Fashion has been long viewed with suspicion by culture hacks. Traditionally seen as a woman’s art, it has been associated with surfaces, vanity and excess. Venerable museums and institutions opening their doors to the medium is a relatively new occurrence, but it has proved a profitable one.
When the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, put on „Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (2015), it became the most popular exhibition in the museum’s history; likewise, the fashion exhibitions at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, have more than once rated among the museum’s most visited.
However, as the museum prepares this year’s show and gala, due to open in May and titled „Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” the focus yet again appears to be on mere beauty, depoliticized and, in this case, „opposed to any kind of theology or sociology,” as Bolton recently told the New York Times.
It’s no surprise that the Met audience loves fashion, especially not to visitors who patiently waited in line outside the museum to explore the shows „Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (2011) or „China: Through the Looking Glass” (2015). Almost 816,000 people saw ancient Chinese treasures juxtaposed with modern Western couture, making „China: Through the Looking Glass” the fifth most popular show in the history of the museum. At the time, Andrew Bolton, the curator of the Costume Institute, told the Guardian that the show was about the „collective fantasy of China.” Fantasy is a term often associated with fashion, used as much as a compliment as an insult hurled at its practitioners.
At the Costume Institute, fantasy is indeed the operative term. It’s used to justify avoiding a politically correct line of thought, in favor of a firm focus on the creative process.