Special Event: Fashion Narratives

A talk about fashion in the museum as part of Emerging Writers' Festival.

A fashion exhibition is eye candy and ideas rolled into one. Fashion has a unique ability to connect with viewers on multiple levels of meaning. Its theatricality and grand gestures attract fashion and non-fashion audiences alike to museum exhibitions to experience an extraordinary visual spectacle. On a deeper level, fashion is an art form that speaks to a universal understanding of the body. Audience demand for fashion in the museum has been increasing steadily since the turn of the millennium, resulting in a plethora of fashion exhibitions in traditional art venues. We need only look at the overwhelming success of the 2011 exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and which attracted over 650,000 visitors; or The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk which, before it reaches the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) later this year, has already been seen by well over one million attendees in North America and Canada.

But what happens when the designer – the star, celebrity factor – is removed from the equation? The NGV is testing that idea with Fashion Detective, a presentation of miscellaneous garments and accessories from its expansive permanent collection of historic and modern fashion that bear no ownership or specific brand. Instead, the viewer is invited to attach their own stories and theories to the pieces on display, with the museum offering alternative interpretative strategies with commissioned fictions by crime writers accompanying the garments, along with vignettes including X-rays, infrared photography, dye analysis and microscopy. In this way, the exhibition is more about igniting the imagination than it is illuminating periods or genres. The approach is interesting, and not just because it hasn’t really been done before, but because it highlights the ubiquity of logos and labels in contemporary fashion, suggesting that our attraction to clothing and accessories today is driven as much by an attachment to a name or symbol as it is the physical piece. Indeed, the divide between 21st century super-brands and unknown tailors and dressmakers couldn’t be greater, and the exhibition, made up of approximately 60 garments, serves to showcase an unknown side of the fashion world.

As part of this year's Emerging Writers' Festival, I will deliver a keynote lecture at the NGV, examining the influence of narrative and storytelling in fashion and the museum's role in representing fashion to contemporary audiences. Following the lecture, I'll be part of a question-and-answer session with the exhibition's curator Danielle Whitfield. Please do join me this Saturday!

NGV Keynote Lecture: Fashion Narratives
11am Saturday 31 May, Theatre, Ground Level,
Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square, Melbourne
The event is free but bookings are essential. Click for details.

Image: Hussein Chalayn 'Inertia' collection, spring/summer 2009.