“RetroSpective”: The Museum at FIT Reviews Fashion's Romance with the Past

“RetroSpective”: The Museum at FIT Reviews Fashion's Romance with the Past
(l-r) Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Haute Couture, evening dress, painted silk chiffon, Fall/Winter 1999, Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga, dress, printed canvas, wool or cotton knit, Fall 2004, Yoshiki Hishinuma, evening dress, white and fuchsia polyester, cage crinoline with nylon, Fall 1996
(©2013 Fashion Institute of Technology)

If the current exhibition, “Fashion and Technology,” at the Museum at FIT looks towards the future, its following show, opening May 22, will adopt the opposite approach. Curated by Jennifer Farley,  “RetroSpective” will examine fashion’s recuperative romance with the past.

Whether it's Hedi Slimane’s upcycling of the nineties kinderwhore or Sarah Burton’s revival of the 19th-century cage crinoline, the old cliché stands: what goes around comes around. That in our current crisis of creativity, all we can do is endlessly regurgitate styles and memes. “Instead of being the threshold of the future, the first 10 years of the twentieth century turned out to be Re decade. The 2000’s were dominated by the re-prefix: revivals, reissues, remakes, reenactments,” said cultural critic Simon Reynolds in his book “Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past.”

Rallying against retro-fatigue, the Museum at FIT aims to show that fashion’s penchant for revivalism doesn’t portend the end of history, nor is it a symptom particular to postmodernism. In fact, designers have been remixing the styles of yesteryear for centuries. The empire silhouettes of the 1910s were a refried version of the neoclassical styles favored by Josephine Bonaparte. The 18th-century wide-hipped pannier silhouette, immortalized in Velasquez’s paintings of the Spanish court, was rehashed in the drop-waisted robes de style of the 1920s.

A Schiaparelli period dress will illustrate the mania for Victoriana in the 1930s, when 19th-century cage crinolines and bustles were temporarily brought back from the archival grave. Contemporary examples of fashion’s antiquarian proclivities will include Nicolas Ghesquière’s vibrantly printed fall 2004 dress for Balenciaga, a throwback the graffiti aesthetic of Stephen Sprouse. A 1999 painted silk chiffon gown by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy Couture harks back to ruffle-happy Tudor England. A 2006 raffia suit by Walter Van Beirendonck (who's currently enjoying some deserved recognition at Dallas Contemporary) will be juxtaposed with an example of 18th-century menswear. According to the museum, “The revival of 1990s grunge styles will be represented by a recent runway example.” We wonder who that could be.