Friday, January 10, 2014

Perspective: The Public Face of Future Beauty, Peabody Essex Museum

Junya Watanabe for Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons, Autumn/Winter 2000-01.
Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute.
Photo by Takashi Hatakeyama.
On view at
I recently had the opportunity for a special tour of "Future Beauty" with Director of Merchandising at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), Lynne Francis-Lunn.  Chances are you have read the laudatory reviews and in-depth analysis of the exhibition in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Organized by the Kyoto Costume Institute and the Barbican Art Gallery, the PEM is the only North American venue for this evocative and inspirational show. If you can plan a visit to New England and PEM before the exhibit closes on 26 January 2014, your efforts will be well-rewarded.

"The fashion designers featured in this exhibition are remarkable for their daring visions, bold wit and incisive creativity," said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, PEM's James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Chief Curator and the exhibition's coordinating curator. "Through their designs we are exposed to alternate  definitions of beauty, new ways of considering the human form and insight into some of the most provocative artistic minds working today."

As a museum professional and fashion historian, I found many subtle additions by the PEM curatorial and  education staff to be especially beneficial to those who might otherwise have felt some level of intimidation through the unfamiliarity of the fashion concepts in display. Indeed, these additions help underscore Hartigan's comment "… ways of considering the human form and insight into some of the most provocative artistic minds working today.

A rack of clothes by several of the designers featured in the exhibition is located in the gallery, so visitors can try on garments and get of feel for textures and fabrics, and take note of the construction and other details. I was particularly interested in a jacket that is "reversible" but not from inside out, but rather from top to bottom. Worn one way, the black jacket has a diminutive "peplum" while worn the other way, it is neatly cropped at the waist. A simple but brilliant experience. Adjacent to the clothing is a mannequin with a bright red Issey Miyake "Pleats Please" infinity scarf. Viewers are invited to try on this dynamic silky accessory, providing an entirely different tactile experience than simply viewing it at distance.

Image (above): Lynne deftly demonstrated techniques for donning one of Issey Miyake's "Pleats Please" infinity scarves. (Limited quantities available at  the PEM shop; for further information.) 

The large format videos of runway shows are absolutely mesmerizing, and familiar to both the fashion savvy as well as a general audience. As visitors make their way through the ample and well lit gallery, each garment takes on its own sculptural personality. And yet, despite the innovative materials and garment construction, one will recognize bustles, evening wear, cloaks and other historically familiar elements. It is a highly accessible exhibit and installation. I am returning this week.

"Not what has been seen before - not what has been repeated, instead new discoveries that look to the future" -- Rei Kawakubo

Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.

Adjunct Faculty
History Department
University of New Hampshire

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