The Museum at FIT’s latest history gallery exhibit focuses on unfinished and “imperfect” works of fashion in Fashion Unraveled. This exhibit opened May 25, 2018 and will be open until November 17, 2018.
In this post I highlight some pieces that relate to the Femme Fashion Forward (1880-1930) timeline. The exhibit was broken down into 5 main themes: Mended and Altered, Unfinished, Repurposed, Behind the Seams, and Distressed and Deconstructed. I’ve chosen pieces found in each of these themes, except for Distressed and Deconstructed because most of those objects were from a later date. The exhibit challenges the idea that clothing that has been altered or changed in some way decreases in value, and argues, in many cases, this will add a historic importance to a museum’s collection and can be embraced by modern designers. This blog post does not focus on more recent interpretations of this idea, so you’ll have to head to the Museum to see those particular examples, but I think you’ll enjoy the incredible fashion pieces I’ve selected below from the 1890s and 1920s!
Mended and Altered
These stockings have been darned as the toes and heels became worn, and this was a common practice to preserve the life of such a well worn, luxury item. The Museum notes, however, that this occurred less frequently as the 20th century progressed because ready-made stockings became more available and were inexpensive enough to be treated as a disposable piece of clothing. Soon stockings would be made of a cheaper imitation silk, like rayon and nylon.
Socks and stockings have continued to be viewed as disposable today to the point where it would be highly unusual for someone to darn the holes in the toes of their socks instead of throwing them away. Mending in general is much less common in 2018. Not just for socks, but if a T-shirt or some other clothing item has a hole, many times we’ll toss it before considering repairing the piece ourselves. Some food for thought on how this shift in mind set has changed throughout the 20th century!
The silk chiffon beaded evening gown above by designer Madeleine Vionnet is from the roaring 1920s. These are panels of the gown which was never completed. The Museum writes, “Although the embroidery is meticulously finished and the panels appear ready to cut and assemble, museum codes of ethics do not allow us to make any such permanent changes.” I thought this was interesting in that, in a sense, it breaks the fourth wall between museum and visitor. The Museum is speaking of the piece in terms of behind the scenes what they are not able to do. This is important to note because many curators and conservators will face dilemmas that concern maintaining the integrity of a piece and what that may mean or how that integrity or original essence is best interpreted. That being said, for anyone curious about how this piece would have looked like whole, the Museum luckily provides a photo!
While both of these ensembles are repurposed from paisley material, our focus is on the dressing gown on the left. This was created from paisley shawls to make this dressing gown around 1890, and was likely because the shawls were once very popular at the beginning of the 19th century, but fell out of style as the century progressed. These expensive accessories were originally inspired from Indian designs and seen as exotic, typically made of fine cashmere wool. Rather than discard such an expensive material, the shawls were repurposed to fit the current trends.
The body of this dress below is reconstructed from Chinese panels, likely made in the late 1800s, to form a tunic-style dress dated 1927. Not only a good example of upcycling, this may also speak to the fact that that Western styles had further infiltrated the East in the early 20th century. A traditional Chinese skirt may have been restyled in order to acclimate to those changes, but also prevent retiring a costly fabric.
Behind the Seams
This is an example of an ensemble that may also fall into the category of repurposing or altering, but one that has an interesting backstory. The Museum mentions that many times, pieces are donated without much information. When there is a known history attached to a piece, it becomes especially precious.
This dress was donated to the Museum by the daughter, Ann Atkin Moscovitz, of its wearer. It was made for her mother on the day of her wedding, October 29, 1929, which of course, also happened to be the day the stock market crashed! Her mother removed the bow and sleeves of the dress, presumably to make it less formal in order to wear for other occasions. Especially during a time when many people had to be stringent, making the most of your wardrobe would have been a necessary measure – not just for practicality’s sake.
I think this exhibit provides many opportunities to reflect on the way we view clothing and how our mindset may have changed from our ancestors. Are we willing to repurpose our clothing, and why? The Museum at FIT certainly provides a compelling argument for the ways in which changes, alterations, or the unfinished quality of a garment may add to the piece’s value for a Museum collection and for the wearer too. Where our grandmothers may have done so from necessity, do we repurpose today because it’s part of trend, because we want to save money, or because it’s better for the environment? There’s no wrong answer but I think this exhibit begs the question, how do we proceed with our own unfinished, outdated, or worn out wardrobe today? If you have thoughts on this, or maybe a meaningful piece in your own closet with a story to tell, comment below!
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