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Design Thursday: When is a corset like a coffin?

Why, when fashion designer Hussein Chalayan feels like making one out of amber wood and metal, as he did for his Fall/Winter 1995-96 collection, that’s when. And why is this relevant now?

Why, when fashion designer Hussein Chalayan feels like making one out of amber wood and metal, as he did for his Fall/Winter 1995-96 collection, that’s when. And why is this relevant now?

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Well, partly because Fashion Week in New York kicks off tomorrow. But also because New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which is home to an extraordinary collection of garments in its Costume Institute, recently launched a very provocative online exhibit that features a wooden corset by Chalayan, hot pink crocodile platform shoes by Vivienne Westwood, a French gown from the Ancien Regime (circa 1765), a 2001 Miguel Adrover outfit made of Quentin Crisp’s old mattress, a snake neckace by Elsa Peretti, and a sexy little flapper dress by Coco Chanel.

While putting artworks up on a museum site is hardly a recent innovation, the cool thing about this online catwalk is that it invites the audience to weigh in on the outfits via a blog called “Addressing Fashion.”

So, for example, in response to the Met’s curator’s comment that Chalayan was well known for infusing his clothes with a political or social narrative, Jennifer C. remarked, “While the commentary states Chalayan didn’t create this bustier to be a political statement it really is. But what is the statement? Women rebelling about confinement and dress dictated by man or is it man emphasising womens’ place in society (beautiful but confined).”

And the Met’s own commentary grants that this is not a garment that would appeal to your average Macy’s shopper. “With its boxing-in of the body, if only partially, the bustier recalls the kinky improvisations of archaic medical prosthesis, the sleekness of boat hulls (one is reminded of Diana Vreeland’s pronouncement that jeans were the most beautiful thing “since the gondola”), and, perhaps most aptly, the confinement of coffins.”

While anyone with a computer is welcome to chime in, visitors to the museum, who are viewing the actual – not virtual — exhibit, which features 40 different pieces and runs through April, can post their reactions via eight computers in the gallery.

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The blog is, for us, a way “to engage more immediately with our visitors and to create more of a dynamic dialogue about fashion,” curator Andrew Bolton told Women’s Wear Daily.

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Once the exhibit ends, the Met plans to put out a catalog containing images of the clothes, the official curatorial commentary, and excerpts from the blog.

The material is certainly rich, with some items drawing more than a hundred posts. Among the many responding to Westwood’s pink hooker shoes
was this by Ann Blair: These shoes require that one be carried about in a sedan chair. I, for one, would dearly love to see this mode of transport resurrected.

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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