Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Art as Therapy at the Art Gallery of Ontario

"I am half sick of shadows,' said The Lady of Shalott" (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott, Part II), 1915 by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) , Painting (oil on canvas 100.3 x 73.7 cm), , AGO Gift of Mrs. Philip B. Jackson, 1971. 
It was a quiet opening. There was no press preview and no gala. And yet, the opening of the exhibit Art as Therapy by philosopher Alain de Botton and art theorist John Armstrong heralded in a new way of interpreting art and engaging audiences in museums.

I have to admit my bias since I am a big fan of contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton's work, especially The Architecture of Happiness, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, The Art of Travel, and How Proust can Change your LifeAlain de Botton's writing is clear and to the point. He is also refreshing in his candour and willingness to take a fresh look at the world.

The premise of the book Art as Therapy is that the conventional presentation of art in chronological format is too simplistic and didactic. In almost all cases, paintings and other forms of artwork are presented with a label that reveals the artist's name, date of production and provenance. This information does not help us interpret or engage with the artwork. Art as therapy suggests that a thematic presentation of the artwork - in terms of how it makes us feel - would offer a deeper layer of interpretation and engagement for the audience. Showcasing art in terms of its intent - whether political or religious or emotional - would bring the audience closer to the artist's intent for the work.

The Marches Casati by Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961), Painting (oil on canvas 96.5 x 68.6 cm) , AGO Purchase 1934,.
At the Art Gallery of Ontario, this premise has been used with selected works from the AGO collection chosen by John Armstrong and Alain de Botton defined by the themes of politics, sex, nature, love and money. The works include ones by Van Gogh, Gerard Richter, Andy Warhol, Kandinsky, John Waterhouse and many others. Installed in five different galleries linked by yellow arrows on the floor, visitors can "embark on a journey of discovery that will find them exploring different art, and a different part of themselves, in each space, or station". According to John Armstrong and Alain de Botton, art has a "powerfully therapeutic effect. It can variously help to inspire, console, redeem, guide, comfort, expand and reawaken us.”

In walking through the installation, I was profoundly moved by the authors' interpretation of the artworks. In some cases, I was surprised to rediscover new interpretations of old favourites. I felt moved and challenged by the information offered on the labels. Sometimes I felt comforted and a little less alone. The work I saw felt more powerful than I had previously given it credit.

Last night, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong also gave a talk about the premise of the exhibit and their experience in curating the work at the AGO. Alain de Botton was funny and self-deprecating in a way that made me wish he wouldn't stop talking. John Armstrong offered a quieter, more reflective analysis that gave depth to their unconventional approach to art curatorial practice.

Les Sabots, 1768 by Francois Boucher (1703-1770), Painting (oil on canvas 62.2 x 52.1 cm)
AGO Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1978. 
There was a question period afterwards and at least two of the questions seemed to have been framed in a hostile manner, but this did not fluster the presenters, who showed grace and good form in their responses. I honestly felt surprisingly star struck and was unable to ask my questions:

1. Is it not possible that each person sees something different in an artwork?

2. If galleries are grouped thematically, might it not prevent some people from engaging with that artwork if they thought they didn't need or care about love, sex or nature?

3. Sometimes artists create works and don't know why they have made that particular piece. They might write an artist statement afterwards - adding theory or artspeak - to give the illusion of depth when in fact, it was something deep, powerful and unspoken inside that precipitated the creation. Does it matter what their intent is in the end?

4. If it is true that we crave in art what we are lacking (in the world around us), why are "beautiful" paintings like that of Fantin Latour not more popular? The contemporary art world seems to look down on the creation of "pretty pictures" as lacking in depth and meaning, when, in fact, creating those pretty pictures might be salve for the soul.

Despite the fact that this low key show requires some effort and self-reflection, this is a show worthy of a special trip to the AGO. It is an opportunity to consider what role plays in our lives and offers a much needed and refreshing re-examination of art curatorial practice. The show will also be presented in the Netherlands and also in Australia. Of course, there is also the book.

Art Gallery of Ontario 
Art as Therapy, May 3, 2014 - April 26, 2015.

All images courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

Read my reviews of The Architecture of Happiness and How Proust can Change Your Life by clicking on the titles.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fashion in the Museum: Dries van Noten Inspirations

 "I make clothes people can wear; I don't make art. There is no point to clothes that don't sell."
                          Dries Van Noten

Dries Van Noten Garden Inspirations
Where does the spark of inspiration come from? For Dries Van Noten, the sources of inspiration seem to be as varied as the multitudes of flowers that fill his garden (both real and imagined).

The exhibition Dries Van Noten: Inspirations at the Musée Les Art Decoratifs offers a sensory immersion into the designer's oeuvre by presenting his garments alongside a selection of objects that he has either used or linked to his work. Those objects are varied and include paintings, film, video, sculptures, as well as garments from the museum fashion archives including selections by Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, Thierry Mugler, Paul Poiret, Callot Soeurs, and Chanel.

Dries van Noten Inspirations, Gallery Shot 
The room is very dark and labelling is minimal, but is provided in both French and English.

Dries van Noten Inspirations, Gallery Shot
Some of the artworks presented in the exhibition included:

Gorden Anthony Portrait of Cecil Beaton in costume (1937)
Nick Cave  Bunny Boy video
Yves Klein Blue Venus (1966)
Elizabeth Peyton Silver Bosie (1998)
John Singer Sargent Portrait of Gabriel Faure (1889)
Kees van Dongen Portrait of Madame Jasmy Alvin (1925)
Anthony van Dyck Portrait of a Man (XVIII century)
Victor Vassely Opus III (1976)
Li Xiaofeng's Porcelain Lacoste Polo (2010)

John Singer Sargent Painting of Gabriel Faure from 1889 in "Foppish" Gallery
The exhibit is a joyful exploration of a living designer's work, offering visual links between inspiration and product.  It was evident to me that Dries van Noten's garments are unique garments that are reflective of a post-modern design sensibility that dips in and out of time, mashing up imagery, silhouettes, textures and styles into a unique pastiche for the modern man and woman. 

Dries Van Noten Inspirations, Garden Gallery
Exhibition Summary: 

What: 180 garments by designer Dries Van Noten + 100 other artifacts (paintings, sculptures, videos and other objects) juxtaposed to showcase the links between inspiration and garment.

Where: Musée des Arts Decoratifs; 107 rue de Rivoli, Paris.

Curated by: Pamela Gobelin in conjunction with Dries Van Noten

Premise: Seeking connections between the garments created by Dries Van Noten and the inspirational spark that fuelled his creative process, including paintings, film, video, and the work of other designers such as Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles Frederick Worth.

Organization: Thematic. Displays are grouped into galleries with titles like Gold, Graphic, Uniform, Foppish, Iconoclast, The Garden

Mannequins: Abstracted mannequin forms in black with no faces or hair. Many have articulated wooden arms with hands.

Displays: Behind glass cases with lighting emphasizing the forms.

When: March 1st to August 31st, 2014.

Price: 8 Euros (Advance tickets available online). 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fashion in the Museum: Upcoming exhibitions for Spring 2014

There can be no doubt that fashion exhibitions are in fashion, and the list of upcoming exhibitions of fashion in the museum is long.  I've highlighted some the exhibits that I am keen to see in spring 2014. 

Charles James Gowns photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1948

Charles James: Beyond Fashion
May 5 - August 10, 2014
Curators: Harold Koda and Jan Glier Reeder
Premise: “Charles James was a wildly idiosyncratic, emotionally fraught fashion genius who was also committed to teaching. He dreamt that his lifetime of personal creative evolution and the continuous metamorphosis of his designs would be preserved as a study resource for students.  In our renovated galleries, we will fulfill his goal and illuminate his design process as a synthesis of dressmaking, art, math, and science.” (Harold Koda) 
On display: 75 notable garments created by James from 1920 until his death in 1978
Exhibition Catalogue link here

Cover of Dries van Noten - Inspirations
Dries van Noten -- Inspirations
March 1 - August 31, 2014
Curator: Pamela Gobelin
Premise: "about everything that sparks the creative process" (Pamela Gobelin) 
On display: 150 garments paired with 200 artworks, photographs, film clips "that have triggered the designer’s imagination throughout his life and career"
Exhibition Catalogue link here

Cover of Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography
Papier glacé or A Century of Fashion Photography at Conde Nast
March 1st to May 25, 2014
Curated by: Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis. 
Premise: thematically considers the links between photographers that have shaped the images of Vogue magazine
On display: 150 original prints from leading fashion photographers from 1918 to today plus 15 ensembles of haute couture from the Palais Galliera
Exhibition link here

Cover of Elegance in a Time of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s
Elegance in a Time of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s 
February 7 - April 19, 2014
Curator: FIT Deputy Director Patricia Mears and special consultant G. Bruce Boyer
Premise: "how clothing creators of the 1930s, despite the crippling financial crisis and dire political environment, spearheaded new stylistic ideas and wed them to emerging technologies"
On display:  Womenswear and menswear from the 1930s
Online exhibition link here
Exhibition link here

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Upcoming Lecture Series: The Social History of Dress in 19th Century Canada

Do you have some old family photographs but don’t know when they were taken? Do you know some of the major fashion innovations and stylistic changes in the 19th century that can be of help in dating old photographs?

If you want to learn more, please join me for this two-part lecture series at the North York Central Library branch in Toronto. This course is intended as a primer on the social history of dress seen in 19th century photographs from the Victorian age to the Edwardian age, with a special emphasis on Canadian history.

Victorian photography offers a glimpse into another time. Not long after photography was invented in 1839, the medium allowed families and individuals to preserve their likeness in a matter of minutes. For the first time in history, all classes of society could stop time, preserving the reflected light of their image for generations to come. These images are embedded with clues related to codes of dress and behaviour marking them as mirrors of their age.

The lectures will be illustrated and there will be handouts.  Weather permitting, I hope to bring in a small selection of 19th century artifacts, such as fashion journals, garments and accessories, as well as examples of Victorian photographs including a daguerreotype, tintype, carte des visites, and cabinet cards. To close, there will be a discussion on best practices for the care of old photographs and extant garments to assist with preserving precious family artifacts.

The lectures will be held on Tuesday, February 18th and 25th from 2-4 pm.

Advance registration is required. For further information, email or visit the Ontario Geneological Society website.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What's on the December Fashion Exhibition Calendar

With the holiday season in full swing, stepping into a museum can bring a dose of beauty and grace into an otherwise busy schedule. Here are my top three picks of museum exhibitions for December 2013.

A Queer History of Fashion, FIT Museum
This exhibition celebrates the influence of gay and lesbian designers on fashion and traces the origins of cross-dressing to its historical roots. This exhibit, co-curated by Valerie Steele and Fred Dennis, literally blew me away by its originality and the depth of research that underpinned its creation. Since I had expected a show that was contemporary in focus, I was surprised to learn that there is a 300 year history to consider, going back to the 18th century when cross-dressing “mollies,” foppish “macaronis,” and “men milliners” challenged gender roles. "This is about honoring the gay and lesbian designers of the past and present. By acknowledging their contributions to fashion, we want to encourage people to embrace diversity," said Dennis on the FIT Museum site. With an innovative presentation format that I had not seen in the FIT gallery before which moved the focus to the centre of the gallery away from the walls, the exhibit is also visually stunning. The show closes on January 4, 2013, but is also accessible through an exhibition website

Monday, November 11, 2013

On Winning Awards

When this post goes live, I will be at Holt Renfrew about to deliver my speech at the Ryerson University School of Fashion Awards Night. I am not winning an award, but I am the guest speaker, which is typically chosen from the pool of alumni. I assumed it was my job to say some inspirational words, so I decided to share a bit of my own story.

I am not intending to read my remarks, so it might not come out exactly like this. I pre-cleared my speech with the Awards Committee and one of them suggested that maybe I should read it so I wouldn't "miss a syllable". Let's just hope that this is one of those times that my words sound golden.

Ingrid Mida with the Lanvin gown
Photo courtesy of the National Post

Here goes:

I already had a graduate degree when I signed up to do the Master of Arts degree at Ryerson.  But this is the degree I had to work the hardest for. For my MA in Fashion, I juggled the needs of my husband and two teenage boys, the responsibility for my elderly frail mother, work and many other commitments. I also had to deal with my insecurities and doubts about going back to school as a mature student. If truth be told, I almost dropped out at the end of first term, not because I couldn’t handle it, but because I wasn’t sure that it would make any difference in the end. With the encouragement of Dr. Kimberly Wahl, I stuck with it and earned a cumulative GPA of 4.220.  

Perhaps the best part of my story began on February 12, 2012 when Dr. Alison Matthews David opened an unmarked door for me on the seventh floor of the library. Behind that door was a dusty room, packed with boxes, bins, cupboards, and racks of clothing, accessories and fashion ephemera. While most of the other students were reviled by what they saw -- the dust, the mess and the smell -- I saw opportunity. I stepped forward and took on a project that was far bigger, messier, and more difficult than I ever imagined. 

This was not the first time I’d taken on a challenging project, and I’ll admit there have been more bumps in the road than I like to remember. I did not do it for thanks, for an award or for press. What drove me forward was the knowledge that most students do not have the curatorial connections that I do, or the financial means to go anywhere else to do object-based research. Behind that door in the library, there were gowns by Balenciaga, Balmain, Dior, Nina Ricci, Valentino and other designers. There were also Canadian success stories like Ruth Dukas, Claire Haddad, Alfred Sung, Marilyn Brooks and Canadian labels like Holt Renfrew, Eaton's Simpson's, and Morgan's. All of these items had been neglected and forgotten for several years. 

I think I’ve helped ensure that it will be forgotten no more. And, I’m pleased to say that the collection is now safely stored in renovated facilities in Kerr Hall West. The images that you see on the posters behind me are examples of some of my favourite pieces in the collection and I would like to acknowledge that these lovely photographs were taken by Jazmin Welch with the help of Kate O’Reilly. 

There are many more beautiful garments that were not photographed - including a stunning ruby red silk velvet jacket by Christian Dior that just today I matched to a photograph in Harper's Bazaar from September 1949.  - and I want to invite you to come and visit the Fashion Research Centre if you would like to see more. Or if you don’t have time to come in, check out the collection blog and Pinterest sites. Or follow me on twitter. My aim is to be the antithesis of the cranky curator – to make the Fashion Research Centre a welcoming and friendly place where there is no such thing as a stupid question. 

I would like to close by congratulating all of you for your achievements and awards. You should savour this moment and be proud of yourself. Celebrate and enjoy tonight.  I hope you will continue to follow your dreams and live your passions. Make your mark. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book Review: The Wedding Dress, 300 Years of Bridal Fashion by Edwina Ehrman

Cover image of The Wedding Dress by Edwina Ehrman
Museum collections often receive many offers of evening or bridal wear, since these garments are emblems of the emotional ties that such special event clothing can have for the wearer. Wedding dresses, in particular, are loaded with symbolism and embody memories of that special day. In present times, a wedding gown is typically white and only worn once, but this wasn't always so. Unpacking the complex history of the wedding gown is a book by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum called: The Wedding Dress, 300 Years of Bridal Fashions.

This meticulously researched book draws on the extensive collection of wedding gowns in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, as well as paintings, fashion plates, photographs, letters, memoirs, newspaper accounts and genealogical records. Not only does this book consider the history of the white wedding dress from 1700 to the present day, it addresses the cultural factors that have influenced and refreshed the stylistic changes over time.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On this and that...

Dress Collection of the Lousiana State Museum
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013
I don't usually ramble, but have not written on this blog in over two weeks. It feels like no time and a lifetime all in one. People often ask me how I get so much done, and yet I often wonder where does the time go?

If you missed it, there was an article written by Nathalie Atkinson of the National Post about my work in editing the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection called "Lanvin in the Library". My elderly mother, who was once a librarian, loved the title, and finally understood what it is that I do - to her, I'm like a librarian for old clothes! I've also had lots of questions about whether I ever try on clothes in the collection, and that is something that is strictly forbidden by International Committee of Museums Practice Guidelines. Doing so would be considered highly unethical. I cannot say that I haven't been tempted to do so - who can resist a Dior after all - but I must resist and I do. I've never, ever done so and shudder with horror and yell out "THAT IS NOT ALLOWED" when someone looks like they are going to....

I couldn't be more pleased with the coverage for the Collection. A very generous and kind donor (who prefers to remain anonymous) offered to cover the cost of the cataloguing software for the collection. This the first step in helping to ensure its longevity. Funding at the university is very, very tight, and since all fundraising efforts must be co-ordinated by the Development Office, technically I am not even allowed to ask for money.... But, I believe so very passionately in what I do and just love to help students, and hope and pray that a generous donor will step forward to help ensure this collection lives on.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Engaging Students with Objects

Black silk parasol with cream cordwork embroidery, c.1900-1910.
FRC 1989.02.001
The weather looks lovely in New Orleans for this coming week. I'll be flying down south on Tuesday afternoon to speak at the ITAA Conference on the topic of Engaging Students with Objects: Preliminary Experiments in Reviving a Dormant Fashion Research Collection.

Thanks to the support of Dr. Lu Ann Lafrenz,  a grant from the Learning & Teaching Office at Ryerson University, and the work of two very talented students - Jazmin Welch and Kate O'Reilly - (who worked together to photograph 160 garments, accessories and other artifacts that I selected for this project), I have lots of beautiful images to chose from to illustrate my talk.

Here is the abstract:

Balenciaga Evening Gown, c.1957-1962
FRC1992.01.019 A
Seeing a dress in a photo is a very different experience than feeling the weight of the fabric in hand, examining the details of cut, construction and embellishment, considering the relationship of the garment to the body or searching for evidence of how the garment was worn, used or altered over time. Study collections offer students the opportunity to engage with actual objects, offering physical specimens for design inspiration and material culture studies. Susan Pearce conveyed the narrative power of artifacts when she wrote: “Objects hang before the eyes of the imagination, continuously representing ourselves to ourselves and telling the stories of our lives in ways which would be impossible otherwise”(1992).

Monday, October 7, 2013

120 Years of French Lingerie at the Design Exchange

Our mothers used to spend a lot of time and money on lingerie and I think they were right. Real elegance is everywhere, especially in the things that don't show. 
Christian Dior 

19th century corset
Carolle Patrimony
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2013

Lingerie shapes a woman's body, creating curves or flattening them depending on the fashionable silhouette of the time. In the exhibit of French lingerie at the Design Exchange, curator Catherine Orman combed the archives of French lingerie manufacturers to create a display that traces the history of women's undergarments from the later part of the 19th century to the present day.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fashionable Lingerie and the Lingerie Française Exhibit at the Design Exchange

"Your frocks cannot hang perfectly unless your lingerie is cut to fit you perfectly underneath. Lovely lingerie is the basis for good dressing."

Christian Dior

Toronto's Design Exchange hosts Lingerie Française, a retrospective covering over 100 years of French lingerie  from eleven renowned French lingerie manufacturers — Aubade, Barbara, Chantelle, Empreinte, Implicite, Lise Charmel, Lou, Maison Lejaby, Passionata, Princesse tam.tam and Simone Pérèle. Presented chronologially, the exhibit includes 125 artifacts of luxurious lingerie from corsets to matched bras and pantysets.

This travelling exhibition, which has included stops in Paris, London, Shanghai, Dubai, Berlin and New York, is intended to convey  the influence lingerie products have been exerting on society from the late nineteenth century up to the present day. The exhibition is sponsored by French association PROMINCOR and Défi-La Mode de France.

 Catherine Orman examining the Balmain gown
(That's my hand and hair just visible on the left)
Photo by Robert Ott, 2013
Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of having the curator of this exhibit Catherine Orman come to visit the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection. Although I was so tired (from several very late nights working on my book proposal) that I was barely coherent, we chatted about two recent corset acquisitions for the Collection, as well as some of my favourite gowns, including a Pierre Balmain couture gown called Marie Antoinette from 1955-1959 as well as a Lanvin wedding gown from c.1925-35.

The exhibit at the Design Exchange is on now until October 13, 2013. Admission is free. 

Design Exchange, 234 Bay Street, Toronto. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Memories of a Dress

From London to Chicago.... it feels like a whirlwind. This weekend, I will be attending the Costume Society of America Mid-west conference in order to present my project: Memories of a Dress. 

Peach and cream silk evening gown c.1910-1915
Ryerson Fashion Research Collection
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2012
Here is the abstract for my talk:

Clothing is material memory, carrying the imprints of our body, absorbing sweat and stains, and straining with the stress of wear, especially at seams, hems and closure points. Although museums and study collections generally seek to collect items in near-perfect condition, there are stories hidden in the marks and stains of living. In a poetic essay, Peter Stallybrass describes how the clothes of his late colleague Allon White triggered sensory memories. “He was there in the wrinkles of the elbows, wrinkles that in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits” .

The Ryerson University Fashion Research Collection is a repository of several thousand garments and accessories acquired by donation, with the oldest garments dating back to 1860. For several years, this collection was dormant and largely unknown by the student body, and in editing the collection I examined each and every item within the storage facility. It was during the process of handling of each piece that I was haunted by the traces of the makers in the hand-stitching and the turns of the hem, and by the traces of the owners in the faint sweat stains under the arms and the worn patches at the elbows. There is such poignancy in these pieces, because they are still beautiful, but not to a pristine, museum-like standard. Some of these garments are in an advanced stage of decomposition, literally crumbling into dust due to the presence of weighted silk, and embody a duality of beauty and decay, life and death, emptiness and nostalgia, memory and transience. These fragments, which mirror the fragmentary nature of the records, became the source of my curatorial obsession.

In this project called Memories of a Dress, I created a series of photographs focusing on the rare historic garments in the Collection, and manipulated those images to suggest narratives that evoke the concepts of memory, fragility and transience. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida defined photography as an artistic medium that was intimately linked with death as “a witness of something that is no more”, and this project fixes the process of decomposition in time, marking a moment that has already passed as the items continue on their trajectory into dust.