If clothes could only talk. ... Well, sometimes they actually do. There have been many fashion moments when designers have literally spelled out their ideas and married text to textile. "Word-robe" the exhibition now at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a visual lexicon of those moments in 20th century fashion.
Richard Martin, costume curator for the Met, took the higher road for this exhibit. He found many examples of written fashion without resorting to T-shirts of the "I'm with stupid" school of clothing communication.
"At the show's conclusion the gallery spills over with sportswear -- we have the Nike swoosh, Tommy, DKNY -- symbols and icons that have become part of our way of life," says Martin. "Visitors seem to show a greater affinity to this show than any I've ever done. In an ironic way the premise of the show may be cerebral, but the reality is a vivid one that we all live in the '90s."
Tonight, Martin will be lecturing at the Maryland Institute, College of Art on his experiences in tracking the vagaries of fashion.
"Costume shows to me are in some ways intellectual puzzles and exercises. The Met seems to be such a haughty institution and I think it's important to go out and speak and lecture and put a face on fashion."
He has interesting ways of demonstrating how our social baggage correlates with what we put on our backs. At the Met, he has been responsible for presentations as diverse as the recent "Haute Couture" show and "Jocks and Nerds: Men's Style in the Twentieth Century." Last year, his many essays and books won him a special award for furthering fashion as art and culture from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
But years of research in arcane fashion stacks haven't dulled Martin, and he can dish about designers with the best of them.
He is doing his share in narrowing the distance between museum snobbery and the living dynamic.
"The Met used to take only couture pieces," he says. "Now we are including bowling shirts and ready-to-wear."
He believes the more egalitarian attitude on museum fashion acquisitions may be a result of society's current fascination with fashion and style makers. "A fashion show is one of the most glamorous things that can happen in this world and the media is giving it more space and time than ever before. It's amazing, the number of people who know about fashion, it's now a real part of popular culture."
Death and change also affect museum direction. Martin is now working on a major Met retrospective of Gianni Versace's work, which will open Dec. 11. He is also writing a companion biography to be published by Harry Abrams.
"Before his death, the museum was not taking very many Versace pieces," he says. "Now they're good pieces to have."
This will be Martin's second Versace exhibit. When he was historian and director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, he brought Versace and his work to the college in 1992, a show with a high glitterati quotient.
"At the FIT show we were going after a feel like a Versace theme park. He had free rein and it was completely over the top." Now Versace's work will be treated with greater sobriety, Martin says.
"He will end up looking less like Disney and more like Dior."
Martin times two
Richard Martin lectures at 7 tonight at the Maryland Institute's Mount Royal Station Auditorium as part of the Mixed Media series. The event is free and open to the public. Call 410-225-2300.
On Saturday at 10 a.m., Martin will present a slide lecture on American fashion at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. A live fashion show of current designer pieces will follow. Call 202-966-9700
Pub Date: 9/24/97