[Exhibition] Uniformity: Fashion & Textile History Gallery

We encounter uniforms everywhere—on soldiers, school children, flight attendants, and fast-food clerks. According to fashion historian Jennifer Craik, the omnipresence of uniforms has “shaped our ways of seeing.” Uniforms are constant reminders of the social order, so commonplace that they are often overlooked. Designed both to blend in and to stand out, uniforms play a unique role in our daily lives.

In some ways, they are the antithesis of high fashion. While uniform design focuses on functionality, control, and tradition, fashion design promotes constant change, creativity, and subversion. Yet throughout history, fashion has drawn inspiration from uniforms of all kinds. For example, fashion designers often take functional features and transform them into decorative elements.

Uniformity explores the dynamic history behind a variety of uniforms, considering their social role and their influence on high fashion. The exhibition is organized thematically to focus on four categories of uniforms: military, work, school, and sports. Within each category, historic uniforms are juxtaposed with the high fashion looks they have inspired.

Military uniforms are referenced in high fashion more often than any other type of uniform. Designers often borrow elements such as metallic braiding, gold buttons, epaulettes, camouflage, and Breton stripes—features that were originally employed to convey a soldier’s nation, rank, regiment, or branch of the armed forces. The translation of military details into high fashion ornamentation flourished during the nineteenth century. Ornate soutache found its way onto women’s outerwear, and by the end of the century, sailor, or “middy,” collars had become fixtures of women’s daywear. Since then, designers such as Chanel, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Sacai have expanded on the trend by constantly drawing on uniforms in their work.

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[L to R] Comme des Garçons (Rei Kawakubo), ensemble, 1998, wool; U.S. Army World War I service uniform, 1914-1918, wool, USA. Chanel, “Brasserie Gabrielle” ensemble, fall 2015, wool, silk, cotton, leather, France.

To a certain degree, the adoption of military elements for use in (predominantly female) fashion subverts the hyper-masculine authority of the uniform itself. The power and strength of the uniform fuses with the “feminine” fluidity of fashion, resulting in a garment that is transgressive in its dichotomy. It is both at odds with the original uniform and visually similar to it, which creates an intriguing aesthetic tension.

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[L to R] Jean Paul Gaultier, ensemble, 1992, cotton, France; Sacai, ensemble, spring 2015, cotton, silk, synthetic.

Work uniforms are designed to make employees of different occupations immediately identifiable. To do this, uniform designers utilize easily recognizable devices. Nurse uniforms, for example, have historically included a distinctive cap and bright white aprons or smocks worn over a standardized dress of blue, pink, white, or grey. McDonald’s uniforms, on the other hand, utilize the distinctive colors and symbols of the company logo to transform each employee into an extension of the company’s branding. While work uniforms have not had as much impact as military uniforms, they too have inspired fashion designers. One example of this is a look from Chanel’s fall 2015 collection that plays on the uniforms of Parisian waiters, complete with a clutch bag that mimics the look of plates.

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[L to R] Stan Herman, McDonald’s uniform, 1976, polyester, USA. Stan Herman, TWA flight attendant uniforms, 1975, synthetic blend, USA.

School uniforms hold a special significance for many wearers. Worn during childhood and adolescence, a school uniform—or more accurately, a person’s reaction to a school uniform—can have a marked impact on that person’s attitude towards dress and even his or her own identity. Many designers have experimented with the signature elements of the school uniform, from blazers to pleated skirts. Thom Browne, for example, often combines the iconography of the school blazer with a traditional grey flannel suit, thus fusing adolescent and adult dress codes in a single look. Likewise, a Rudi Gernreich homage to a schoolgirl uniform from 1967 demonstrates that the style became increasingly sexualized during the second half of the twentieth century.

[L to R] Rudi Gernreich, “Japanese Schoolgirl” ensemble, fall 1967, wool, USA. Princeton University blazer, 1944, wool, USA.

[L to R] Rudi Gernreich, “Japanese Schoolgirl” ensemble, fall 1967, wool, USA. Princeton University blazer, 1944, wool, USA.

Athletic uniforms sometimes borrow elements from military uniforms. Color contrasts, bold stripes, and soutache braiding help to convey a sense of power and strength. Athletic jerseys distinguish a team from its competitors, and also unite its members as a cohesive group. However, individual numbers help to maintain a level of individuality within a team. The bold insignias and markings of athletic jerseys have influenced the logo-driven branding of many luxury fashion labels. Companies such as Gucci will often place their company names or logos where a team name, player number, or mascot might appear on the front, back, or even sleeve of an athletic uniform.

[L to R] Football uniform, c. 1920, wool and cotton duck, USA. Geoffrey Beene, “football jersey” dress, fall 1967, silk and sequins, USA.

[L to R] Football uniform, c. 1920, wool and cotton duck, USA. Geoffrey Beene, “football jersey” dress, fall 1967, silk and sequins, USA.

The push-pull between the identity of a group and that of an individual is a constant tension in modern society. Fashion critic Suzy Menkes once said, “The way that people dress makes them part of an army, dressed in their own uniform, determined to do something.” Although we may not each wear an official uniform in our everyday lives, the influence of uniforms can always be felt, even in the basic activity of getting dressed each morning.

Uniformity is organized by Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at The Museum at FIT.

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[Exhibit] Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch at The Museum at F.I.T

Designs by Rachel Auburn, The Blonds, Leigh Bowery, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Pam Hogg, Stephen Jones, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Rick Owens, Vivienne Westwood, and Zaldy contribute to the approximately 80 looks from the underground fashion impresario’s personal collection of clothing and accessories, on view in Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch. 

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Susanne Bartsch has been the queen of New York City nightlife since the 1980s when she became renowned for creating spectacular parties where she and a diverse mix of individuals—uptown, downtown, gay, straight, multiracial—dressed up in their own versions of high fashion, street style, drag, and Mardi Gras extravaganza. Her first party took place in 1986 at a club near the Chelsea Hotel, where she has lived for many years. “It was about seeing and being seen,” says Bartsch.

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Bartsch and her friends have long constituted a fashion underground of creative individuals who take dressing up to the level of performance art. “Style is about expressing yourself,” says Bartsch. “You can be whatever you want to be—a silver-screen star, a Marie Antoinette baroque creature, a Victorian punk. I love that about fashion and makeup.” A muse for fashion designers and makeup artists, Bartsch has also been a catalyst for the cross-fertilization of ideas between creative people in a range of fields. Today, she is increasingly creating events that explicitly link fashion and art.

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Born in Switzerland, Susanne Bartsch moved to London as a teenager, living there for a decade. “We called her the Swiss Miss,” say old friends from London, where Bartsch was a key figure among the New Romantics. Arriving in New York on Valentine’s Day 1981, Bartsch opened a boutique in Soho while still on a tourist visa. An enthusiastic proponent of 1980s English fashion, she was one of the first New York retailers to import Vivienne Westwood. She also organized fashion shows, such as New London in New York and London Goes to Tokyo, that showcased designers Leigh Bowery, Body Map, and Stephen Jones. But life in 1980s New York was not just a party; AIDS was devastating the community. As her friends began dying, Bartsch notes that she “survived this period by becoming a fundraiser.” In 1989, she organized the Love Ball, one of the first and most important AIDS benefits. Over the next few years, she raised a total of $2.5 million for AIDS research and advocacy.

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Fashion Underground: The World of Susanne Bartsch opens with a small introductory gallery of images and videos about Bartsch and her world.

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In the main exhibition gallery, the first section focuses on the 1980s English fashions that Bartsch introduced to New York displayed in a mise-en-scène evoking her surreally styled boutiques. The second and largest section features a variety of the creations that Bartsch and her friends have worn at her famous club nights at Savage, Copacabana, and Le Bains, with a special section devoted to the AIDS balls. The final section evokes her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, the center of her creative world. Videos and projected photographs throughout the exhibition document Bartsch’s 30 years of sartorial self-expression and its influence on the global fashion scene.

The exhibition is curated by Valerie Steele and Susanne Bartsch and designed by Kim Ackert after a concept by Thierry Loriot.

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[Exhibit] Global Fashion Capitals at The Museum at F.I.T

The globalization of fashion has given rise to new fashion cities that now annually host hundreds of fashion weeks around the world. Each city’s cultural identity and particular economic, political, and social circumstances combine to elevate its designers to international attention. Global Fashion Capitals explores the history of the established fashion capitals—Paris, New York, Milan, and London—and the emergence of 16 new fashion cities.

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The exhibition opens with a digital style map that geographically locates the fashion capitals and showcases their latest runway and street style photographs. Global Fashion Capitals continues city-by-city, starting with Paris, the birthplace of haute couture, represented by designs from Charles Frederick Worth, Gabrielle Chanel, Christian Dior, and the emerging couturier, Bouchra Jarrar.

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London captured international attention with “youthquake” fashions during the 1960s. Provocative designers such as Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen established London as a creative fashion hub during the decades since.

When selecting which emerging fashion capitals to include in the exhibition, the curators considered a number of indicators to show that a city’s fashion scene is growing. All the featured cities are home to forward-thinking designers who have achieved domestic success and attracted international interest. They also hold fashion weeks attended by international press and fashion buyers.

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Several factors drive the development of a city’s fashion scene—politics, economics, and government support among them. For example, Johannesburg fashion blossomed during the post-apartheid era, led by designers such as Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie. Current events in Ukraine have ignited the creativity of designers such as Anton Belinskiy, who staged a photoshoot amid Kiev’s street protests.

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China’s economic growth over the last decade created consumer demand for international fashion, developing into support for successful domestic designers, such as Shanghai’s Masha Ma. Nigeria’s economy, the largest in Africa, supports Lagos’ developing fashion industry and the growing international reach of brands like Maki Oh and Lisa Folwaiyo. The governments of Copenhagen and Seoul actively fund and promote their fashion industries.

Global Fashion Capitals is organized by Ariele Elia, assistant curator of costume and textiles, and Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant, The Museum at FIT.

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