The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Who Wore What and When?
Savage Beauty, the posthumous and retrospective exhibition of women’s fashions designed by Alexander McQueen (1969–2010) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art closed early in August. The record breaking event—an official attendance count of 661,509 visitors made it the eighth biggest show in the museum’s history—featured approximately one hundred ensembles drawn, primarily, from the Alexander McQueen Archive in London. Over the years, McQueen’s collections looked back to the exaggerated silhouettes of looks from 1860s, 1880s, 1890s, and 1950s, which he then re-imagined and reworked in startling and original ways. “What attracted me to Alexander,’ said his patron and muse Isabella Blow, “was the way he takes ideas from the past and sabotages them with his cut to make them thoroughly new and in the context of today.”
The fact that clothing designers continually mine and recycle the past for inspiration is no secret in the fashion world. Some popular colors, styles, and cuts of clothing disappear once they’ve outlived their novelty or the taste of the times. But others merely go into hibernation, waiting to be resurrected by the designers, stylists, or market-defining retailers who troll the image archives of the past to come up with the next “new” thing. In the years before the Internet shortened time-consuming searches for back issues of fashion magazines to the time it took to click a mouse—and before skyrocketing rents also drove him to close his labyrinthian basement-level East Village store front in New York City in 2007—Mike Gallagher, for example, had become a fashion world celebrity by amassing an astonishing historical archive of fashion magazines, a resource that was routinely mined by big name fashion designers, photographers, stylists, makeup and hair artists, and creative directors.
For all the emphasis and talk on Project Runway about clothes that are “fashion forward,” an awful lot of energy is invested by industry insiders and their researchers in looking backwards in time. And so I’ve been interested to note, in the last couple of weeks, of the growing number of posts online, at sites like Fashionista and the LA Times’ blog, Jacket Copy, that picked up on a rumor thatVogue magazine might, by the end of the year, announce that its archive of issues dating back to 1892 issue was going online. Given that Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, recently made the archives of another of its tony properties, The New Yorker, available to subscribers and/or for a fee, style- and hemline-watchers may soon be able to engage in some time travelling, too, and maybe for Christmas.