When the late Vogue editor Diana Vreeland brought Yves Saint Laurent’s infamous Mondrian dresses into the hallowed halls of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was met with unprecedented controversy from the fashion and museum worlds alike.
This was in 1983, marking the first retrospective of a living couturier’s work. Today, it’s hard to fathom the criticism Vreeland faced, given the way fashion exhibitions have skyrocketed to be some of the most-visited to date. Prior to its blockbuster appeal, the ambivalence towards fashion in a museum has oscillated between hesitation and hostility. But it’s historically rooted in long-standing biases in Western museums; from gendered links to femininity to condescending attitudes towards the study of fashion as a serious subject worthy of scholarly attention.
The Met’s Costume Institute’s 2018 fashion exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, broke the museum’s record for visitor numbers with 1.6 million people, surpassing its 1978 blockbuster exhibition, Treasures of Tutankhamun. The recent Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition, which travelled from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, sold 37,000 tickets just three weeks into its opening, selling out its pre-booked tickets with lines that snaked around its West London-based building daily.
There’s no denying—such visitor numbers make Vreeland’s decision to usher fashion into a space formerly reserved for Byzantine antiquities and Renaissance paintings especially prescient today.
Fast forward to 2020, fashion has made a definitive foray into Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). Opening its doors in April just before circuit breaker measures kicked in, the ACM’s Fashion and Textiles, and Jewellery galleries presently stand as Singapore’s only permanent space dedicated to the display of historical Asian dress and textiles.
But to say that this is the ACM’s first venture into fashion would be a misnomer. Just last year, it staged the award-winning fashion exhibition, Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture, which juxtaposed objects from its collection with couture pieces by Chinese couturier, Guo Pei. Pitted against its internationally renowned counterparts such as the V&A and the Dallas Art Museum, the exhibition emerged on top as it bagged Best Design Exhibition at the 2019 Global Fine Art Awards. This was the ACM’s first contemporary fashion exhibition—a promising curtain-raiser for the museum’s now-permanent fixture.
The storied tension between fashion and museums is one that seems to escape Singapore, judging from how the Guo Pei exhibition closed as one of the ACM’s top three most-visited exhibitions. “I don’t think Singaporeans have a problem at all,” says Kennie Ting, director of the ACM. “Fashion is definitely one area of art that has no barriers.”
“We want to show an Asia that is not monolithic. Singapore fashion and history have always been a part of a larger fabric of Asia.”
But the opening of these new galleries signals much more than an added stop on Singapore’s heritage route for tourists. Serving as a much-needed, long-awaited repository of our sartorial and material histories, they mark a milestone for Singapore’s fashion scene.
“The new galleries are the crowning glory of the museum, housing our most visually captivating pieces,” says Ting. “Fashion and jewellery are markers of community and personal identity whether in historical times or today. The ways in which individuals from a wide range of communities choose to clothe and adorn themselves are more than just demonstrations of vanity—they are reflections of identity.”
Housed collectively under a themed wing called Materials and Design, the third-floor galleries, Fashion and Textiles and Jewellery, mark a triumphant new chapter for the ACM and Singapore fashion. The Fashion and Textiles gallery will debut with an exhibition on Chinese dress, Fashion Revolution: Chinese Dress from Late Qing to 1976.
Unveiling 41 objects spanning the late Qing period to the Cultural Revolution, 90 percent of the exhibition has never been on display. Additionally, the adjacent Jewellery gallery debuts as the world’s first permanent gallery to showcase island Southeast Asian jewellery, featuring over 260 objects dating from the Neolithic period to the 20th century.
With its pan-Asian focus, the ACM is uniquely situated to not only pose the open-ended question of what Asian fashion is, but to also fill a prevailing gap in fashion museology. Southeast Asian dress, in particular, has been habitually classified under Asian and ethnic departments in Western Museums—as opposed to the fashion departments of design museums—save for pieces by avant-garde Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Yohji Yamamoto and the like.
“We want to show an Asia that is not monolithic,” says Jackie Yoong, curator of the Fashion and Textiles gallery. “The new gallery reinforces the ACM’s voice in this global quest to spotlight the history of fashion and textiles from a uniquely Asian perspective.”
Eurocentric definitions of fashion often insist upon a presence of change—that for something to be deemed ‘fashion’, the styles of a garment should reflect signs of gradual difference. That Asian dress is largely unchanging and therefore ‘non-fashion’ is one myth the ACM is actively trying to debunk.
“Singapore fashion and history have always been a part of a larger fabric of Asia. You can’t really look at Singapore as separate from Asia,” says Yoong. “Port cities, including Singapore, have always been at the crossroads of trade with its wide circulation of people, of migrants, of sojourners. This has resulted in a delightful new tapestry of ideas embodied in fashion and textiles.”
In the gallery’s debut exhibition, Fashion Revolution: Chinese Dress from Late Qing to 1976, an entire section is dedicated to the spirit of experimentation in Chinese fashion that followed the fall of the Qing dynasty. The quintessential qipao alone, as the exhibition reveals, went through significant shifts in silhouette, materials and design. The show of arms and legs; the rise in more form-fitting cuts; the use of imported textiles. These subtle details speak volumes about how a single garment reflected ideas of patriotism, modernity, gender and class—all of which seem curiously naked to the Western gaze.
“There was a sense of sharing of forms and designs that I think was quite unique to Singapore and Southeast Asia,” says Naomi Wang, curator of the Jewellery gallery. “Every motif, shape and form, no matter how familiar they appear to us, holds very specific ritual, cosmological and spiritual meanings in Southeast Asia.”
“Discovering what Asian and Singaporean fashion is, is a process and a journey. There’s no endpoint. It’s about the surprise, the excitement and the wonder.”
What might come as a surprise to most is the meticulous attention to detail required to tell such stories correctly. Assuring historical accuracy goes beyond selecting the most intricately embroidered robe. It goes down to the very shape of the mannequin beneath. “Fashion, unlike other material media such as ceramics, cannot stand by itself. It needs the human body; it has that close link,” shares Yoong. “The emphasis we place on this level of detail is important to understand what these identities mean when people wear what they wear.”
And due to the light-sensitive nature of textiles, fashion curation even extends to the controlled glow of a gallery spotlight—literally, light levels have to be precisely tweaked so as not to inflict wear on the artefacts. To accommodate this, the gallery’s thematic displays will be swapped out periodically. Though more of a conservational measure, this promises that we will constantly have something to anticipate at the ACM’s Fashion and Textiles gallery.
It’s impossible not to wonder what Singapore’s role is in this new chapter for ACM. These galleries will undoubtedly play a pivotal part in the unexplored narrative of what Singapore fashion looks like.
“With its scope, the ACM is the best resource and starting point for exploring Singapore fashion. But the last thing I want is for the museum to be dictating what [Singapore fashion] is,” says Ting. “Discovering what Asian and Singaporean fashion is, is a process and a journey. There’s no endpoint. It’s about the surprise, the excitement and the wonder.”
The new galleries are but the beginning of a fashion-centric era for the ACM—Ting shares that the museum has its curatorial sights set on acquiring more contemporary fashion. Innovation in the space in tradition, particularly, is what the museum is committed to exploring.
Fashion in the museum sends a message that fashion is beyond clothes with a price tag; that fashion is a mirror of our times.
“The issue of collecting the contemporary has taken on greater significance today as we live through this historic period. Museum collections of fashion and textiles reflect significant changes especially during exceptional times in history,” Yoong adds. “During this global pandemic, designers in Asia and around the world are already discussing an inevitable shift in fashion design and concepts to stay relevant.”
Access to historical garments from the region can feel like a long-awaited resource for reference and inspiration for both emerging and established fashion designers. “Objects are powerful tools for sociocultural interpretation—they are storytellers,” says Circe Henestrosa, fashion curator and head of the School of Fashion at LaSalle College of the Arts. “If we want to create a language of fashion from this region with a global appeal, then students and designers should be exposed to this type of research resources. Objects that inspire them, stories that take them to magical places.”
But for some fashion designers, the thought of their clothes entering a museum may seem synonymous to obsolescence. But therein lies the misconception of museums as dead and dusty—fashion in the museum sends a message that fashion is beyond clothes with a price tag; that fashion is a mirror of our times. Fashion on display is far from deadstock, but an acknowledgement of the wealth of references that inform each design.
“Just because fashion has never really been considered art doesn’t mean it’s not important enough to be put in a museum or gallery space.”
“Fashion exhibitions are gradually becoming more interactive with other fields, and the line between each field is becoming blurrier in many ways,” says Pooky Lee, founder of ExhibitingFashion, an independent Shanghai-based fashion curation studio that regularly organises exhibitions, seminars and workshops to highlight the sociocultural significance of fashion to Mandarin-speaking audiences.
The exhibition format isn’t limited to the museum, either. Lee’s team has seen emerging and established Chinese fashion labels take a growing interest in exhibitions as commercial, marketing opportunities. It’s worth probing whether Singapore’s fashion design scene will, too, locate this latent yet novel alternative over more traditional means of debuting a collection. “Just because fashion has never really been considered art doesn’t mean it’s not important enough to be put in a museum or gallery space,” Lee adds.
For fashion to be taken seriously, its reach needs to extend beyond what our local designers have in their pipelines. Henestrosa believes that the analytical and observational rigour of fashion curation can benefit the creative process of our local emergent designers. “When you’re working in fashion, you need to use that 360-degree lens,” says Henestrosa. “I want our students to use the eye of the historian, the anthropologist, the archaeologist and the fashion curator to establish a dialogue with fashion.”
For an industry so fuelled by constant novelty, fashion may seem at odds with the museum world, one that seems exclusively invested in the immutable and antiquated. The ACM’s shift from a previously ethnographic focus to Asian antiquities and decorative art was by no means a sudden change—this update had been underway for close to a decade. “The process of perfecting the ACM as Singapore’s national museum of Asian antiquities and decorative art has been a multi-year journey,” says Ting.
“As a museum, we want to play a developmental role; museums ought to be developmental,” Ting adds. “We have a responsibility as a museum to start working with established designers on their legacy. We want to show that the museum can be a resource.”
Singapore’s fashion history is being written as we speak. And if Vreeland’s foresight in 1983 was anything to go by, the ACM—and Singapore fashion—has much to be eager for.
The Fashion and Textiles, and Jewellery galleries at the Asian Civilisations Museum are open daily from 10am to 7pm (to 9pm on Fridays). Admission is free for Singaporeans and permanent residents. For more information, visit acm.org.sg.
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