The incredible whiteness of the museum fashion collection
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The incredible whiteness of the museum fashion collection
Christine Checinska, the first curator of African and African diaspora fashion at the Victoria & Albert, the largest applied and decorative arts museum in the world, in London, Sept. 26, 2020. In the small group of high-culture institutions that venerate the art of fashion, Black designers have been largely overlooked. Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times.

by Vanessa Friedman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It would have been one of the most glamorous events of Paris Fashion Week.

On Thursday, the Palais Galliera, the Paris fashion museum, is scheduled to reopen after a two-year and almost $10 million renovation with the blockbuster exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto,” the first Paris retrospective of the designer’s work (hard as that may be to believe). There would have been a big party. There would have been Champagne and much swanning around. There would have been a lot of Chanel and Chanel-adjacent celebrities.

Now, of course, the evening has been canceled because of the pandemic. The museum will reopen by appointment, and quietly.

Still, select guests will get to ooh and aah over the show, as well as the other major change in the space: a doubling of the museum’s galleries that will allow it to display, for the first time, a rotating sample of its permanent collection, which includes approximately 200,000 objects dating from the 18th century to today. It is one of the largest and most extraordinary collections of fashion in the world.

But just as extraordinary is another, much less glamorous reality: Of those 200,000 objects, according to Miren Arzalluz, the director, only 77 pieces of clothing were created by Black designers (and only seven Black designers are represented). That’s about 0.04%.

It’s a startling imbalance, but it is effectively the status quo in the small group of globally renowned high-culture institutions historically charged with preserving and protecting the art of fashion.

There have been specific shows on Black designers, such as “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” currently on view at the Cooper Hewitt in New York, and “Black Fashion Designers,” a 2016 exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology. And while the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington includes dress, the globally renowned galleries that have historically crowned the kings and queens of fashion have hewed to a canon of Great European Designers that is entirely white: Worth, James, Dior, Vionnet, Poiret, Chanel, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Grès, Givenchy and Saint Laurent (to name a few).

At the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, none of the named designers in the three pages of online “highlights” from the 33,000-piece collection are Black. (A spokeswoman for the department noted that the highlights section is part of the Met’s digital department and that the Costume Institute had not reviewed the page in many years. “It is in need of updating,” she said.)

The curators at the Victoria and Albert, in London, the largest applied and decorative arts museum in the world, said it was “quite hard to quantify exactly” how much of their fashion holdings were by Black designers, while acknowledging it was “much smaller than our Eurocentric holdings.”

And when it comes to diversity in the fashion collection at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the applied arts arm of the Louvre, “we are absolutely not good,” said Olivier Gabet, the director.

Since the George Floyd killing and the social justice uprisings of the summer, there has been a lot of discussion in fashion about the industry’s systemic racism and its failures to identify and promote talent of color. A lot of justifiable scrutiny has fallen on companies and trade associations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York, and the Camera Nazionale della Moda in Milan.

But what happens when the major cultural institutions charged with sanctifying what defines “fashion” don’t include work from Black designers? What message does that send about who gets to participate in this particular art form, and whose work matters?

Just because museums are custodians of the past does not absolve them of responsibility for the present. And in that sense, their collections and the sins of omission enshrined therein speak to the very essence of the current problem.

‘A Feeling of Alienation’
“If you think of fashion as a form of storytelling — the way we say who we are as people, where we have been — that means young people walking into the museum space are going to feel whiteness sets the parameters for fashion,” said Tanisha C. Ford, a history professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. “Black and brown people can only imagine themselves through the imagination of white people. It really creates a feeling of alienation.”

Kimberley Jenkins, an assistant professor of fashion history and theory at Ryerson University in Toronto, agreed. “As someone who has led students on countless field trips,” she said, “their sense of possibility is only as good as what they see.”

After all, part of what they see is representation, but part of it is also access to power, wealth and empire, all of which are implied and enshrined by the acquisitions of a museum.

In 2017, as a direct response to this imbalance, Jenkins founded the Fashion and Race Database, an online platform with open-source tools and a mission to “expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge misrepresentation within the fashion system.”

For the last few years, museums have been in the midst of a convulsive self-examination regarding their own culpability in perpetrating old systems of privilege and prejudice. Now, however, the conversation has taken on new urgency, especially within the fashion departments, which are materially tied to social movements, and where collecting policies are being actively reexamined and rewritten.

Real change in fashion, after all, occurs when dress is reshaped to reflect changing culture; when a designer figures out how to cut revolution into a seam so that the result becomes a symbol of a moment — and something museums want to acquire.

Yet names like Dior and Chanel pretty much swamp the work of such designers as Ann Lowe (the creator of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress); Patrick Kelly (the first American designer admitted to the Chambre Syndicale, French fashion’s governing body); and Stephen Burrows (part of the U.S. contingent that took on the French at the Battle of Versailles).

“It’s a problem,” said Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Met’s Costume Institute, referring to the fact that the history of fashion the department he inherited has recorded was largely written without designers of color.

The museum began actively collecting more widely in the 1970s and does have work from Black designers, including those above and others in its holdings. Still, Bolton said: “Fashion itself has not had a great track record when it comes to diversity and inclusivity, and that’s reflected in our collection. But now we cannot make a decision going forward that does not take into account race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender. It has to become part of our intellectual framework.”

To wit: When this year’s Costume Institute blockbuster show, “About Time,” was postponed in May because of the pandemic (it will open Oct. 29), Bolton went back through the pieces he had included — 120 different monochrome ensembles selected to trace the evolution of fashion through silhouette — and looked at them through a different lens.

“I realized,” he said, “we had very few BIPOC designers in the exhibit.” To be specific, he said, they had 16 looks by designers of color out of 120. He has since curated the show anew, and the number is now 21.

Yet in his search for a broader array of designers to include, Mr. Bolton realized that in many cases he couldn’t merely go to other institutions for a loan, as he might have done traditionally, because they were in the same position as he was. He wanted, he said, a black dress by Mr. Burrows, and he had only the designer’s famous color-blocked styles in the collection. He ended up, he said, “scouring Etsy, eBay and 1stdibs” for what he needed.

As Christine Checinska, who started work as the first curator of African and African diaspora fashion at the V&A in June, said, “You can’t undo 100 years of miscategorization and undervaluation overnight.”

Redesigning the Pattern
What you can do, said Sarah J. Rogers, director of the Kent State University Museum in Ohio, is “be honest about who you have been, what you have in your collections, and how they are organized.” She was speaking in a webinar titled “Tackling Tokenism and Diversity in Our Museum Collections,” organized by the Costume Society of America in late September.

Most established art museums in the West — many, like the V&A and the Met, founded in the mid-19th century — were built on a colonial base, their collecting principles formed by social beliefs that placed European culture atop a pedestal and served to keep it there. (It’s not a coincidence that until the 1950s, most curators were also white men.)

They were also heavily dependent on donations from society figures and designers themselves for their holdings, creating a sort of echo chamber of approved design. Because a museum said a certain brand was of artistic worth, women in search of social authority would patronize that brand, later bequeathing their wardrobes to the museum, and strengthening its holdings, which would further shore up the idea of that designer’s worth.

“Museums only want to collect designers of legendary status, but they also confer that status,” Ford said, “which reinforces this existing racism in fashion. It’s circular.”

Also reinforcing that state is the fact that museums like the V&A and the Met historically drew a distinction between textiles that were considered fashion and textiles that were considered ethnographic art — the latter so categorized because the garments in theory did not change drastically over time. (It may have been in fact the eye of the Western beholder that had not changed.)

So, for example, most of the Met’s “masterpieces” of Asian dress are held not in the actual fashion department but in the Asian art department; ditto African dress and the African art department.

Such differences in nomenclature may seem meaningless, especially when departments can borrow from one another, but, Checinska said, it creates “a hierarchy” — one that can be read and internalized by all — “of who is included and who is not, and what counts as ‘art’ and what is relegated to another, lesser area,” like craft.

“My role is to investigate how we can break that pattern, which is rooted in colonial history, and actively make the stories we tell more multilayered,” she said.

It has become an imperative in part because if fashion is, as Bolton said, “central to our cultural experience because it responds so immediately to the zeitgeist,” and if collections are, as Arzalluz, the Galliera director, said, “a reflection of changing attitudes,” those collections must keep up with the society fashion reflects or risk losing the very audience they are meant to serve.

That is why, Arzalluz said, that historically the museum has consciously stayed away from politics (and she is careful to emphasize that the Chanel show is deliberately only about Coco’s work, not her life, and certainly not the more controversial aspects of her life), but she thinks that needs to change.

“I don’t believe because we are a fashion museum that we should not talk about politics or society,” she said. “On the contrary, we should.”

One of the reasons so many museums have come to embrace fashion, after all, is the fact that, as Gabet of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs said, it is “one of the few things in a museum that is really universal and open in terms of access.” The museum acquired its first piece of African design two years ago — an armchair — and, Gabet said, fashion will be his next focus. He is planning an exhibition, to open in July, of nine African designers. (“Africa 2020 Season,” meant to celebrate the continent’s culture, will take place in all French territories from December to June 2021.)

“When you walk into any cultural exhibit space, whether you are 8 years old or 30, or even if you are just flipping through a catalog, you want to see a world that reflects your experience,” said Duro Olowu, a Nigerian designer working in London whose work is in the collection of the Museum at FIT. “Even if you don’t want to be a designer, you want to be inspired, not made to feel excluded.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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