‘Reinvention and Restlessness: Fashion in the Nineties’ Review: Decoding a Decade
Fashion from the 1990s. Not so long ago, yet it’s impossible to imagine. Which is strange, because it was in the 90s that fashion became a national spectator sport, not an international one. Small exhibitions in salons gave way to couture extravaganzas in Paris and circus tents in New York. Models invaded the catwalks and dominated the sparkles. On CNN, encyclopedist Elsa Klensch explained fashion to the masses while newspapers and periodicals increased their coverage, hiring intellectuals to write about trends in the rag trade. So why aren’t the clothes highlighted?
Reinvention and turmoil: fashion in the 90s
The Museum at FIT
Until April 17
As ballet dancers say of a distracted performance that also triggers incredible moments, ‘90s fashion was “everywhere.” So much so that no meaningful silhouette or metaphor has emerged, certainly nothing to do with the characterizations of time capsules from previous decades: Dior’s corseted ’50s; the 60s of the space age; the hippies and Halston of the 70s; fashionable 80s sports suits and poof dresses. The 1990s began with a tidal wave of creators wiped out by AIDS. They ended with a new millennium. What happened in between is the subject of “Reinvention and Turmoil: Fashion in the 90s” at the FIT Museum.
Curated by Colleen Hill, the museum’s costume and props curator, the 85-plus-piece exhibit begins in the ground-floor antechamber with a look at how fashion began to take hold in culture popular: “Magazines”, “Models”, “Runway Shows”, “Television and Film”. Together, these sections constitute an interconnected and growing spiral of promotion and performance, artistic expression and in-depth analysis.
Ms. Hill begins by pairing one of the padded gingham dresses from Comme des Garçons’ controversial Spring/Summer 1997 collection with a 1997 issue of Visionaire dedicated to the brand’s designer, Rei Kawakubo. Not only did the magazine do an interview with Ms. Kawakubo in which she answered questions with pictures only, but it included a printed muslin pattern, without instructions, which is displayed on the wall. Visionaire was launched in 1991, and the abstract equation of these three objects – magazine, garment, pattern – testifies to the growing acceptance of fashion as a field with its own metaphysics.
But it was also the thing of the water cooler confabs. Design literacy was going mainstream thanks to Fran Drescher on the TV show “The Nanny,” represented here by her pink and black Moschino Couture patterned with loud newsprint! jacket (1992) and celebrity statements that got the world talking, like when actress Elizabeth Hurley appeared in Versace’s risque safety pin dress in 1994 (also here). Carrie Bradshaw, the stylish writer played by Sarah Jessica Parker in “Sex and the City”, is embodied by one shoe: one of her feathered Jimmy Choo evening sandals (2000).
This section also establishes the design scheme that runs through the entire show. We seem to be walking around a construction site – simply framed pieces; exposed wooden posts; clothing, objects, images and videos placed within overhead range without walls from each other. “Deconstruction,” says Hill. “Because of the disparate aesthetic of the 90s. It works with minimalism and grunge, and even the idea of environmentalism and reuse. In fact, it feels like fashion is being rebuilt from the ground up.
In the main gallery, attempting to make sense of these ‘disparate aesthetics’, Ms Hill split her two titles – ‘Reinvention’ and ‘Restlessness’, which jostle and overlap, suggesting a reactive, searching, uncertain creative energy. – in four categories each.
It’s best to enter through the door furthest from the stairs, as this brings you face to face with “Reinvention: Grunge”. You may remember the tumult. Like punk in the 70s, grunge was influenced by a musical movement, in this case the shaggy clothes from the thrift stores of bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Perry Ellis’ Marc Jacobs dropped the bombshell in Spring/Summer 1993 and was summarily fired. During the same season, her close friend Anna Sui refined the idea, elevating it with color and pattern. And then the grunge disappeared. Ms. Hill gives us a set from each creator – two match strikes that sparked a major recalibration.
At the same time, and like grunge a corrective to the excess of the 80s, there was “minimalism”. Calvin Klein, Jil Sander, Zoran – the less is more vision of designers like these was reinforced in the 90s. Isabel Toledo’s two-tone gray jersey dress (Fall-Winter 1992) – channeling to both Martha Graham and Claire McCardell – shows how deep a skinny line can be.
‘Reinvention’ continues with ‘The Revival of Luxury’ – Tom Ford leads the way with his luxurious revamp of ’70s design for Gucci (Fall/Winter 1996), and Alexander McQueen burst onto the scene with embellished tartan dresses for Givenchy, lace cuffs dripping like candle wax (Fall 1997). He then moves on to “Deconstruction and the Avant-Garde,” creations that contain postmodern tropes and witty play, such as Hussein Chalayan’s “Airmail” dress (1999). Created from white Tyvek shipping material, this is a sleeveless shirt that looks like it’s unrolled from the large air mail envelope that hangs down the back. Where, asks the dress, is fashion going?
Ms. Hill locates “Restlessness” in the decade’s exuberant retro revivals (think John Galliano mash-ups); in the advancement of textile technology; in globalism and cultural homage (denounced by some as “appropriation” and still sticky); and in the momentum around environmentalism and sustainability, which the wasteful fashion industry must deal with now more than ever. Perfect is a design by Rick Owens from 1998, at the start of his career. With no money for fabric, he bought surplus army duffle bags and created a pinched jacket that presaged his cutting genius. End of century inflections, cargo pockets, repurposed cotton – it makes a single tense of past, present and future.
-Mrs. Jacobs is the Arts Intel Report editor for the weekly Air Mail newsletter.
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