People keep asking, and I keep failing to share a single favourite thing from our recent trip to New York. Certainly, the group went into collective paroxysms of bliss when a 1923 opera coat of black velvet, gold brocade and grey chinchilla trim was whirled in front of us at Museum at FIT. There were more than a few exclamations of, “But this place has my entire undergrad art history coursework in it’s collection!” from those who had never been to MOMA. And when the Museum of the City of New York turned out to be a veritable Aladdin’s cave of costume and couture from the city’s historic hoi polloi, I will admit to a certain amount of gaping.
Perhaps that’s it. Proximity, presence, reality—the physical experience of objects we’d only previously seen in print. There is inevitably a certain amount of staring at reproduced images in Art History, and Dress History is no exception. The world doesn’t hold an endless supply of Fortuny Delphos gowns to pass around, no more than it has endless Matisse. Neither can Fortuny be replicated more easily than Matisse, his pleating technique, lost to history has never been accurately replicated. So when a peach silk Delphos is uncoiled from its box, and the lightness and fragility of the silk has to be carefully balanced in an archivist’s hand against the incredible comparative weight of the Venetian glass beads at its sides you can’t help but feel like you’re being let in on a secret. In pictures, both on the body and on mannequins, the Delphos gown lends an air of the impenetrable, neoclassical statuesque. Up close in the Museum at FIT archives, it looks so delicate you begin to imagine what it would be like to wear — how it would cling and skim over your body, the hang of the beads and stretch and pull of the intricately pleated fabric.
Again at FIT, a Charles James gown on display conjured up romantic visions of an idealised 1950’s silhouette, all curves and flounce and extremes of femininity. Exterior layers of tulle belie a lightness, the impression of which is quickly dispelled when confronted with a muslin archive copy that audibly groans on its hanger from the sheer weight of fabric involved in these creations. James’ wish to be regarded as a sculptor make more sense than ever from this vantage, as the dress is able to stand under its own support, and the addition of a body inside it seems inconsequential to its existence.
I could write paragraphs upon paragraphs of examples—how seeing the serious corsetry under a loose, a-line 1962 Balenciaga, or hearing the sheer volume of noise created by a fully beaded 1920’s flapper dress made me feel like I had been handed closely guarded knowledge about dress history. Seeing these garments, even on hangers, or being gently removed from archival boxes gave a sense of weight and movement and even sound that images will always struggle to convey, and which going forward encourages me to seek the real thing out wherever, and whenever possible.