As one of the most fashion-conscious cities in the world, New York is the perfect place to get immersed in the fashion scene, rub shoulders with industry representatives and draw continuous inspiration from its streets. The best thing about the city is that it offers countless opportunities to do so without breaking the bank. Located right in the heart of Manhattan, on 7th Avenue, is Fashion Institute of Technology, one of the best and most renowned fashion schools in the world. What you might not know is that you can get a feel of the experience without hefty tuition fees – as the school has its own fashion museum which can be visited completely for free.
With an estimated 100,000 visitors each year, the Museum at FIT regularly changes its exhibits to provide fresh and informative insight into the ever-changing world of fashion. We managed to catch two exhibitions that are currently on display: Minimalism/Maximalism and Paris, Capital of Fashion.
The first exhibition focuses on the extremes in the sartorial world, and how minimalist and maximalist aesthetics have intertwined throughout the course of fashion history. In the words of the exhibition’s curator, fashion perfectly exemplifies Newton’s third law of motion – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s hard not to agree with this statement, as fashion is a very accurate representation of the ongoing cultural, social, technological and economic changes.
If we take a closer look at the history of fashion, we can determine alternating periods of restrain and excess, and the events that propelled these shifts. The wartime period had its reflection in the streamlined, minimalist designs that Coco Chanel became synonymous with, including the legendary cardigan jacket. On the other hand, the Great Expansion of the 1980s found an outlet in the extravagant garments championed by Gianni Versace.
There are fashion designers who identify themselves solely with one end of the spectrum – Calvin Klein is recognised for his clean lines, while John Galliano’s opulent designs for Dior can be easily distinguished from those of the fashion house’s other creative directors. Minimalists accuse maximalist designers of the elevation of form over substance and verging on kitsch, while they respond to these claims saying that minimalist approach restricts the imagination. Regardless of whether we personally lean more towards the “bigger equals better” or “less is enough” stance, we have to admit that the co-existence of these two extremes is crucial to move fashion forward and take it to new heights.
The exhibition begins in the 18th century with a range of extravagant garments of the Rococo era, made of luxury silk fabrics and detailed with elaborate embellishments. It takes visitors through the 19th and early 20th century, when women started to play a larger role in the society and the lines between women’s and men’s fashion began to diverge. Then, it presents the clothing of the crisis- and war-ridden 1920s-1940s, which cut the rising maximalist tendencies short, before moving on to the hyper-femininity of the post-war period.
It also shows how garments were used as marketing tools during the 60s and acknowledges the influence of mind-altering drugs on fashion expression of the 70s, countered by the growing dance culture which popularised the freedom of movement over complex forms.
There are sections dedicated to the “power dressing” of the 80s which challenged the traditional concept of good taste, as well as the “invisible luxury” of the 90s centered around simple styles and toned-down colours.
With the advent of the Internet, fashion reached a whole new level which can be seen in the last two sections of the exhibition showcasing contemporary designs. Theatrical and fantastical garments became increasingly popular, with many designers experimenting with shapes, colours and patterns more than ever and taking fashion to the extreme.
We can observe growing environmental awareness and changing aesthetic boundaries, causing the definitions of minimalism and maximalism to be continually redefined. A case in point are the Balenciaga Triple S shoes, which are also on display and have enjoyed undying interest despite allegations of being the world’s ugliest shoes (which I personally couldn’t agree more with).
Although small, the exhibition managed to capture the essence of fashion cycles and aesthetic shifts over the years perfectly, inspiring me to think about the direction in which fashion is headed.
Paris, Capital of Fashion
As the name suggests, the second exhibition is dedicated to exploring how Paris earned the title of a fashion capital and influenced the international industry landscape. Rather than focus solely on the history of French royalty and legendary fashion designers, the exhibition places a lot of emphasis on the cultural components as well.
It traces fashion history from the establishment of the royal court of Versailles, through the beginnings of haute couture with the opening of Charles Worth’s atelier in Paris, to contemporary fashion creations. An 18th-century robe à la française is displayed alongside a haute couture Christian Dior dress inspired by Marie Antoinette herself.
By showcasing the creations of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent or Karl Lagerfeld, the exhibition highlights the role immigrants played in shaping the Parisian fashion scene.
There were two main things that caught my attention during the exhibition. First of them was the role of licensing in fashion. During the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII, fewer and fewer wealthy Americans came to shop at the city’s luxury boutiques, while many fashion houses moved away or even closed down. It was at that time that special licensing agreements became popular, allowing copies of Parisian creations to be sold in American stores. To illustrate this phenomenon, the exhibition features three nearly identical tweed suits – one is an original Chanel design, the second is a licensed copy, while the third is a counterfeit.
The second was the section dedicated to the so-called “Battle of Versailles” of 1973, a face-off between French and American fashion designers in which each group got to present eight runway looks. To many people’s surprise, Americans proved victorious over the French, turning the eyes of the fashion world to America.
Still, as the exhibition aims to show, Paris maintains its title of world capital of fashion. With many luxury conglomerates headquartered in the city and countless fashion designers choosing to present their collections there, it doesn’t look like Paris is going to give up the crown anytime soon.
Disney on Broadway x FIT Design Challenge
As we left the museum, I noticed that the building next door also had a number of garments on display and decided to go inside. As it turned out, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Disney on Broadway partnered with the Fashion Institute of Technology to create a design challenge for the students. They were faced with the task of reimagining the costumes for the leading female characters of 10 Disney on Broadway shows, and designing outfits they could potentially wear in real life.
Each student created two looks for their character of choice. 10 FIT Fashion Design students were selected from nearly 100 submissions and got to showcase their outfits at the school’s Art and Design Gallery, along with their sketches and mood boards.
I was in utter awe of their designs and couldn’t believe that there were some second- and third-year students among the finalists. If you placed these creations alongside those of established fashion designers, I’m honestly not sure if I would be able to tell the difference!
If you’re ever in the area and are as fascinated with fashion as I am, I couldn’t recommend this museum enough! It provides a lot of useful knowledge without overloading you with information – it took less than an hour to visit all of the exhibitions mentioned in this post. The best part is that the museum’s website features online versions of each exhibition in case you are not able to attend or would like to go through the information once more at your own pace. I would love to go back for a quick fashion fix next time I’m in New York!
For information about current and future exhibitions, as well as opening hours, go to the Museum’s website.
Which exhibition did you find most interesting and why? What are your favourite designs?