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The Art Of Fashion: 4 New Exhibits Exploring Design History

The art world is heavily oriented to status and certain modes of expression (particularly painting, drawing, and sculpture) are consistently privileged. Despite this, fashion has always managed to find small ways into the spotlight. From seasonal fashion weeks to high-profile exhibits like the “Fashion from Nature” show at the Victoria & Albert Museum, both contemporary and historical fashion demonstrate the depth and breadth of fashion as an art form – and more museums are excited to put fashion’s creative history on display.

Historical Hollywood
There are countless ways of organizing fashion history into a coherent museum show, but one of the most popular themes is television and movie-related fashions; the National Museum of American History has a permanent costume collection, for example. Now the Chicago History Museum is getting in on the game with their exhibit entitled “Silver Screen To Mainstream,” highlighting the fashions of the 30s and 40s. The show features garments worn by Chicago women, including pieces by Coco Chanel and Valentina, and pieces from Hollywood costume designers, set within the context of the period’s film and television boom.

Textile Histories
Have you ever wondered how leather bags became a must-have item? Or who did the work of making lace before the advent of machine manufacturing? There’s a museum exhibit for that. Similar in nature to the “Fashion from Nature” exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cooper Hewitt in New York City is currently running two major fashion exhibits, entitled “Nature” and “Nature by Design.” The exhibits explore both the history of specific patterns, like the paisley, and how natural materials like leather and silk took their place in the fashion world – and how science can bring them into the next millennium using techniques like genetic modification of silk worms and biofabricated leather.

From Margin To Center
Certain cities, specifically New York, Paris, and Milan, have long been thought of as fashion capitals, but what about the rest of the world? At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, curious fashionistas can now learn more about the African women transforming the fashion industry. The exhibit, “I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa,” includes work from many different genres, but textiles and clothing design play a key role, encouraging viewers to relinquish Western expectations and explore the modern African aesthetics.

Designer Darlings
Along with exhibits centered on movies and television like the one at the Chicago History Museum, one of the other mainstays of fashion in museum settings are exhibits centered on specific, high-profile designers, and the traveling “Louis Vuitton X” exhibit is a fine example of this genre. What makes the show unique, though, is its starting point, a Rodeo Drive property purchased by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in preparation for the show. Opting to place the exhibit in an independent space is an unusual choice, but suits the scope of the show, as well as the traditional language of couture – that of a fashion “house.” For those who want to take a deep dive into an historic name in design, this exhibit is a must-see.

Fashion is a rich and diverse world and certainly worthy of closer examination. The recent growth in museum exhibits focused on this underexamined form is timely and necessary work, and anyone who considers themselves an art connoisseur should make a visit to these remarkable shows.

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