distraction at the time: I had not only my own children, but three others along with me. This meant I was looking for a child at nearly all times as we walked through the crowded exhibit. After our initial visit, both A and an adult friend commented on how much they enjoyed this particular exhibit. I had hoped my second trip would yield a different impression. Alas, it didn’t.

A and I had read up on Renaissance fashion the day before our trip so that we could compare and contrast the trends from centuries ago with those documented in this post-WWII fashion exploration. We also read the preview materials on the Frist website, where I found it interesting to learn that post war fashion (which emphasized the feminine) was a clear departure from wartime garb (which was utilitarian). I entered with an open mind, ready to see the displays with fresh eyes, but by the third room, I simply could not find anything I liked about this exhibit. And the more I looked, the more I asked myself, “Is this even art?”

I didn’t keep this question to myself. I asked A, who was thoroughly enjoying herself (picking a favorite dress in each room, selecting a wedding dress from the formal attire, imagining dressing her own doll in the miniature nylons and sandals on display) whether she thought this stuff was art. She did (she justifies her position on this below). I listened to her side of the story, but could not adjust my viewpoint of art to include clothing, especially this clothing.

My reaction to the side gallery, which housed the work of contemporary photographer Tokihiro Sato, was striking. Here my pulse quickened, my pace slowed. This was art. I was fascinated by his images and the technique he used to create them. I lingered with these works before finishing the couture exhibit. As we looked at the Chihuly exhibit in the upstairs gallery, A asked me if I thought this exhibit was art. It was a fair question: while painting and sculpture have long been accepted as fine art, glass, ceramics and textiles were relegated to craft status for years. Yet I have no problem seeing these media as art.

As I pondered my reaction to the couture exhibit in the days after our visit, I found two interesting points of comparison and contrast: 1) the media historically classified as craft were denigrated partly because the practitioners were mostly female and 2) part of my objection to couture was its sharp contract to sculpture, which celebrates the female form while couture celebrates its own construct of the female form. This is an important distinction for me. I gladly and proudly see glass as every bit a fine art medium as paint. I love the way many crafts marry utility with beauty. These increase, instead of decrease, their value in my eyes.

But couture? The exhibit that we saw featured only male designers and the clothing was clearly about making the female form fit the clothing, not the other way around. How else do you explain the armor worn underneath the dress to make the woman possess the desired silhouette? I think my reaction was a subconscious one – I don’t want to be told that I should look like those mannequins. So I rejected the very idea of these items being art. Does that rationally follow? Perhaps not. This may be a case where my emotional reaction to the exhibit overshadows my rational assessment of whether the content is art.

In my contemplation of all of this, I did realize that A and my friend share an important trait that I think makes them experience this exhibit differently than I do: they each have a very positive body image. I suspect that they are able to view these dresses without internalizing a pressure to be someone or look a way that they don’t. I admire that, but I’m not there yet.

I told A that I was planning to write a blog post about our visit to the museum. As a part of her weekly writing, I asked her to write a bit about our trip last week. Here are her thoughts:

Couture IS an art for all you out there. Now down to business. My mom and I went to see the Couture exhibit at the Frist again. I wanted to see it one more time before it left. My mom and I had an interesting conversation about whether clothing was an art. I felt like it was, because the clothing is beautiful and I think that anything that is made is art. She thought it wasn’t an art, because it was cloth. We saw a doll who had her own wardrobe! (“Cool!” “Wait until you hear what’s next!”) Then I saw a video that had a dress in it that looked like bubble wrap (“Wow!” “Shh!’) Then we saw the Chihuly. I think both of these are art. Mom only thought Chihuly was, but we had a good time.


Anonymous said...

I think I think it's art, not because I have a secure body image. But, because of the beauty and intricate detail in the fabric...the scalloped layers, the bumble bees hidden in the skirt of a gown, felt polka dots on a cocktail dress. I am about as far removed from couture as they come. So, I didn't look at them from a personal perspective. I just enjoyed looking at them.

You always make me think, though. So, I'll really be thinking about what you've written!

Anonymous said...

oh, and that comment is from me. I didn't log in. Natalie Mc

Variations On A Theme said...

Love A's response! So conversationally written and engaging!

I'm still trying to figure out why I liked the exhibit so much. I do know that I'm arriving at a place in my life where I want to "dress pretty" instead of the usual t-shirt and jeans. And maybe I've ALWAYS wanted to dress pretty, but never felt that option was open to me. I'm just not "that kind of girl", not feminine enough.

The dresses were exquisite. I loved the diaphonous overlays and delicate sways. And as a would-be seamstress who loves quilts, I can appreciate the intense and detailed work that went into the making of those dresses.

Mostly, though, I allowed myself to believe that those dresses could be "for me" - not only for some gorgeous Hollywood red-carpet star or perfect model or even my lovely friends who already dress with beauty and understated elegance. (Yes, you're one of them.) :)

I've bought skirts lately, which delights and confuses my children. One of Olivia's friends even commented the other day, "You're dressed so different. I've never seen you in clothes like that." (I merely had on a simple black skirt and a t-shirt!)

And I'll admit that the would-be feminist in me balked at the perfecly shaped mannequin forms with 12-inch waists!

WordGirl said...

Very interesting to me that the two comments here are one person saying - didn't take it personal, just saw it as art and another saying - I let myself imagine it could be me. We are all so different - it's lovely!

I totally get how being a seamstress would completely change and invigorate your experience of this exhibit. That's a great point!

aimee Guest said...

Well, I admit that I find nothing exciting about this exhibit, it hasn't drawn me in or quickened my pulse, but I'm going to have to vote that it's art. One of your arguments actually stuck with me and helped me define it as art-that the designers made the female form conform to their design. It seems to me that most artists manipulate their medium(well, i suppose we could argue whether a designer's medium is the body or cloth and thread) to fit their own idea and vision. Sometimes this creates a very unnatural product that turns me off, sometimes it helps me think about the object(whether its the human form, nature, ideas) and see it in a new way.
I may like art that has a greater purpose and vision behind it then what I see expressed through clothing design, but I'll still cast my vote toward art, though I'm quite ready for a new exhibit! Thanks for making us think my friend, I've always liked the question "What is art". As a theater student I only appreciated plays that were meant to teach, challenge, make you think, and so fifty year reruns of cats drove me crazy. Now I do see why some people do art to create beauty or entertainment as they see fit. I'm still not going to see cats anytime soon.

WordGirl said...

Aimee - great point that just because I don't like it doesn't mean it isn't art. Food for thought... maybe another post on this after the next exhibit! :-)