Yesterday we had a PD (professional development) day in Toronto – the first in a very long time. Our first stop was the Isabella Blow exhibition at the Hudson’s Bay Company department store. I only have praise for what is one of the best fashion exhibitions I have seen in Toronto in years! This exhibition of over forty garments allows visitors to study some fantastic designer pieces from all angles in good light – something that never happens in a museum.
Although Blow was aristocratic she was not rich, but her love of fashion was so great that she dressed up, even to wash the dishes. The result of her living in her clothes is apparent in the occasional cigarette burn or broken zipper – damage that strangely adds value to the collection because it tells the story of Blow’s love affair with fashion. Her passion is contagious as you examine the exquisite creations by McQueen, Chalayan, Watanabe, Treacy, and others.
After Blow’s death, her wardrobe was to go to auction until fellow fashionphile Daphne Guinness bought the collection to keep it intact. This travelling exhibition of a portion of Blow’s wardrobe is only in its second venue. As a bonus, Guinness included some pieces from her own closet, adding more McQueens, a Chanel, and several pieces from Gareth Pugh in an adjacent display. Museums can’t have clothes accessible like this in well-lit galleries, so if you can, take advantage of the opportunity of seeing this exhibition before it closes November 1. It’s worth it.
Our next visit was to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to see the Alex Colville show as well as revisit favourite galleries like the Henry Moore sculptures. I have no complaints about the AGO’s exhibitions, but I really hate the building. Although I normally admire Frank Gehry’s architecture, the AGO is not his finest work – it’s a second rate retrofit that reminds me of a European castle that was rebuilt and added to so many times you can’t determine when the building was originally built or in what style. Gehry’s inverted ship’s hull front adds nothing but a giant hallway that creates a dark, uninviting entrance to the building below.
In the back, the building looms over the now closed Grange – Toronto’s oldest extant brick residence dating from 1817 and the original home of the AGO. The Grange now looks like an ill-chosen vintage brooch on a post-modern Gehry façade. I am tired of architecture that screams how important it is by overshadowing adjacent structures, and destroying neighbourhood scale and character.
After being told we couldn’t get a cup of tea or coffee at 4 o’clock at the AGO café, because the gallery would be closing in an hour and a half (if that makes sense to you…) we went across the street to the Art Square Café and Gallery for the worst restaurant experience I have had in years. Instead of a long rant, suffice it to say that they were out of what we wanted (including cream for coffee), failed to bring to our table what we needed (sugar, milk, fork), and charged incorrectly for what we got. How do some restaurants stay in business?
To end the day off we headed to the Bata Shoe Museum for their ‘pay what you can’ Thursday evening. As always the treasures the Bata holds are phenomenal. I was especially excited to see so many new acquisitions to the collection since my tenure as curator. However, like a choice garment, the museum has aged over the past twenty years from its debut as the exciting new addition to Toronto’s cultural wardrobe through becoming a comfortable favourite to an outdated standard that could use some freshening up. The ‘All About Shoes’ feature gallery and ‘Star Turns’ mezzanine presentation of famous people’s shoes are especially out of step. Jewel tone coloured walls, blonde wood floors and cases, and sand blasted glass look like something designed by Frasier Crane’s interior decorator. The only thing that has significantly changed since the 1995 installation is the fibre optic lighting that makes many of the artifacts difficult to see and most of the labels impossible to read (except for those that inexplicably have no labels.) The storyline is also stale – I know because it’s the one I wrote twenty years ago. It’s time for a new look in that gallery, especially as the staircase does not meet the AODA code for accessibility in public buildings that comes into affect in 2015.
The real purpose of our visit was to see Bata’s latest display, “Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century”. Like elsewhere, the artifacts are fabulous, but overall the exhibition fails. Money used to be recklessly spent on exhibitions (once an entire pueblo was created for the cost of three times my annual salary) but now economy seems to be an important consideration at Bata. I admire frugality, but an exhibition shouldn’t look like it ran out of money half way through its installation. Fashion Victims begins in a shopping arcade set inspired by the Vero-Dodat gallery in Paris but then you turn a corner and enter a concrete bunker. This last section deals mostly with the production of footwear, from cottage industry to mass manufacturing, and I am guessing the stark cold room is supposed to represent some kind of bleak Dickensian working class experience, but if that’s the case it’s a weak design statement that looks more like a lack of ideas or funds were the problem.
I also had issues with the considerable text, which is not easy to read due in part to a serif-heavy font and white lettering on brown background, but also because of the academic tone, non-sequitur titles, repetitive content, and 19th century satirical quotes that make little sense to today’s audience. The show was promoted as an expose of the underbelly of 19th century fashion – from poisonous dyestuffs to harm-inducing fashions, but the buffet of topics tackled in the show focusses mostly on arsenic-laden green dye as the dominant issue of the era. Other arguments are not as convincing, especially one regarding shoeshine boys being poisoned by their polish, supposedly laced with nitrobenzene. All 19th century polish recipes I found consisted of only natural ingredients, usually some mixture of soot, beeswax and turpentine, although a Regency recipe reputedly used by Beau Brummell consisted of egg whites and champagne. As far as I can tell nitrobenzene only became a common additive to shoe polish and other household products during the 20th century.
It was a long day with a lot to see, and all things considered, the simplest and smallest exhibition not in a museum was the most memorable.