A Vogue Idea /

Dress, Body & Culture / Valerie Steele

Valerie Steele is among a handful of individuals across the world that work as fashion exhibition makers. She is the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.

The Museum at FIT predominately deals with a traditional exhibition framework: clothes hung on mannequins propped on plinths. Steele operates as a visual anthropologist revealing to us historical truths. While this in itself is a didactic method, the fashion exhibition is also an imaginative space of the social. If the exhibition is a social project, and fashion is concerned with the production of social experience, this makes the fashion exhibition a doubly relational experience. I talked to Steele about her trailblazing role as a fashion academic and curator.

I’d like to start off with the journal you founded in 1997, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, of which you are still the editor-in-chief. Can you explain the history of the publication and how we might understand its influence within the field?

Fashion Theory was the first peer-reviewed scholarly journal in fashion studies, which really helped establish the field, which is both interdisciplinary and international. Without a peer-reviewed journal, it is difficult to say that a scholarly field really exists.

It was so successful and the field of fashion studies has grown so much that now there are several other journals (although I think Fashion Theory is still the best). I’m especially pleased that Russian Fashion Theory has flourished for ten years; it’s an independent sister journal, which publishes original essays as well as some translations from our journal.

Do you think the profession of “fashion curator” has its own unique set of rules or parameters in contrast to other types of curating?

Fashion curators need to have expertise in the history of fashion and in the theories and methodologies regarding fashion. Some curators are more knowledgeable than others, and it can sometimes be helpful if the curator works together with a professor or other scholar in fashion studies.

Sometimes art or art history curators put on fashion exhibitions, but they really don’t have the expertise to do a good job unless they work with collaborators who can help them. “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” was a great show, because it brought together both art historians and fashion historians.

Even just in terms of mounting a fashion exhibition, you need specialist knowledge that only trained fashion conservators and installers have. Putting a painting on the wall is easy. Dressing and mounting a mannequin is not. Some fashion exhibitions have the silhouettes all wrong.

I’m interested in how the exhibition can break from history and into new relational qualities. I’m thinking of germinal exhibitions such as Judith Clark’s “The Concise Dictionary of Dress,” which prefaces a psychological approach to dress. As you yourself have lamented the hegemony of the blockbuster, how do you see the fashion exhibition form opening up?

Judith Clark is brilliant. I did not see “The Concise Dictionary of Dress,” but I loved “Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back.” That set a whole new paradigm for creating fashion exhibitions. It had an immediate influence on my work — for example, on “Gothic: Dark Glamour.” I’m sure that “Utopian Bodies” was also influenced by Judith.

The rise of labels that refute the fashion system while at the same time taking its reigns (I’m thinking now of Hood By Air and Vetements) seems to reflect the contemporary condition of the inextricable and mutual relationship between centers of power and the periphery. Working in the paradigmatic city of this dichotomy, who do you see as energizing voices of dissidence within New York fashion?

In fashion, designers on the periphery can often move suddenly into the center — with Vetements, for example, becoming almost instantly an obsession with fashion people. Hood By Air also has energized New York fashion. But fashion people are fickle; you can be THE hot new brand one year and old hat the next. It’s really hard to maintain avant-garde status: Margiela did it, and Comme des Garçons.

You have previously stated that the FIT Museum should not be understood as a Kunsthalle. I’m interested to know how the Museum collects new works by designers. What are the criteria for acquisitions?

The collection of the Museum at FIT encompasses more than fifty thousand garments and accessories from the eighteenth century to the present. We acquire contemporary looks every year. Obviously, our criteria is ultimately based on which designers and which collections we think will have a significant influence on fashion history. However, as with purchasing contemporary art, this is a bit of a guessing game (and, perhaps, a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy). Art museums make “mistakes” all the time, but they also help establish lasting reputations. And sometimes their “mistakes” are reassessed in later years. Realistically, we have limited funds, space and time, so we also focus on acquiring looks that we plan to use in a particular upcoming exhibition. I believe that Comme des Garçons is extremely important, for example, and we regularly acquire CDG, but we really ramped up our acquisitions of contemporary Japanese fashion in the years just prior to our exhibition “Japan Fashion Now.”

You often refer to the style of reactionary individuals, not just designers, as a way to decode fashion. It returns fashion back to its relational roots, iterating, as curator and fashion researcher Robyn Healy argues, fashion as the production of experience. A crucial exhibition at FIT to address this was “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk.” Could you tell us how you came to co-curate this show and how you approached it?

My colleague Fred Dennis and I were going out to lunch one day when he said, “We should do a show on gays and fashion,” and I was immediately convinced that this was an incredibly important and under-researched idea. We put together an advisory group of scholars who have worked on LGBTQ studies together with designers and other LGBTQ individuals to get a really wide perspective. By putting together information from LGBTQ history and fashion history, we got a new perspective.

What would be your dream subject matter for a show?

I’m always most enthusiastic about my current projects, in this case, “Pink” (2018) and “Paris, Capital of Fashion” (2019).

by Matthew Linde

A Vogue Idea is a column by Matthew Linde exploring contemporary fashion practice.

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A Vogue Idea /

On Style / Chloé Elizabeth Maratta

LA-based artist Chloé Elizabeth Maratta’s work reflects her participation in everyday life. In 2015, Maratta’s solo show “Vintage Clothing” at Ladybug was primarily situated around three arresting spaghetti-strap-tattered dresses hung from suspended poles in the modest-sized San Francisco gallery.

The dresses featured ad-hoc jewelry made from found materials such as playing cards, fabric scraps and lace. The front of one of the dresses, Hme Sweet Hme Dress (For N.F. and J.B.), carried a large beaded panel alongside a hand-drawn cardboard sign flung over the dress with a chain, giving it the look of a handbag. The sign featured a note from “DJ Dog Dick” proposing some sort of musical collaboration. These crafty materials, sourced from Maratta’s environment and tacked onto the already distressed dresses, suggested a sort of mending process. It was one of those great shows that was somehow both incredibly diaristic as well as universal in its stylistic accessibility — as if the artist’s life could be mapped via a trajectory of bric-a-brac, anecdotes, venues and social relations, all glued to unclean figures. The show literally manifested her collaged subjectivity. At this point I still hadn’t met Maratta in person, but I felt I could relate to her narrative through this symbolic dirtiness with style.

I knew of Maratta through her band, Odwalla88, in which she plays with fellow artist Flannery Silva. I was already a fan of this hardcore spoken-word noise act. When infatuated with a band, it’s a fan’s duty to start researching (or trolling) their entire obscure online existence. Their blog chronicles Odwalla88’s life on tour. I clicked through images of them playing at small bars and house shows, crashing with different punks and accumulating detritus in their car along the journey. It was through music and this sense of a fragmented countercultural community dispersed across the country that I understood how Maratta lived and negotiated the construction of her own self. Sitting comfortably alongside her music is her zine Rock&Rose. Reading this accumulation of thoughts, images, poems, interviews and flyers from within her “scene” feels like being on tour next to her while simultaneously sitting in my bedroom. Even though collage is such an obvious zine trope, it’s this cutting and pasting of experience that makes you feel at once intimate and directed by Maratta. She lets you stalk her.

When I finally met Maratta I saw just how embedded her practice is within her daily activities. She collects apparel constantly — from thrift stores, eBay and designer boutiques. Matching a shirt that is beyond disintegration with a recycled Westwood and shoes from Maryam Nassir Zadeh, she literally performs the role of a fashion-magazine editor, drawing a mood board of disparate references to coerce a style. Susan Sontag reiterates the words of Cocteau in her essay “On Style”: “Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body.” Maratta adopts this as a political stance. Her use of subcultural imagery, mostly grunge, in both her work and life is a stylized message of dispossession from — and armor against — the mainstream. She uses the ploy of style to interrupt the transmissions of normative lifestyles through their own networks. Engaging rather than rejecting fashion and its commodities, and photographing subcultural subjects (echoing the production of muses), Maratta frustrates these paradigms through a dirty lens.

For her booth at Centre for Style at Paramount Ranch 3, she presented three panels. Each panel has a photographed central figure in the frame with clippings from dated fashion magazines and craft books glued across the borders. Abrasive jewelry made from stones, twisted wire, glass shards, children’s bracelets and her own silversmithing is mounted over the figures, adding a three-dimensional collage affect. One of the photographed subjects is her own chest (her face is not visible), which shines with the visible scars of her breast-reduction surgery. Here her process of collaging identity is reified in her own flesh. The other subjects, her female friends who also play music, are similarly obscured so as to avoid a sense of palpable protagonists. Instead, she uses these characters for their stylistic qualities, or what Philipp Ekardt calls “style as technique” in his essay “Fiorucci made me normcore.” Ekardt critiques the method of appropriating socio-aesthetics for works of idolization, but champions style as a technique to address the implicit expressions of marginalization associated with whatever subculture or scene the artist is presenting. Maratta’s world is that of a female working under patriarchy, working in a macho noise scene and commanding her own image and her own weird look.

The editors of many clickbait fashion magazines understand the cachet of identity politics: “See how this new label is redefining gender!”. No longer does subversive fashion necessarily translate a subversive politic, as Dick Hebdige’s structural analysis of subcultural style once purported. The current climate of abject aesthetics sees many young artists and fashion editors reproducing junk as a platitude. Maratta’s work offers new methods of reacting or rebelling by displacing, what Cocteau would call, her own soul.

by Matthew Linde

A Vogue Idea is a column by Matthew Linde exploring contemporary fashion practice.

read more