October 04, 2014

What's On At The Museum at FIT

One of the hidden gems on the New York museum scene is The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Located in the heart of the garment district, FIT is known primarily as an academic institution specialized in studies of fashion, design and the business thereof.  But the campus also features an excellent museum with two galleries offering short-term exhibitions on themes of fashion and its history that are free and open to the public from Tuesdays through Saturdays.

You may be thinking that a museum show of old dresses is not for you, but this is not the kind of place to find lifeless mannequins wearing musty, moth-eaten, frumpy clothing.  The exhibition lineup at The Museum at FIT uses fashion to explore larger issues such as social history, popular culture and the performing arts in a creative, informative and entertaining style.

Take, for instance the two exhibitions now on view.  On the ground floor in the smaller, more intimate gallery dedicated to the history of fashion and textiles, is "Exposed:  A History of Lingerie".  Now that I have your attention let me assure you that while this is a scholarly exhibition, it is just as amusing as the title promises!

The exhibition traces the history of undergarments, both "hard" like corsets, bras and bustles, and "soft" unstructured slips, nightgowns and panties, from the 18th century to the present.  The 80 items on view illustrate how what people wore under their clothes and in the privacy of their boudoirs was influenced by shifting ideas of beauty, advancements in technology and evolving concepts of propriety.  Take, for instance, the transformation of the corset from a laced up straightjacket with whale bone stays to the lace, nylon and elastic "corselet" - part bra, part girdle, part suspender - of the 1950's to a contemporary silk and lace "teddy".  Or, a turn of the century peignoire lavishly decorated with lace and ruffles to a set of silk lounging pajamas with matching robe that epitomize 1940's elegance.

Working with the premise that "lingerie is the final barrier to the fully nude body and is thus inherently erotic", "Exposed" presents all manner of intimate apparel from petticoats to push-up bras, from stockings to slips and from demure to dangerous!

Moving downstairs to the cavernous Special Exhibitions Gallery, we come to "Dance & Fashion", a look at ballet and modern dance and its interactive relationship with fashion and design.  Here we find a dramatic staging of nearly 100 dance costumes and dance-inspired fashions from the 19th century to today.

A soundtrack of familiar dance music sets the tone for this beautiful show as visitors view costumes and accessories from beloved ballets and modern dance side-by-side with couture clothing they inspired.  Like the ubiquitous flamenco dress and its interpretations by Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta and Ralph Lauren.  Or the Orientalist costumes of the Ballets Russes and their influence on gowns by Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent.

A major focus of "Dance & Fashion" is the synergy between designers and dance - how classical ballet and modern dance influenced current fashions and the contribution made by fashion designers to the stage.  There were many examples of performance costumes by such star designers as Halston,  Valentino, Isaac Mizrahi and Stella McCartney who worked with major companies such as the New York City Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group and Twyla Tharp.  There were also examples of fashion creators such as Geoffry Beene incorporating ballet and dance into their runway shows.  Finally, the direct influence of dance costumes on street wear was evidenced in the full ballet skirts of Christian Dior's "New Look" and the pointe shoe on countless interpretations of the "ballet flat".

For centuries, men and women have used apparel not just for protection, modesty and warmth, but as an expression of personal identity.  The Museum at FIT takes this common thread and expands it to explore the impact of something as basic as clothing on our history and culture.  You can catch "Exposed" until November 15, 2014 and "Dance & Fashion" until January 2015.

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