BY Christopher Breward in Reviews | 01 JAN 99
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Issue 44

Addressing the Century: 100 Years of Art and Fashion

BY Christopher Breward in Reviews | 01 JAN 99

An accurate indicator of cultural, economic and social change, fashion exists to be purchased and then rapidly discarded. However noble the attempt to appropriate this most ephemeral and mercenary of phenomena for high culture, yesterday's glad-rags, bereft of a body and a purpose, present a sad shadow of their former vitality. Which is not to say that their study by historians, critics or curators is a futile endeavour.

Attempting to render old clothes meaningful in the deadeningly brutal context of the Hayward Gallery is a difficult challenge. 'Addressing the Century' tackles it by exploring the premise that fashion designers and fine artists have defined Modernity through the medium and dialogue of fashion, and by insisting that clothing merits more than simply a desirous glance.

The first section of the show, 'decoration', focuses on the period between 1900 and 1920 and successfully offers a credible account of the relationship between art and the clothing business. The exhibition designer Zaha Hadid unfortunately ensures that any direct sensual experience of the exhibits is kept safely in check. Interlocking coffin-like black boxes encase the shimmering productions of an industry forced to find new markets through a marriage of artist and entrepreneur. Conservation considerations dictated the gloomy lighting, which forces the visitor to stoop and stretch around the cases. The velvet panels of Poiret's resplendent La Perse coat (1911) is enhanced by Dufy's violent black and white prints, a perfect communion between luxury and the promise of abstraction. Lepape's mannered Deco illustrations for contemporary women's magazines line the walls, their attenuated Cubism hinting at the transgressive pleasures promised by the consumption of such clothing. Elsewhere extravagant chinoiserie costumes designed for the theatre by painters including Henri Matisse, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell endorse an Orientalist vision which is forcefully projected in Bakst's watercolours. The effective and rampant commercialism of Poiret and the gaudy energies of the Ballet Russe are watered down into picturesque bohemian affectations.

Upstairs, white open spaces denote the functional aesthetic of high Modernism. Reconstructions of stage designs by Rodchenko, Popova and Stepanova are divorced from the context that drew fashion, performance and modern life into a closer orbit between the wars. The streets and shop windows of European capitals, the lifestyles of cinema stars, sports competitors and nightclubbers affected fashion as a signifier of Modernity in a more direct manner than the fossilised artefacts stranded here. With their padded protuberances and robotic poses, these mannequins appear like embarrassed guests turned away from the party. More recent attempts by fashion designers to capture the zeitgeist are equally misplaced.

The carnivalesque aesthetic of milliners Dai Rees and Philip Treacy reveal an artistry which reflects the mutability of the self through practices of disguise and elaboration. As Treacy's popular success proves, camera-stoppers play a central role in the contemporary promotion of various fashion houses. Similarly, Dai Rees's intricately crafted baroque confections come from a tradition more deeply explored in 'The Satellites of Fashion' exhibition, recently showing at the Crafts Council. In 'Addressing the Century' hats and shoes are exhibited as autonomous objects, their fetishised forms leading aptly enough to a display of Surrealist still lives and Schiaperelli dresses.

The final section of the exhibition displays a sequence of fashion photographs, from Erwin Blumenfield's coldly exquisite framing of 50s femininity to Fergus Greer's images of Leigh Bowery's dandyism. No explanation, however, is given for the conceptual links or gaps that exist within fashion photography itself - the difference, for example, between Vogue and Dazed and Confused.

Relationships are suggested but not resolved in the juxtaposition of iconic 60s dresses by Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin and Rudi Gernreich and the commentaries on the body offered by Vito Acconci, Lucio Fontana and Mimi Smith. The viewer is left to ponder a culture in which designers and artists arrive at strikingly similar interpretations of plastic form, although the severity of the display underlines a strictly formalist reading which ignores opposing or complementary contexts. The fraught relationship between masculinity and fashion is elaborated in Gilbert and George's performance Bend It (1981).

Clothing and its relationship to the body forms a foil for the explorations of the artists and designers included here. Fashion as a process is largely irrelevant, which is a shame because its slippery definitions and vulgar pronouncements make for an invigorating debate. Installations built for the gallery space - Chalayan's Mannequin with Mirrors and Storey's Primitive Streak Collection - speak far less eloquently of the myriad connections between selfhood, corporeality, desire and chronology than the unashamedly contemporaneous confections that litter the pages of current fashion magazines, or drift through the shopping crowds of Covent Garden. Intentionally or not, 'Addressing the Century' has succeeded in identifying the gulf, rather than the connections, that lie between fashion and art.