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How FIT Students Planned the Excellent Vivienne Westwood Exhibit

Two looks from Westwood's Time Machine collection. Courtesy The Museum of FIT, New York
Two looks from Westwood's Time Machine collection. Courtesy The Museum of FIT, New York

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While we really enjoyed The Museum at FIT's brilliant Vivienne Westwood, 1980-89 exhibit, we were particularly impressed to learn that the show was mounted by the university's own graduate students—we certainly never got to do anything that cool when we were in school. So we decided to talk to Audrey Chaney, who co-curated the exhibit along with Emma Kadar-Penner.

What an interesting period of Westwood's career to focus an exhibit on. No one's done it before.
Right, people usually either focus on the punk designs of the '70s, or the '90s—with the giant ball gowns and the corsets—when she was already well established. But the 1980s was the time when all of these things happened. In 1980 she and Malcolm McLaren had one shop on Kings Road in London, and by 1990 she won the British Designer of the year award.

Before we get into more details about the exhibit itself, first tell us how you came to co-curate it.
I'm a graduate student in a program at FIT called Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice, where you learn about fashion and textile history as well as textile conservation techniques and collection management. It's a wonderful two-year program and during the second year each class mounts an exhibition in conjunction with The Museum at FIT.

The museum is generally responsible for coming up with the topic, but then, within that topic, the students are asked to develop themes to focus on, to do research, to select the objects, and to do the exhibition design—everything from what color are the walls going to be painted, to how are we going to frame and mount these objects and how high up are they going to be hung up on the wall? It's a great opportunity and I highly recommend it.

So the museum had decided to do a Westwood exhibit but you decided the parameters of it?
The museum has a great costume collection with a focus on avant-garde contemporary fashion, although they do have costumes dating back to the mid-1700s. They have a lot of Vivienne Westwood, including a great assortment of 1980s garments, so they said "Okay, Vivienne Westwood—1980s," and they brought out all her garments and accessories they have in the permanent collection and showed them to us.

Just looking at the garments, a story starts to develop before our eyes. You could see really strong transitions in her design styles just over this ten-year period. You could also see design elements that she's known for today, like the use of tartan, the revival of the corset and other historical elements, and the use of British woolens like Harris Tweed. We realized that this is the time period when these design elements were appearing in her work, basically for the first time. We immediately recognized that this decade is a very important period for her as a designer in terms of the growth of her success and in the development of her unique artistic style.

How did you decide which pieces you wanted to use from the FIT collection?
We tried to choose pieces which were telling this story that was emerging. In the early 1980s, the styles were more unisex, most things could be worn by a man or a woman—of course not necessarily the bra top. Most things were layered, or oversized or alternately hanging away from or clinging to the body. And they were very styled, head-to-toe looks, from the shoes to the hats. As the 1980s progressed, the focus was more on femininity than on structure and those billowing layers, so we tried to choose garments that showed that transition.

The styling also becomes more streamlined. In the first section of the exhibit, In the Press, we focus on how the designs were pictured in the press. At the beginning of the 1980s the looks are generally pictured on really young models, sort of rock and roll—sometimes just cool kids from off the sidewalk that had a good look—and the styling is very much a put-together look. Even the sets are laden with props. But then, by the end of the decade, the styling is much more stream-lined, the sets are a lot more bare, and the body is revealed in a sporty, very womanly physique. It's this strong femininity.

In the 1980s, she started coming out with those revivals of 18th century corsets and that mini-crini skirt—the shortened version of the 19th century caged crinoline—very traditionally feminine looks, but updated to be flexible so that you could move in them. It gave women a nice alternative to that broad shouldered power suit, that really masculine look. It gave them a really powerful but feminine way of dressing.

The FIT collection didn't include any mini-crinis?
No, that's why we chose to show the footage of that collection right next to the mannequins, and blow up the projection so it would be close to life-size. At first it was disappointing that we couldn't find a mini-crini to show—we looked for one to purchase, but we just couldn't find one. They're generally snapped up by now, and people don't want to get rid of them. It's okay. though, because in the runway footage, you get to see how it [the skirt] sways from side to side when they walk, in this really flirtatious über-feminine way, which was really nice, because you wouldn't have been able to see that on a mannequin.

We're Westwood fans, but we found it interesting that the museum chose to focus on a designer who is not that well known in America.
They are interested in and feel a responsibility to show designers who push fashion forward, and push us into each new horizon, because it's difficult to tell what's going to happen in the future. Possibly these designers who push the envelope could be paving the way for new silhouettes that will become mainstream in the future. I think it's really great that they pay special attention to the free thinkers.

Did you deal with Vivienne or her people at all for the show?
We did contact them and got responses, so they know about the show but they weren't involved with the exhibition.

What are you most pleased with about the exhibition?
I'm really glad that it's multi-media. We're excited to be showing the garments, and feel lucky that we have such a nice array of objects from across this span of the decade. However, we thought that it was really important to show them in the right context, since the 1980s was such a period of media expansion with cable television. The emergence of MTV had a great and important role in the spreading of these street cultures to more mainstream populations, so we thought it was very important to include video as well as things like record album covers and even temporary tattoos.

They're opening a Westwood store in LA, and WWD reports that they'll open other North American stores as well—they might even bring one back to NYC. Have you heard anything?
I had not heard anything, but I hope that they do. It's Westwood's seventieth birthday in April—what a great way to mark that milestone by opening more stores.
· Vivienne Westwood Finally Returns to New York With an FIT Show [Racked]
· Vivienne Westwood [Official Site]

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