Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Textile Giants: BIG at The Royal Ontario Museum

Adinkra Wrapper, a Ghanaian toga measuring 3 metres long, currently on display at the ROM in Toronto

In fashion, size matters. Clothing, especially ready-to-wear, is tailored to conform to universal standards of small, medium or large. It is sold to fit, or not fit when showcased on slender silhouettes slinking down an international fashion runway, an impossible ideal for most. Not everyone can squeeze into fashion’s modern-day obsession with Lilliputian proportions, and so, when small is the season’s biggest trend, then follow the diets, purgings, eating disorders and assorted guilt trips which make fashion a curse, if not a monumental pain. Size is definitely a sensitive issue where fashion is concerned, which makes it all the more provocative for the Royal Ontario Museum to have called its latest textiles and costume exhibition, BIG.

Unquestionably, this is an adjective inspiring fear and loathing in any fashionista worth her skin-tight jeans and equally teeny stilettos. But rest easy. As created by co-curators Alexandra Palmer (the ROM’s Nora E. Vaughan Fashion Costume Curator), Sarah Fee and Anu Liivandit, BIG, in this case, is a good thing. It suggests capaciousness of ideas, mammoth accomplishments in the textile arts over several centuries involving thousands upon thousands of hours of manual labour and brand name contemporary designers whose reputations are boulder-esque: Tom Ford, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, to name a few.

BIG, in other words, is a bang.

Christian Dior's Passage #5, designed by John Galliano
Opened since November and continuing through to fall 2013, the exhibition poses BIG questions: What is the material and cultural value of fashion? How do textiles impart status within a particular society? The answers lie in the 40 items Dr. Palmer and her team have pulled from the ROM’s collection of 50,000 costume and textile artifacts, ranging from a pre-Columbian Peruvian feather tunic dated to between 1000 and 1476 to an haute couture gown from the Christian Dior spring 2011 collection. Presented in meticulous detail through an interactive, multi-media format, BIG’s visually potent presentation delights as much as it amazes: a one size fits intellectual blockbuster of a show.

That Dior gown, by the way, represents one of the installation’s biggest showstoppers. Commissioned by the ROM and made possible by the support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust, this dramatic coat-dress, called Passage #5, was designed by British fashion sensation, the now-disgraced John Galliano (fired last year as head of the Paris label for anti-Semitic remarks) who was inspired by drawings made in the 1940s and 1950s by noted fashion illustrator, René Gruau. A reworking of the Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look collection of pinched waist, full skirted dresses, a novelty of the post-war period, the red dress in question took more than 500 hours to make by a team of artisans that included beaders, cutters, dyers, embroiders, painters, pleaters and pattern makers. One last statistic: it required 157 metres of fabric and cost a whopping $100,000 to make. A very BIG price tag.

But its historic significance is even bigger, considering that it formed part of Galliano’s very last presentation for Dior. The ROM ordered it long before last year’s debacle when planning for this exhibition, making it unique in the world for having documented the entirety of the gown’s gargantuan process, from initial sketch to final catwalk strut, in a wordless film playing over and over again at the start of the exhibition’s global fashion tour. It’s mind-boggling to see how much care and expense is lavished on this one piece of clothing. The argument is instantly made: fashion matters. It is a highly valued and valuable commodity, employing hundreds even when worn by one – fashion is both hard work and opulent fantasy. The dress itself is on display, as precious a relic as anything else displayed within the museum’s walls. It’s glorious to behold, particularly after witnessing the intricacy of its construction.

Silk Slipper & Leather Postillion Boot
From this awe-inspiring beginning, BIG wends its way through other massive fashion moments as captured by the smallest of stitches on pieces of man-made cloth. That cloth comes from, among other places, Albania and China, Canada and Ghana, Hungary and Italy, Sierra Leone and England, the USA and England. The breadth of the exhibition’s reach demonstrates the universal importance of textiles as both an article of trade and as personal adornment. Fashion’s relationship to fabric is fundamental. It is where form meets function, where aesthetic ideas take shape in the decorative arts. For those who think fashion only skin deep, this exhibition forces you to think again. Cloth is personal, covering the body but also a wealth of ideas. Take the hand-printed, three-metre-long cloth from 1960s Ghana worn toga-style at funerals. Imprinted with Adinkra symbols, it communicates to all those who gather at a Ghanian funeral, lasting sometimes several days, moral commands and proverbs that the clan can readily understand. The curatorial notes highlight a spiked circle within the cloth which is translated as, “Like the star, I rest with God and do not depend on God.” BIG as in weighty stuff.

Other biggies (literally speaking) include a postillion boot from France dating to between 1812 and 1815, an enormous thing made from leather, wood, tar and metal. The BIG size was meant to protect the legs of postillion riders who drove a pair of horses pulling a coach by sitting astride the foremost horse from being crushed when the beasts collided. (Insert BIG ouch here.)  Speaking of imprisoning footwear, the exhibition also showcases the tiniest of hand-embroidered silk slippers, measuring only 7.5 centimetres in length, which were made in China around 1910-1915 for the bound feet of women belonging to the Han Dynasty period. Lotus bud feet, the euphemism used to mask the cruelty of the bound foot practice, were highly valued erotic symbols. The shoes meant to show them off were equally desirable: crafted to entice and excite the men who coveted them as BIG status symbols.

“Water Sleeve” Gown by Vivienne Tam
As well as embroidered cloth, the exhibition also features dyed cotton from 18th century India, created expressly for the lucrative Dutch trade in textiles, and, more current,  digitally printed silk as used by the contemporary Chinese-American designer Vivienne Tam in creating a 2011 retro-style evening gown. Also on display is an enormous wall-size woodblock printed tabby, created for the 1925 Exposition international des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (aka the Art Deco exhibition) in Paris. This one is here hailed as a BIG innovation: “The scale of the screen and woodblock printing is a technical tour de force,” read the exhibition notes, “by Maison Scheurer, Lauth & Co in its emulation of large historic woven tapestries.” The scene depicted, however, is an outdoor picnic, with the subjects dressed in the latest Twenties fashion:  drop waist flapper dresses for the women, tennis whites for the men. Hardly heroic.  And yet it is the skill and ingenuity of the artisans, combined with technology, which elevates the subject matter into the stratosphere of artistic achievement. The material in this case is its own message. Its largeness signals its importance. The size matters.

 Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates

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