February 26, 2014

"Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art"

When I first read the title of this exhibition now on view at the American Folk Art Museum I thought it must be a typo.  Really, "folk couture" sounds like an oxymoron but I have to admit intriguing at the same time!  Then I put two and two together and realized that the opening of "Fashion and Folk Art" coincided with the recent "NYC Fashion Week" whose runways were just across from the museum at Lincoln Center.

The premise of the exhibition was to commission contemporary fashion designers to create garments using an item, or items, from the museum's collection as inspiration.  It did not presume to elevate fashion design into fine art, nor to make folk art trendy, but to provide an opportunity for cross pollination between these two fields.

From this unlikely proposition came thirteen unique creations drawn directly from the museum's holdings in sculpture, textiles, photography and ephemera.  Objects as diverse as a sailor's tattoo pattern book, a New Mexican carving of a porcupine, a patchwork "star" quilt and an amateur pin-up photograph all served as springboards for these creative designers.  Loosely grouped into four categories including pattern, narrative, disembodiment and playfulness, each costume was an echo of a historical work of folk art transformed into a work of wearable art.

Take, for instance, the "Ann Caril Coverlet" featuring a pattern called "Blazing Star and Snowballs" woven in Westbury, New York, in 1819 and one of the earliest examples of a coverlet that is named and dated in the border.  Introduce Gary Graham, a budding designer, who took the pattern, re-invented it on looms at the Rhode Island School of Design, and created the coat and leggings shown at right.

Consider the elegant evening dress by the Chicago design duo Creatures of the Wind based on a photo taken by Eugene von Bruenchenhein of his wife, Marie.  Not only is the beautifully embroidered skirt a repeat of the wallpaper in the photo, but the bodice is reminiscent of the dress that Marie wears in the portrait.

Above is my personal favorite by the established designer Catherine Malandrino who took a turn of the century papercut with Odd Fellows' symbols and turned it into an exquisite hand-crocheted summer dress.  The traditional Odd Fellows' iconography of the three link chain symbolizing love, truth and friendship, combined with the Masonic "all-seeing eye of God" are re-interpreted in this romantic and feminine handkerchief dress.  It is a perfect combination of past and present.

As the publicity for the show states "fashion is cannibalistic" but it is rare, and a welcome relief, to see both established and emerging designers reach into the past for inspiration.  A perfect combination of art and design!

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