Last November the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) launched an exhibition in their textile and costume gallery entitled BIG. Despite the fact that there is nothing oversized about the one room exhibition, there is one big museum purchase with a huge controversy acting as the centrepiece of the display.
In the spring of 2011 the ROM commissioned a $100,000 dollar dress, called ‘Passage #5’, from the House of Dior. When museums commission artifacts, like a couture gown, they are buying a replica of a design, and the act of commission transforms the museum from being a collector of cultural artifacts to a patron of commercial artworks. This Dior dress is very likely the only one of it’s kind ever made, other than the one created for the runway, so you have to ask yourself – is this fashion or wearable art? Like a telephone, I believe that fashion needs a transmitter (designer) as much as a receiver (wearer) to call itself fashion. If a dress is designed but nobody wears it, I don’t call it fashion.
When I was at the Bata Shoe Museum, the founder sometimes commissioned artisans to recreate ethnographic artifacts that were no longer being made by their culture. It’s difficult to know what to do with these reproductions in the museum collection because they are not authentic cultural artifacts but display replicas.
Adding to the controversy, this dress was from John Galliano’s last collection for Dior. You may recall that shortly after Galliano presented his spring 2011 collection he was caught on film, while strung out on alcohol and arrogance, making some very stupid comments about Hitler. Obviously he was goaded into saying something that was neatly edited from the taped evidence but regardless of the prod, his responding comments were career ending. Except, it seems, to the ROM, which followed through with their commission of his dress and an accompanying documentary about the 500 hours of labour to make it.
Alexandra Palmer, curator of the costume and textile department at the ROM, and internationally recognized scholar regarding the House of Dior, did not discuss the politics of the purchase in a recent lecture and interview, but explained that the disappearing couture industry and its associated quality of construction as the reason for buying the dress, “It’s a critical moment in the history of the house as well as for Galliano and for fashion.”
However for me the BIGGEST thing about the exhibition, is the lack of a secure environment for the 100,000 dollar dress. The gallery it is located in the ROM is in the quarter billion dollar ‘crystal’ extension where the roof is so leaky there are pails to catch drips of water…