By Ingrid Howard
Now through the end of summer, visitors to the Birmingham Museum of Art can peruse the Ways of Seeing: Fashion exhibit, the second part of an ongoing series.
Rather than looking at the history of fashion, this exhibit aims to explore themes that relate to fashion.
“Even those people that say, ‘I don’t care about fashion,’” chief curator Anne Forschler said, “every day they put something on, they wear it, and then they go out, be it jogging pants or pajama pants, and this says something about them. And we don’t think about that always.”
Forschler searched through different types of work from the museum’s collection to be displayed in the exhibit. Instead of crowding the hallway with large cases of clothing, the exhibit mostly uses photos and drawings to discuss fashion.
“We got out works that we haven’t seen in a long time, that we don’t show very often,” she said. “A lot of them are photographs and works on paper that we can’t show very often because they’re sensitive in nature.”
Forschler chose pieces that communicate fashion, even if fashion wasn’t the artist’s intended theme.
“We are looking at works of art that aren’t about fashion, but if you look at these works of art, what do the fashions tell us about them?” she said. “Be it the clothing they’re wearing, their jewelry, their headgear. These are the kinds of things, when we’re looking at works of art, that we often are drawn to.”
To challenge visitors to think about fashion in their own lives, a series of discussion questions are posted throughout the hallway. The first sign asks visitors to think about where fashion trends start.
“Today, with social media, anyone can be a fashion trendsetter,” Forschler said. “People can be just obscure people, rise above, have millions of followers and really become trendsetters. It’s not just the upper classes purchasing things that the lower classes want to buy anymore. People at the street level can rise up to be serious fashion trendsetters.”
Near this question is a photograph of a woman, and Forschler said this woman has “a lot going on” with her fashion.
“There’s a lot of jewelry, and the hat she’s wearing, the lace, the floral, the mink she’s got with her, the gloves, the purse and so forth,” she said, describing the photo. “Who says what’s fashionable? Everyone can find their own style.”
The only display case in the hall looks at the role of fashion in hats and shoes.
“Hats really play a variety of roles, be it that they represent authority, they say something about your social status or the social group you’re in,” she said. “So it was actually really interesting to look at hats in a different way.
“The same thing goes for shoes. … In the 18th century, men would wear high heels. Today, men don’t wear heels. But they wore high heels, and women did too, and it was literally to kind of raise yourself above others. You could project your social status. You were literally above other people.”
Art of the Body Is Telling
Next, the exhibit looks at the physical body. Through the photographs and drawings, visitors can visualize how perceptions of the human body have changed over time.
“Not just for women, but for men,” she said. “Curvaceous was really popular at one time, then super twiggy models in the ‘60s, and today our perceptions have evolved as well from that.”
One drawing in this theme portrays a portly man wearing a top hat. Forschler discussed how, at one time, it was fashionable for men to be portly because it flaunted their wealth.
The exhibit also urges visitors to think about the politics of fashion and how body adornments such as tattoos and jewelry can contribute to one’s sense of fashion.
“I hope people become aware of the power of not only fashion but the way they present themselves,” Forschler said, “the way they put themselves together, the choices they make and how important they are, how much they say about them.”
Megan LaRussa Chenoweth, the exhibit’s presenting sponsor, said it was a natural fit for her company to be involved in the exhibit.
“As a style coach, I work with incredible women to help them get clear on their personal style and how they want to show up in the world through their outward appearance,” she said. “I am a firm believer in your fashion choices reflecting who you are on the inside, and this exhibit touches on that in a wide variety of artistic mediums.”
The Ways of Seeing series will continue in September with a look at portraiture. For more information, visit artsbma.org.