Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art

Review

of an Exhibition

by Ashley Hayes

Published on April 16, 2014, Modified on September 09, 2014

  • Description:

    When I think of folk art, I tend to think of the past – of handcrafted objects with a propensity towards kitsch and rural homeliness. However, upon visiting The American Museum of Folk Art’s Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art exhibit, I was reminded that folk art is not a stagnant thing of the past. Folk art is alive and well in the present and, particularly in the context of Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art, folk art is a catalyst for artistic inspiration and innovation within the contemporary fashion world.

    I visited the American Museum of Folk Art alone on a Saturday evening and was pleasantly surprised by the donation-based entry and the small yet sleek exhibit space. Upon entering the exhibit, I was greeted by an introductory wall text, which explained the premise of the exhibit. For this exhibit, thirteen established and emerging fashion designers created original ensembles inspired by works of art in the American Museum of Folk Art’s collection. I found myself wondering how these designers were selected or commissioned but could find no explanation of the selection process. For the exhibit display, each of the designer’s ensembles was categorized into one of four themes: Disembodiment, Pattern, Narrative, or Playfulness. Subsequently, the exhibit space was divided into four thematic sections: Disembodiment, Pattern, Narrative, and Playfulness, with an additional wall describing the designers’ various creative processes. Within each thematic section, the designers’ ensembles were displayed before, alongside, or above the work(s) of folk art that they selected from the museum collection as artistic inspiration.

    The exhibit space was comprised of three dimly lit galleries that relayed a mysterious, almost spiritual, atmosphere. A strategic manipulation of light and shadow highlighted the various textures and silhouettes of the garments, casting exquisite, eerie shadows on the grey, white, and light pink walls. Aside from the Disembodiment ensembles, each garment was displayed on a faceless white mannequin standing upon a pedestal of thick, molded white canvas.

    While, overall, I found the exhibit display cohesive and aesthetically pleasing, I did have two slight qualms with the exhibit design involving the spatial layout of the works and the labels. While exploring the exhibit, I made the unfortunate discovery that I could not view all of the garments from a 360-degree vantage point. While some pieces were freestanding and allowed the viewer to roam completely around them, other ensembles were placed so close to the wall that it was impossible to view them from behind. I am a firm believer that, in fashion, the back of a piece can be just as intriguing as the front, and I was frustrated to learn that I could not view roughly a third of the garments from behind. In addition, the text-heavy wall labels displayed beside each work incorporated curatorial jargon that I found difficult to understand. While I was eager to learn more about the materials used in the ensembles, the inspiration that the designers drew from the works of folk art, and the designer’s own artistic backgrounds, I was daunted and discouraged both by the length of these labels and the academic language utilized within the text. Halfway through the exhibit, I found myself either quickly skimming over the labels or ignoring them completely.

    Though the wall dedicated to the designers’ process was a small component of the exhibit, I feel that it was helpful in understanding how the ensembles came to fruition. This wall displayed two monitors, the only technology apparent within the exhibit, which played video footage of designers weaving textiles and sewing garments. Alongside these monitors, a large design board featured bits and pieces of the thirteen designers’ sketches, fabric samples, and look book photos. I could imagine a similar design board within the designers’ actual studios and felt that this simple wall effectively conveyed the designers’ multi-layered creative processes.

    On a side note, there are a few works on display within the three galleries that are completely unrelated to the exhibit: an 1846 oil painting by Edward Hicks entitled The Peacable Kingdom, a large weathervane from c. 1860 entitled St. Tammy Weathervane, and a display case of Japanned papier-mache pieces from the early to mid 18th century– do not spend time searching for a relationship between the garments and these pieces, as you will be sorely disappointed. After becoming increasingly frustrated over the seeming lack of connection between these objects and the fashion ensembles, I asked a guard about these works. He kindly informed me that they were on display aside from the exhibit and had no relationship to the exhibit itself. I found the display of these works confusing and wish that the curator had utilized these spaces in a way that connected with the exhibit.

    In regards to the thematic organization of the exhibit, I feel that, overall, the themes made the exhibit more manageable and comprehensible; each ensemble fit nicely within its thematic designation. However, I found the first gallery space, which was dedicated to works of Disembodiment and Playfulness, somewhat disconcerting. Upon entering this first gallery, I witnessed three sheer ethereal garments floating from the ceiling above the introductory wall text. I assumed that this work was a decorative touch, only to discover upon my exit that these floating garments actually comprised one of the designer’s ensembles. I do not think that the exhibit made this clear and feel as though I could easily have mistaken this piece for a whimsical chandelier. In addition, the theme of Playfulness was split between two galleries, the first and the last, which I also found confusing; I initially mistook designer Yeohlee Teng’s dress of Playfulness in the first gallery as a work of Disembodiment based on its sheer proximity to designers John Bartlett and Ronaldus Shamask’s works of Disembodiment.

    I believe that the Pattern gallery (the second gallery) was the most successful in conveying a sense of thematic unity and aesthetic appeal. While not all of the garments within this gallery were accessible from a 360-degree viewpoint, they looked absolutely stunning when displayed before the large, hanging textile works that inspired the designs. I was particularly drawn to designer Fabio Costa’s piece, a sheer, embroidered white capelet, skirt, and hat inspired by two objects from the museum’s collection: a weathered religious woodcarving of a bleeding heart encircled by arrows and a 1796 white cotton quilt with a tree of life motif. Full disclosure: I am a bit biased, as Costa was my favorite contestant on Project Runway Season 10, but this ensemble, when displayed before the bleeding heart woodcarving beside the tree of life quilt, was absolutely otherworldly.

    Overall, I highly recommend a visit to Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art. While the spatial layout did not always align with the thematic organization of the exhibit, Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art reminded me that folk art maintains relevance and influence in the contemporary art world, particularly in the world of high fashion. Fashion designers draw inspiration from folk art, whose diversity of mediums, color palettes, motifs, and textures motivate them to push the boundaries of creativity and innovation. If anything, the exhibit is worth a visit just to witness the sheer beauty and intricacy of these thirteen stunning pieces of folk couture.

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