Note: this post reflects the personal opinion and analysis of the author and should not be taken as a public statement by the museum.
The moment I heard Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 was coming to Portland (Oregon), I was thrilled. It’s curated by the V&A–who do fashion right–and filled with gorgeous designs, textiles, tailoring and even a Vespa scooter. It also tells a really deep story about Italy’s rise from the ashes of World War Two, and the role of cultural branding and clothes in that story. As a dressmaker and an art in war historian, I was sold.
However, I’m not all visitors. We quickly identified two
problems opportunities. How do we get those new visitors, drawn in by Prada and Pucci, to explore the rest of the museum, and make it feel like a contiguous experience? And, how do we address their opposites: the visitors for whom this felt like just another affront in a rapidly gentrifying and class divided city?
The amazing education department at PAM rose to the challenge. Five of Portland’s many fashion designers were featured at the end of the exhibition. The Museum’s Object Stories gallery hosted weekend workshops with shoe designers and silk-screeners. My contribution was an collaborative in-gallery to online project with visitors.
In other words, I walked up to complete strangers in the museum who were rocking an amazing street style and asked for their clothes… digitally. Our photographer and I pulled them out of the galleries and asked them to choose something from our collection that they’d like to see remixed in their own clothing. A photoshoot and a bit of Photoshop later, we published that collaboration online. It looked like this:
And the interviews were incredible. People told me beautiful stories about their clothing: a marketing guru at a local jewelry shop who told me about her rings:
“I like to look down and see things that either have a story or have a story for me. A lot of my jewelry is made by Portland artists and I love that. Wherever I go, I have Portland with me, or on me! I know who made each of these and that’s really powerful to me.”
or an accountant, originally from Prague, who told me:
“Men’s fashion… even going through the exhibits, [my wife], she feels sorry for me. There’s not much there, for men. I actually like glitter and rhinestones and all that stuff. If they ever open the door for that in men’s fashion, I would be all for it.”
Some of the most powerful anecdotes came from teens at an LGBTQ event, who collectively remixed a Daumier print of rows of “old dead white guys,” as they gleefuly phrased it. They wore turquoise mohawks, “free pile hippy” clothes, hand-woven top hats and earrings that escaped Austria on the Kindertransport. One told me that he wears sweaters, whatever the weather, because “it acts like a wall between [him] and the world.” Another said they dressed to “make an emotional statement. Not an aesthetic statement. I want someone to feel what [they’re] wearing emotionally.”
And they were connecting these powerful, deeply identity-driven thoughts with our collections. Each participant was having an intense 15-20 minute encounter with the work of art and 1:1 time with an educator. Posing for the photograph required adopting that pose, prompting some interesting revelations about proportions and perspective. People commented on how they felt in that pose: proud, uncomfortable, powerful, vulnerable. And then they had to verbalize those thoughts: why they chose the image, and what about it connected with their style. On a Boucher portrait, an interviewee told me:
“I think when I look at art, I try to find something I relate to. And it looks like she’s a woman who took the time to put herself together. I think women in this time put a lot of attention into what they wore… and she’s a woman who knows how to put herself together.”
Or in a Japanese print, I heard:
“My closet looks like an explosion of patterns. I love prints. And I love mixing prints and patterns…. I always love Japanese prints because of their mixing of patterns and how you get a feel for the textiles in the print. And they have beautiful lines too!”
Three of the participants later told me that they’d framed their makeovers, and put them up in their homes. We’d created this powerful connection with a work of art in the museum.
And then there was the impact of these images online. The posts were, at the time, the most popular that the museum had ever created. There was something really powerful in seeing the words, images, ideas and sartorial performance of visitors right alongside institutional content. And some really struck home. This one, in particular, reached more than 19,500 people on Facebook alone.
The image, and Eden’s accompanying words, struck a note we’d never intended: about body image and the media. Which, to be fair, was inextricably linked to the exhibition’s content and imagery: impossibly thin models, mannequins, and movie stars.
One docent put it to me better than I ever could,
I walk past that sculpture everyday and I’ve always thought how beautiful she is. But the way she looks in clothes is the way I look in clothes. But I don’t think how beautiful I am when I look in the mirror.
For me–and apparently some 20,000 people–that was the best moment of the project.