Is Fashion Art …Or Is It Just A Trend?


Africa Fashion @ Brooklyn Museum

There has been a growing interest on the part of museums to curate fashion exhibitions as part of their programming. By chance, in 2023, I attended 4 fashion exhibitions among New York City museums. This prompted me to raise the question is fashion art? Not everyone thinks it is. Some have debated that the gallery space should be used for traditional forms of art. Yet attendance at these fashion exhibitions have helped museums increase both traffic and admission fees. Both are good reasons to continue the trend. If you are planning to be in the city any time between now and November 2023, two of the four exhibitions are still on view. Here is my critique of each of them…..

But First a Bit of History on the Role of Fashion

What I particularly enjoy about these fashion exhibitions is the role that clothes and textile plays in society. Viewing garments from an entirely different era is an open door to history. It enables us to understand traditions, social norms, and the culture of countries both past and present. I love to watch period drama films where the clothes are just as important as the actors in transporting you to a different time and place. More importantly, fashion plays a pivotal role in the economy of countries, from designing to textile production to garment manufacturing and lastly retail. It is an industry that has shaped how people identify and express themselves.

Even though fashion is connected to business, it also has served as a form of protest as far back as the 60s successfully changing societal norms. More recently, we see fashion challenging gender biases by allowing men and women to wear what they want as part of self expression becoming a more gender-fluid industry. Both in the present and future, it would be interesting to see what are other societal challenges directly influenced by fashion. Museums can certainly do a better job of educating their audiences by connecting these issues, offering more historical context when presenting these types of exhibits.

Now, a Little About Each of These Exhibits

Africa Fashion @ The Brooklyn Museum of Art –June 23–October 22, 2023

This exhibition is quite comprehensive with over 180 unique garments and accessories representing 20 African countries. I very much liked the opening of the exhibition which provides some historical background of these countries’ ‘independence from their colonial past. This newly found independence offered many of these countries the opportunity to be creative within the fashion industry advancing Africa’s cultural renaissance. The garments are beautifully organized and presented, featuring over 40 designers. The clothes are a combination of historical and contemporary designs. I found the quality and mix of different textiles inventive. The designers’ use of colors and patterns mixed or weaved together is both cutting-edge and inspiring. These designers are not scared of mixing colors, patterns, or different fabrics to express themselves. It was also interesting to see how Europe has been influenced by African designers. The exhibition includes an affiliation with an African based company for those interested in purchasing clothes or goods. Also, there are books on the history of Africa fashion. There is not much time left before the exhibition closes.

Generation Paper: A Fashion Phenom of the 1960s @ the Museum of Arts and Design –Mar 18 — August 27th 2023

By chance, I caught this exhibition, not being aware of it until I visited the museum the week before it closed. It truly offers a historical note on how fashion designers continuously push the edge of innovation. This exhibition explores what was a short-lived trend in the designing and manufacturing of paper dresses during the mid 60s. Surprisingly, the paper dress trend was started by the Scott Paper Company to promote a new disposal tableware line. I was in my early teens when the first paper garment was introduced in 1966 and vaguely remember much of it. The exhibition had about 30 rare garments and accessories. All of them crafted from different textiles that were of a paper type material made of cellulose. These were disposable dresses, since they could not be washed. The garments were very stylish, and in-expensive, consistent with the pop art images of the 60s with sales reaching 80,000 a week. It’s not clear from the exhibition how this fashion trend fell apart or why it did not evolve into another phase. Today, there is much talk about recycling or up-cycling clothes that are having a toxic effect on the planet. Could paper dresses make a comeback?

MODA HOY! Latin American and Latinx Fashion Design Today @ The Museum at FIT–June — November 2023

The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology is the only museum in New York City solely dedicated to the art of fashion. Admission to the exhibitions is always free, year round. This year’s exhibition showcases Latin American designers such as Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta, who are well established within the industry. The exhibition also showcases emerging designers such as Gabriela Hearst, known for her women’s luxury ready-to-wear design clothing and Willy Chavarria, whose hip hop street designs for men have already left a delible mark. The exhibition contains about 50 garments and offers a broader cultural overview of Latin designers from all regions of the world instead of defining us as one homogenous group. Many of the designs reflect the respective countries’ culture and heritage drawing elements from both their past and present. The show does not take more than an hour to see and is supported by other reading material as a supplement. I enjoyed the exhibit and certainly would like to see more exhibitions that address the impact of fashion within the cultural and political realm of Latin countries as well as emerging trends led by BIPOC designers in the US.

Karl Lagerfeld’s Exhibition @ The MET — April — July 2023

In my previous newsletter, I posted a review of this exhibition concerning the controversial designer Karl Lagerfeld. The exhibition, while impressive, was shallow in presenting the full picture of the artist designer and not just his art. The MET was heavily criticized for the omission and it raises the question of the role of museums and their curators being transparent and factual about all aspects of the artwork and the artist. Click here if you like to read this story and view the photos.

Final Note: I need no convincing that fashion is art. It reflects people’s daily lives and how they seek to express themselves, much like artists do with a paintbrush, a canvas, or a camera. I look forward to attending more of these exhibitions and am hopeful that curators will do a better job of providing more historical context to this form of art.

The photos in this story represent a small sample of the three collections. Unfortunately, it is not the same as seeing them in person. Please click here to access photos. Remember to click the center of the photos for a full view.

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Grizel Ubarry,

My blog seeks to inspire its readers through travel, art, and personal growth by reinventing oneself and becoming a global citizen.