What distinguishes garments and art? In 2022, the question may be moot. The Costume Institute at Metropolitan Museum of Art is regularly breaking attendance records, and textile-based exhibitions are appearing with greater frequency and curatorial depth. Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York, for example, is staging an incisive exploration of the famed quilters of Gee’s Bend in Alabama and their successors. It’s more interesting to ask how history gives meaning to cloth, makes it sacred, imbues its form with new kinds of function.
All that and more is explored in “Garmenting: Costume as Contemporary Art,” a new show at Manhattan’s Museum of Arts and Design. Curated by the art historian Alexandra Schwartz, it’s being billed as the first global show “dedicated to the use of clothing as a medium of visual art.” For practical reasons, no self-identified fashion designers were included in this 35-artist survey. The show is organized around five themes: “Functionality,” “Gender,” “Activism,” “Cultural Differences,” and “Performance.” Live performances by five of the artists will be held concurrently with the exhibition.
The first segment, “Functionality,” opens with a mobile composed of blue frocks by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois. It’s one of the more innocuous entries, made interesting by her biography as a lifelong hoarder of clothes and everyday textiles. The daughter of tapestry restorers, she obsessively deconstructed and re-stitched garments into abstract grids and uncanny forms: one dress on display here is amputated from the waist down. Beside the Bourgeois is a “wearable sculpture” by Vivan Sundaram made of braided swatches of artificial hair that engages with India’s deepening class disparities.
The most visually compelling pieces were made by queer and BIPOC artists, groups that have always adopted garment as signals of belonging, protection, and resistance. There are three resplendent sound suits by Nick Cave, from a series that began in response to the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. Cree artist Kent Monkman contributed a tepee gown worn during a performance as his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019. One of the most arresting pieces is Mary Sibande’s sculpture The Domba Dance (2019), which takes its name from a Tshivenda dance symbolizing the transition into womanhood. The work is a blood red and purple extravaganza of disembodied limbs, snarling multi-headed dogs, and a queenly figure brandishing a beating heart.
Most pieces could easily be shuffled between themes, which is partly the point. Gender and culture are, to varying ends, both performed. The desire to hide behind bells and whistles is inextricable from the daring to bare differences.
“So many of the artists are translating of the meaning of their personal history, where they’ve been, their place in this world, into these outfits,” Schwartz said in an interview. “And we can see here the hybridity and melting of cultures that will only increase as the world becomes more globalized.”