‘Fashioning Fashion’ at LACMA

Photo Courtesy of LACMA

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is usually home to paintings, drawings and sculptures but, for the next few months, fashion can be added to that list. The comprehensive collection “Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915” lies in the newly opened Resnick Pavilion. The goal of this exhibit is to create a timeline of European fashion beginning with pieces from the Age of Enlightenment and ending with pieces from World War I. The collection weaves together fashion, history and politics to beautifully illustrate what occurred during those critical years and to outline fashion’s historical development.

Fashion is the perfect tool for analyzing the past. In the same way that current fashion designers match their collections to changing consumer demands each season, so too did designers in centuries past. Designers have always had to carefully watch as public taste rapidly altered for any number of reasons. Perhaps a celebrity icon wore something new and exciting, or the country had to go to war and the military suddenly became an important part of everyday life. Or maybe even new objects from a foreign country sparked the public’s interest. No matter what the reason was, it is clear that the changing styles are informative of what everyday life might have been like at that specific moment.

In order to show the varying directions that fashion has taken over the years, the LACMA exhibition begins with two fashion timelines: one for womenswear and the other for menswear. Upon entering the exhibit, the first thing one sees is a series of gowns in shades of white. White was specifically chosen to focus the public’s attention on the silhouettes of the female figures instead of textiles and patterns. Each silhouette represents not only a different important point in fashion between the 1700s and 1915, but it shows how fashion emphasized different anatomical parts of the female body.

Gowns exhibited from the late 1700s emphasized the hip region with rectangular-hoop petticoats that created excessively wide skirts and protruding derrieres. These skirts also accentuated the waist, making it appear even tinier. This style became a stark contrast to those popularized in the 1800s. After the French Revolution and under Napoleon, France turned to a looser-fitting, empire-style waistline. Inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, the dresses became less layered and lighter while the drapery became more pronounced and flowing. In addition, rather than a tight waistline, dresses were tapered under the breasts to create a longer, elegant figure. Sleeves were shortened and puffed, and necklines were lowered which added to the lean image.

While women’s fashions changed drastically every few years, men’s fashions transformed at a slower rate. A row of men’s dress suits show that a typical aristocratic man wore the same-style coat with a long-sleeved waistcoat and breeches as a man 50 years later.  Not to be swept to the side while walking with their ladies, men chose rich colors, heavy patterns and radiant buttons on their suits, showing that a flair for drama was not reserved to female fashionistas.

Wearing short breeches with luxurious colors and fabrics instead of working-class trousers during the French Revolution was one way wealthy men indicated to society their feelings about the Revolution. The men were strong-willed and carried around long canes called “Hercules clubs” which were intended to defend themselves against partisan attacks.

In the mid-1800s, the exuberant colors and fashionable accessories started to fade. Men opted for more practical and comfortable styles in darker hues for everyday use.

Although men’s fashions dissolved into one specific style, men’s and women’s dress continued to make advances in the tailoring department. One section of the collection devotes itself to tailoring. With the invention of the tape measure, paper patterns and the sewing machine in the 19th century, the focus on fabric, color and trimmings shifted to tailoring. Women’s gowns were no longer a web of twisted stitching on the inside; the detail could now be made with greater skill. Most of the expensive custom-made dresses remained mainly hand sewn, but the power of the sewing machine kept growing, forcing itself upon tailors as the fastest and most cost effective method of tailoring.

On the one hand, tailoring was increasingly important but, on the other hand, the rise in imperialism meant that textiles and products from other countries also played a key role in fashion. Fabrics such as muslin and cashmere became increasingly popular and imported to Europe from India. Japanese kimonos influenced Europeans who loved the printed designs and silky textures. Tailoring made it simple and fast to break down the kimonos and adjust the sizes, width of the arms and length of the gowns. Multiple examples of fashion influenced by other cultures are displayed in the exhibit.
LACMA brings in a winning and inspiring collection of clothing. Walking through the rows of apparel is like taking a step back in time and seeing things slowly evolve in front of your eyes.

“Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915” is open at LACMA until March 6, 2011.