“Beauty” introduces itself enrobed in a frothy mille-feuille skirt in shades of red and pink paired with a scarlet pajama shirt courtesy of confectionary couturier Giambattista Valli, at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The museum occupies the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, off of Central Park. While the mansion originally entertained well-mannered women in gowns by Worth and Poiret, The Cooper Hewitt’s design triennial entitled “Beauty” highlighted high-tech and high-octane creations from artists including fashion designers, artisans, photographers, jewelers, and architects.
Speaking of high-tech, Cooper Hewitt is a highly interactive museum. Every visitor is given a black “pen” which made me feel like Harry Potter as I pressed the stylus onto the plus signs on the corners of placards throughout the museum. The wand lit up and buzzed, as it saved information and images of the object that had captured my interest. I could access all the pieces that I had logged, on interactive interfaces scattered throughout the exhibition. Or, from my laptop using a code that was on my ticket. The effect was like being your own curator, able to reflect on and remember your visit at will. The pen also allows visitors to “design” on the interactive high definition tabletop screens throughout the museum.
There is an eye-catching juxtaposition between the gilded-age surroundings of the Carnegie mansion, and the modern and bold designs that filled the galleries. In particular. a Mary Katrantzou sleeveless coat that melded an opulent silken bodice with a polyester and pvc fringed flapper skirt. Remixing the 1920s and the 1520s—in pvc, polyester, silk, and wool—resulted in a modern look rooted in the past. One role for the modern designer is that of curator, pulling from and remixing designs from different periods with a contemporary sensibility. A less appealing curation from Katrantzou awkwardly merged glitter, cutouts, and sheer tulle in a dress that felt more like a haphazard blending of contemporary trends—than a thoughtful mixture of elements. The dress was called “Pangea” but I couldn’t help but wish the various elements hadn’t been brought together.
Other potential roles for designers that were raised during the course of the exhibition were agitator, and adapter. Milliner and jeweler Maiko Takeda adapts acrylic, acetate, and plastic into bristling headpieces that protect and adorn the wearer. The headpieces attract and repel in equal measure. Sometimes, the beauty of fashion is in its ability to protect through intimidation. Similarly intimidating was “The Scarab” jacket from TheUnseen and Lauren Bowker. TheUnseen was founded by Bowker in 2012. Bowker, who studied chemistry and textiles at the Manchester School of Art, developed ink that changes colors in response to changes in the environment. A finned leather jacket was treated with the ink. A pipe placed beside the jacket applied the heat and wind pressure that transforms the jacket.
Much ink has been spilled on the transformative power of fashion. But, it usually refers to how clothing makes us feel. In this instance, the transformation was as beautiful as it was visible. One could imagine a host of practical applications for clothing that could adapt to changes in the environment to offer enhanced protection. One of the most rudimentary functions of clothing is to protect the wearer. Clothing is often likened to armor, because of this protective function.
Gareth Pugh creates high-fashion armor from traditionally luxe materials like wool, silk chiffon, and leather and more unconventional materials like plastic drinking straws. While innocuous, the drinking straws create an intimidating garment. The plastic straws cover a sleeveless coat that flares from the waist into a full skirt; a modern update on the Robe de Style’s flared skirt. To turn pedestrian drinking straws into Parisian high-fashion is a feat of design and innovation. Another Gareth Pugh piece, from the same collection, is topped by an abstract piece resembling a centurion’s helmet. The headpiece is paired with a bolero jacket made from more of the straws and a handkerchief hem dress weighted down with shiny black plastic straws. The effect is simultaneously whimsical and agitating.
One of the more potentially agitating tendencies in fashion is the blurring of the genders. Gucci and Burberry are offering filmy sheer lace blouses for men, and women are grabbing oxfords shoes and “boyfriend” jeans. Rad Hourani who designs clothes meant to be worn by women and men, mines a lot of sex appeal from asexual clothing. One of his couture ensembles pairs cropped leather pants with a leather tunic and leather lined silk coat. The pairing of sheeny black leather and matte black silk would look equally plausible on Kate Moss and her husband rocker husband Jamie Hince. Then again, rock and the runway are two places where androgyny has a history.
One could imagine fashion moving to a place where men and women pick the same items. Skirts, heels, dresses, and lace would no longer feel inherently feminine. The fact is, only feminine clothing feels gendered; women have already borrowed from the boys, and the male wardrobe is no longer societally off-limits to women. Yet outside of the drag scene and the high-fashion world, men in traditionally feminine garb still feels transgressive. But after enough people transgress societal norms they become impotent and tired.
While a movement towards asexual fashion is one prognostication, it is equally plausible that clothing will become increasingly personalized to the individual body. Currently, we put our unique bodies into mass-produced clothes that weren’t created with our specific anatomy in mind. 3D-printed clothing is currently a museum/couture only phenomenon, but 3D-printed clothing could eventually empower people to print clothes to their specifications. While realizing the potential of 3D-printing will likely involve a reconceptualization of the process of how fashion design moves from a designer’s sketch to consumer’s closet; it would signify a return to the pre-industrial era when clothing was created by tailors for an individual.
The Exhibition makes it clear that designers working in all mediums won’t be replaced by technology, but they will manipulate technology to create better designs that may just upend gender expectations and break humanity from the fast-fashion cycle and allow them to create clothes that express themselves with some guidance from a simpatico designer.