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Two Embodied Art Forms Interweave – "Dance & Fashion" at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology

by Charlotte Blumenfeld
December 8, 2014
Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology
Seventh Avenue at 27 Street
New York, NY 10001
212-217-4558
"Dance & Fashion", an exhibition at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology organized by the museum's director, the fashion historian Valerie Steele, is well worth a visit. Both dancers and non-dancers alike will find that the exhibit does a few things- things integral to any discussion of the relationship between dance and fashion- very well but also that the scope and impact of the exhibit is limited by an exclusionary choice of Ms. Steele's. The exhibit includes almost one hundred costumes and dance-influenced garments and chronicles the relationship between two embodied art forms over more than one hundred seventy-five years.

The exhibit did a great job of constantly reminding viewers that costumes for dance can only be accurately evaluated or fully appreciated when viewed in their proper context: not just encased in glass-topped displays, or even draped on the bodies of mannequins, but enrobing the moving body. The video shown on the upper level of the exhibit that focuses on how costumes are designed and produced (and redesigned and reproduced over and over again) at New York City Ballet allows visitors insight into the often-hidden world of the costume shop and shows that the most valuable and telling way to view a costume is to view it on a dancer's performing body. "Slow Dancing", David Michalek's slow-motion video of New York City Ballet superstar Wendy Whelan turning ever-so-gently in a grey and purple silk garment, similarly demonstrates that what is most important about a costume is the way it behaves while a dancer wears it in performance. In this video, displayed on the lower level of the exhibit, it is obvious that both Ms. Whelan and her costume are dancing: her garment does more than cover or flatter; it sways with a nuance all its own.

The exhibit also shows most persuasively that the costumes dancers wear affect not only an audience's perception of a piece of choreography, but a dancer's as well—this is exemplified by the exhibit notes which inform us that the Rei Kawakubo costumes worn by the dancers in Merce Cunningham's 1997 "Scenario" affected the choreography because they inhibited the dancers' movement in certain ways. Additionally, the photos lining a wall on the exhibit's lower level invite the viewer to recognize the role (no pun intended) that a costume can play in dancer's construction and discovery of his or her character.

One of the exhibit's other great strengths was its ability to demonstrate both the sometimes very obvious and sometimes very subtle ways in which dance and fashion are similar. Dance and fashion, the exhibit notes explained, are both embodied art forms (and this much the casual observer can hardly fail to notice). Dance and fashion are also similar in process (and this is not always clear at first glance). The film demonstrating the design and production of NYCB's costumes is terrific; it makes it clear that costume design for dance is an iterative, collaborative process just the way that a choreographer's making of a piece or a dancer's learning of a role is a process.

It's terrific that the exhibit made it clear that dance influences fashion and fashion influences dance—these are reciprocal, not one-way, influences. The way that dance influences fashion may be more obvious to many than the way that fashion—especially fashion's most time-honored designers—influences dance. In fact, it's often very difficult if not impossible to tell whether a given design is a costume intended only for dance performance or clothing intended for purposes other than dance performance without reading the exhibit notes displayed near the garments.

Especially wonderful is the way in which the exhibit chronicles these reciprocal influences through history. It was highly informative and entertaining to be able to see the ways in which dance and fashion's unique relationship has evolved over time. The exhibit designers did an excellent job of highlighting the enduring nature of this relationship.

It would have been interesting if the designers of the exhibit had gone a step further and included makeup in the exhibit. Sometimes it is the makeup, rather than the costume, that can help a dancer feel most as though he or she is really stepping into the skin of his or her character on stage. Makeup can also be an integral part of costume without which a costume does not look the same or have the same effect on a dancer or audience member. Because MAC (a makeup and skincare brand with a Pro line popular among dancers, models, actors, and the makeup artists who paint their faces) was a leading sponsor of the exhibit, it is particularly perplexing that makeup's role in costume was left out of the exhibit rather than given even a nominal mention.

Live dancers wearing costumes that influence their movement and its perception would have been a welcome addition to the exhibit. This would have allowed visitors to see in three dimensions the way that a costume can sculpt the space around a dancer and thus influence an audience's experience of the movement. An Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer wearing a replica of the famous white skirts Judith Jamison performed "Cry" in, a classical ballet dancer wearing Iris Van Herpen's glistening black costumes while dancing Benjamin Millepied's "Neverwhere", or a Martha Graham Company dancer performing "Lamentation" in the tube of fabric Martha wore while performing the same piece would have truly brought to life the concepts the exhibit seeks to elucidate. Visitors to the exhibit would then have been able to hear the way Ms. Van Herpen's creations crack and pop with motion, see the way A. Christina Giannini's skirts fall, rise, and ripple with their wearer's weight shifts, and witness the way the fabric of Graham's own design stretches and folds as the dancer enrobed in it dips and swerves. It is clear that the exhibit's designers made many steps in this direction with the inclusion of the exhibit's two videos and the photograph of Martha performing in 1940 clad in a floor-dusting white dress that was displayed in the exhibit's main space, but a live dancer or a few performing in a select costume or costumes on a weekly basis (or even just at the exhibit's opening celebration) would have taken the exhibit to another level.




"Dance & Fashion" runs through January 3, 2015 at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, Manhattan; fitnyc.edu/museum.
Comme des Garçons, pearlized patent leather and elastic ballet flats, spring 2005. Collection of The Museum at FIT. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.

Comme des Garçons, pearlized patent leather and elastic ballet flats, spring 2005. Collection of The Museum at FIT. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.


Installation view of Dance & Fashion, featuring contemporary ballet costumes designed by (R to L), Ricardo Tisci, Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney and Ralph Rucci. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.

Installation view of Dance & Fashion, featuring contemporary ballet costumes designed by (R to L), Ricardo Tisci, Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney and Ralph Rucci. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.


Installation view of Dance & Fashion. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.

Installation view of Dance & Fashion. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.


Installation view of Dance & Fashion, featuring costumes by Barbara Karinska for New York City Ballet's Jewels. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.

Installation view of Dance & Fashion, featuring costumes by Barbara Karinska for New York City Ballet's Jewels. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.


Installation view of Dance & Fashion, featuring (L to R), costume designs by Valentino Garavani, Iris van Herpen, and 'Cygne Noir' haute couture gown by Christian Dior. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.

Installation view of Dance & Fashion, featuring (L to R), costume designs by Valentino Garavani, Iris van Herpen, and "Cygne Noir" haute couture gown by Christian Dior. Photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York.


Rick Owens, ensemble, Spring 2014, lent by Rick Owens. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.

Rick Owens, ensemble, Spring 2014, lent by Rick Owens. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.


Halston, woman's costume for Tangled Night, 1986, lent by Martha Graham Dance Company. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.

Halston, woman's costume for Tangled Night, 1986, lent by Martha Graham Dance Company. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.


Jean Paul Gaultier, man's costume for Façade, un divertissement, 1993, lent by Maison Jean Paul Gaultier. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.

Jean Paul Gaultier, man's costume for Façade, un divertissement, 1993, lent by Maison Jean Paul Gaultier. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.


Valentino, woman's costume for Bal de Couture, Fall 2012, lent by New York City Ballet. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.

Valentino, woman's costume for Bal de Couture, Fall 2012, lent by New York City Ballet. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.


Norma Kamali, man and woman's costume for In the Upper Room, 1988, lent by American Ballet Theatre. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.

Norma Kamali, man and woman's costume for In the Upper Room, 1988, lent by American Ballet Theatre. Photograph © The Museum at FIT.

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