Monday, February 22, 2010

Menswear in Miniature: Charles LeDray

Charles LeDray's Mens Suits installation, an Artangel commission somewhat recently exhibited in London was what what actually inspired me to want to write a blog.  I had thought to write it a proper review for publication in the fashion academic sphere, but as time has passed and it is with awe and admiration mainly that I think of it, I prefer to sing its praises here, and to inspire others to seek out LeDray's work.  Other reviewers have also found it worthy of praise.
I went to see the piece on what was meant to be its closing day at the old Chiltern Fire Station near Baker Street.  Stepping into the cavernous yet intimate room, I immediately stopped to take it in, a highly effective trick of scale, and then - whoosh - I was immersed in the wondrous realm of the miniature.  The three installations of men's clothing in miniature were enrapturing.  Like awkward mistakes in perspective or dollhouses you must climb stairs to peer into, the installation conjured a simultaneous feeling of unease and delight.  

Closer inspection revealed a wealth of detail and immediate awareness of an artist's passionate obsession and commitment to process.  The exhibition's catalog includes a number of explanatory essays on the piece, LeDray and the work's context.  I hope to add to those analyses not with more of the same, but with the personal reflections it generated.

The first tableau I spent time engaging with appears as a second hand clothing store.  Unique but familiar, vaguely vintage menswear crowd a circular rail and rectangular table.   The clothes are arranged as they would be in a charity shop - neat yet somewhat shabby in themselves, bearing signs of wear and evoking the lives to which they have been witness. Because each garment is a scaled down replica of an actual garment from which it was cut, these pieces are like relics of an ideal form.  Originals destroyed in order to make single copies.

The second vignette takes the viewer behind the scenes of what feels like the same second hand store, to its storage and work room.  Here bins and crowded rails of clothing sit beside laundry bags, an iron and board and stepladder.  The virtuoso skill in producing replicas in miniature becomes overwhelming as the eye travels over a hanger full of tiny leather gloves, and the rail laden with plastic and wire hangers.  A few of the wire hangers even bear the standard paper dry cleaners thank you label.  I didn't know at the time that LeDray was based in New york City, but the canvas bin, and dry cleaner's tags immediately caused me a wave of nostalgia and a flood of memories of rummaging through rails at the Salvation Army on 44th Street searching for the right sized trousers while costume designing on a miniscule budget.

The last installation, of a tailor's dummy, and pinwheel arrangement of neckties on a round table, didn't captivate me as much as the others.  However, I was distracted because as I approached it, I was no longer alone in the space.  A young father with a toddler in a pram entered the gallery and stood behind the charity shop scene.  Seeing the scale of others in relation to the work re-ignited the uncanny feeling of discrepancy in scale.  Even the small child would seem a giant if he chose to break free of his pushchair and enter the scenes (which I secretly hoped he would).

After taking some frantic notes, and considering breaking the rules by taking photographs, I reluctantly left the old fire station, pleased that I had decided to venture west of Liverpool Street that day, but disappointed that the show was about to close and I could not recommend it fiercely and visit it again.

Then, on a trip to Rotterdam to see the work of my tutor Judith Clark (Art into Fashion and the Bueymann von Beuningen Museum) I was rewarded with another view of Mens Suits.  Following its premiere in London, the work travelled to Rotterdam and was installed just outside the Art into Fashion show.  

Here in the stark modern museum, the clothes seemed to be trying a little harder to appear significant.  Yet, they seemed also to be proudly on tour, challenging people to stop on their way to the gift shop or for an espresso break.  And here, you could take pictures.  And pictures with other spectators present.

Although the actual experience of scale inertia can only come by seeing the actual work, the pictures here do some justice in conveying the sense of uncanny quietude and wistful nostalgia that Mens Suits inspired - twice.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Celebrity Museum Mannequins

This fledgling blog and its author have been fortunate to have the encouragement of a small group readers, and you seem to have most enjoyed the peek into the Harrod's archive, so this week, another look at forgotten fashion exhibition ephemera.  This time, a close look at the 1957 guide to the  Museum Costume at Eridge Castle With Commentary on the Trends of Fashion by Doris Langley Moore.  Ms. Langley Moore, who in 1963 founded the Museum of Costume at Bath, is also famous for debunking the myth of the 18 inch Victorian waist via primary research: measuring the waists of over 200 Victorian corsets and bodices, finding none less than 21.  So equip yourself with that knowledge when the need to defend corsetry arises, as it often does.

I recently purchased a copy of The Museum of Costume booklet, bound in a metallic bronze soft cover from an Amazon marketplace seller for the bargain price of £3.50.  To my delight, it arrived with a treasure between its first and second pages: a newspaper clipping of a review of the museum! This yellowing fragment of an unknown newspaper lauds the exhibition, its life-like display scenarios, and the connections it makes between historic and contemporary fashion.  So, like the Harrod's pamphlet, it has a keen eye towards the use of history to market contemporary fashionable dress.

Inside the booklet, Doris Langley Moore introduces us to the collection, and describes some of the challenges and methods of curating dress in museums.  She outlines the problems encountered by dress historians in attempting to accurately and engagingly display items of clothing, most of which are still faced by fashion curators today.  Although the publishing of this honest and informative portrait of the work of an early dress historian is surprising in itself, what is even more remarkable are the illustrations in this booklet.  A range of historic garments from the collection dating from 1760 to 1924 are pictured - on living celebrity models! 

Yes, photographs of historic and irreplaceable garments modeled by contemporary celebrities.  Needless to say, this choice of presentation is not an option for fashion curators in the 21st century.  Wearing museum artefacts is anathema to the very aims of textile preservation, but I am fairly certain that when faced with archives full of beautiful garments, even the most dedicated fashion academic must have considered slipping something on...just for a moment-just one shoe? or something from a handling collection? Even if you have resisted the temptation up to now, then take a look at these gorgeous, if slightly anachronistic portraits of British actors and aristocrats in the togs of yesteryear, and then just imagine yourself or your favourite thespian in a pelisse, petticoat or polonaise. 

While the opportunity to actually don fashion artefacts does not come around too often, portraits of present day people wearing historic dress have not been entirely eschewed by British photographers.  Take as example the recent work of Tom Hunter, whose portraits of Museum of London staff and patrons in varying degrees of anachronistic dress and settings are currently on display in the museum lobby.  So, despite the preciousness of artefacts, there is still room for some dressing up and posing in the dress of days gone by. All hail the glamour of anachronism.  

Please do check out the work of Tom Hunter at the Museum of London, and read more about him and see more of his work here.