Lists such as Dazed’s “Fashion exhibitions you don’t want to miss in 2016” are a familiar feature of the end-of-year frenzy. Yet as fashion exhibitions gain popularity (they are the blockbusters bringing big money into museums), offers have widened. Brands in fact now stage their own exhibitions: this year London saw Louis Vuitton and Chanel battling for social media presence through hashtag-inducing displays. Yet for those interested in the history of fashion, there is also a lot to gain from “non-fashion” exhibitions.
The Vivian Maier exhibition at the Forma fondazione in Milan is one of them. The exhibition showcases over 120 photographs by Chicago photographer and former nanny, Vivian Maier (1926-2009), whose work and story were unearthed by John Maloof in 2007. Maier has since been heralded as “one of the best US street photographers of the 20th century”. Her work however had never been intended for publication: her photographs are personal snapshots of city life in the late 1950s, mostly of Chicago and New York. For the fashion historian, they constitute valuable documents of the ways in which dress was worn and experienced in the 1950s and beyond. Maier had a sharp eye for the dissonances of modern life apparent on the surface of things: the clothing of her subjects often bears the marks of these incongruities.
Her photographs also powerfully articulate the issues that surround the role and representation of women in the postwar years. A photograph taken in the 1950s in a Chicago streetcar for instance highlights the tension between the pervasiveness of women as surface (we discern the fashionable silhouettes of three models on one of the newspapers), and the visibility or agency that is simultaneously denied to them (the image hints at the male-dominated workplace). Her numerous self-portraits however form an interesting counterpoint (also on view at Forma). In these images Maier asserts her presence and reclaims an existence for herself through her own self-fashioning.
This is all to say that there is more than the conventional fashion exhibition for the fashion “geek”, especially as seen through the lens of documentary photography. So to add to the list-mania of the coming weeks, here are some suggestions that go beyond the realm of the fashion exhibition: Germaine Krull exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (ends January 31st), Qui a Peur des femmes photographes? 1839-1919 (ends January 24th) at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Rosângela Rennó’s exhibition at the photographer’s gallery in London (opens January 22nd), Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum (ends April 24th), and the Jacques Henri Lartigue exhibition at Foam (opens January 22th).