Window Dressing or Museum exhibition?

China Chic, New York, 2016 Two dresses with example of original work that inspired their pattern. I learn just as much (or even more) from this straight-forward exhibition as I do a window dressed multiple-mannequin presentation.

I am not one to criticize French taste – I usually hold it in the highest regard. However, the current Dior exhibition in Paris is making me think that maybe they don’t always get it right.

A trend has been building in the museum field for twenty years now, led primarily by the Met in New York, for making fashion exhibitions into installations that look more like Bergdorf Goodman windows — but too much window dressing can make forests out of trees. Perhaps I am more of a purist – I am happy with a good clean presentation of salient artifacts so I can appreciate every item and understand its placement in the exhibition and interpretation in the text. Sometimes multiples are a great way to make a point but quantity very quickly overpowers quality when used unnecessarily, and presentation overpowers content when the settings and props overpower the artifacts.

Would any other art form be subject to this kind of window dressing? Would paintings by Picasso be shown suspended from the ceiling like a flock of geese? Would old masters be reframed in bubblegum pink plastic frames? in the mid 1990s, the Art Gallery of Ontario created a Victorian picture gallery to show how paintings used to be presented, from floor to ceiling – it was a great way to show their, frankly, second-rate art because the presentation was more interesting than the art itself.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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6 Responses to Window Dressing or Museum exhibition?

  1. I’m a BIG fan of interesting displays, but whoa, that Dior show does look a bit of a visual overload. I also do like the idea of the floating figures, but not sure it works in that particular show.

    At the V&A I’ve seen complaints that our Balenciaga show looks boring and not interestingly displayed at all!!! What CAN you say to that – I thought it was a great exhibition and actually felt that the displays were very much attuned to Balenciaga’s own austerity and minimalism. On the whole, I think we’ve done pretty well with most of our fashion displays, perhaps because of being so limited by a pre-existing, set-in-concrete (literally) case layout on the ground floor that cannot be adjusted and amended, so we need to be creative!

    • Jonathan says:

      I worry that this over indulgence in presentation is done primarily to make the exhibition appeal to the least engaged museum visitor — the husbands dragged along by their wives and the casual tourists who feel it is their duty to get SOME culture during their holiday… If someone says Balenciaga is boring then maybe it’s the viewer’s problem and not the museum exhibition technique. This ‘every show must be a blockbuster’ approach is all done for the the cause of increasing numbers.

      Museums can’t appeal to everyone, but they try because the number of bodies through the door are all-important to retain their funding levels. Local museums in my area inflate visitation numbers by including guests attending facility rental events like weddings, workmen, and people attending business meetings that never even look at the exhibitions.

  2. Amanda S. says:

    When you are serious about the fiber arts, you want to look closely at these garments. You want to see the garment’s construction, you want to see what fabrics were used, where and how. If there is any embroidery or enhancements, you want to be able to take a close look at it and get some ideas about how it was done. When you’ve a wall of the stuff, or models 10 to 20 feet over your head, you may as well be looking at a magazine lay-out for all the good it’s going to do to help you understand what the designer is doing. When you want to see the garments, not just glance at them, these presentations are unbelievably frustrating.

  3. Michele says:

    Did I hear that right…you are in Cambridge, Ontario????

    …and you have a fashion museum????


    Please tell me this is true and that yes, you will let me in the front door :} :} :}

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