What role does fashion play in society? A new exhibition at Antwerp’s ModeMuseum explores
Fashion is a mirror of society, often reflecting the shifts in attitudes, ideas, tastes and preferences that evolve throughout the years; it’s a Zeitgeist. An early example harks back to the hemline, with skirt lengths shortening along with the fight for women’s rights and equality. While in more recent times, the influx of globalisation and the internet – and thus the immediacy of information and access to goods – has also altered our perceptions and ideals of identity, meaning that, on the one hand, fashion choices have become more liberal, conscious and sustainable, while the other is quite the opposite (taking fast fashion into account). Then there’s health crises, a pandemic, economic inequality and social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo signalling to a change in a global society. But what is fashion’s role amongst it all, and where does it sit in the recent world?
Posing this very question is a new exhibition titled E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition. Presented as part of the reopening of ModeMuseum (MoMu) in Antwerp – which opened its doors on 4 September – the exhibition is curated by Elisa De Wyngaert and features works from Helmut Lang, Walter Van Bierendonck, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano, Raf Simons, Versace and more. A time capsule of sorts, E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition, looks at how fashion has “served as a visual signifier of contemporary instabilities, concerns and emotions since the 1990s,” explains Kaat Debo, MoMu’s director and chief curator. Below, I chat to Kaat about the role of fashion and how it can evoke real change.
What does emotion mean in the context of this exhibition and in the wider sense of fashion?
The choice for the title E/MOTION was motivated by a need for genuine emotion. Over the past 18 months, we’ve all had to work, live and create from home and a large part of our lives took place online. Also, designers have been forced to work digitally because of the pandemic. We wanted to research whether there’s place for genuine emotion in a digital world. We felt the need for real human interaction and the wish to integrate a live aspect in the exhibition, which is difficult within the static context of a (fashion) exhibition. We invited director, performer and countertenor Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe, in collaboration with the opera house in Antwerp (Opera/Ballet Vlaanderen) and the exhibition designers (Jan Versweyveld & HuismanVanmerode) to create a live performance for the exhibition. A challenging but also very exciting experiment.
In order to reflect on the future of fashion, as well as on the recent past, we conducted numerous interviews with fashion students and established designers during the pandemic. The designers gave their personal views on a wide range of subjects: what impact does the digital (r)evolution have on their creativity? Are fashion shows important? Can fashion evoke genuine emotions? What is the importance of craftsmanship, local production and sustainability? And what do you hope for the future? Fragments of these interviews formed the basis for this performance, that will be the closing installation in the exhibition. The performance will be brought 20 times during the entire exhibition period (September – January).
Fashion has long mirrored certain shifts in society. Can you tell me a bit more about this, and how fashion responds to particular events?
Over the last three decades, we have borne witness to unprecedented globalisation, which has had its impact on the creation, production, dissemination, communication and consumption of fashion. More than ever before, it has pushed fashion into the barriers of its own complex system and made it a stage for international political crises, from the Gulf War in the 1990s to terrorist attacks at the start of the new millennium, as well as for financial crises and recessions, the ecological crisis, and such health crises as the AIDS or the current Covid-19 pandemic. Fashion always reflects the prevailing zeitgeist, from social and economic inequality to global social movements, including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. How have these evolutions impacted the way we see and perceive emotion, success, beauty, creativity, authorship and collaboration? And how has the role of the fashion designer changed in all this upheaval? Some examples…
90s recession: Against a backdrop of recession, a deflated job market and pessimism about the future among the younger generation in the 1990s, the Heroin Chic look became popular in fashion imagery. Fragile-looking models with messy make-up and drugged expressions appeared not only in photography, but also in fashion shows. The emergence of the look was linked to the Junk Culture of contemporary movies about addiction, such as Trainspotting (1996). The embrace of heroin and unhealthy body images in fashion drew vitriol. After the turn of the millennium, the Heroin Chic look was replaced by a tanned, toned and – in contrast to its predecessor – ‘healthy’ looking body.
Health crises: Our fear of death and disease during the past three decades has been further fuelled by various epidemics and pandemics, including HIV, swine flu and Covid-19. These health crises also affected the fashion industry. In the early 1990s, Benetton, the Italian fashion brand, ran controversial advertising campaigns referring to the AIDS crisis; while Martin Margiela created t-shirts for charity to encourage open conversations about AIDS; and Walter Van Beirendonck included rubber pieces as protective shields and printed messages about safe sex in his activist collections. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the face mask has emerged as a symbol of the crisis.
Terrorist attacks: The euphoria of entering the new millennium ended abruptly in September 2001. The repercussions of the terrorist attacks in the USA were complex, violent and disruptive, changing the course of world politics. The attacks occurred on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week, making fashion journalists the first to report them. Though incomparable to the tragic loss of life, the financial impact of 9/11 forced many independent designers to file for bankruptcy or to look for outside investment. Another challenge occurred when, against the sudden trauma of 9/11, some of the Spring-Summer 2002 collections were reinterpreted by the press and buyers as inappropriate and insensitive. Some fashion photographers faced the same issues when a few editorials had to be cut at the last minute. In these, models were depicted falling from buildings or looked like survivors covered in dirt; they suddenly seemed too close to reality.
Military references in fashion were often in direct response to pervasive images in the news about war and terror. In the last two decades, a series of terrorist attacks in European cities led to increased military presence. The surreal experience of encountering soldiers in camouflage uniforms – previously out of context in cities – heightened a sense of unease and fear. Directly or indirectly, these ongoing emotions of anxiety and terror prompted fashion designers to investigate the dichotomies between feeling protected and feeling threatened, between soldiers and female warriors.
Can you give an example of what’s involved in the exhibition and how this relates to the theme?
One of the exhibition themes is dedicated to the digital evolution and the internet. In this theme, we present a chiffon Versace dress, that was worn by Jennifer Lopez in 2000 during the Grammy Awards. People all around the world Googled her photo. This sudden peak in the search for a specific image was the reason Google Images was invented. The look became a metaphor of the ever more powerful symbiosis between fashion and celebrity culture. Twenty years later, Jennifer Lopez appeared on the Versace runway in this very dress.
What can the audience learn from this exhibition?
I hope the exhibition will inspire and move our visitors, as well as provoke conversation about fashion culture and its impact on society.
E/MOTION. Fashion in Transition is on show at MoMu from 4 September 2021 – 23 January 2022