‘Dance & Fashion’ exhibition

On view from September 13th through January 3rd, The Museum at F.I.T. in New York presents ‘Dance & Fashion’ as both a step back in history and a leap into the future of fashion, with overarching themes that include the interplay of creativity existing between fashion designers and dance companies and how garments perform in tandem with the body as an agent of change. Address contributor Kim Jenkins explored the exhibition with its chief curator Valerie Steele.

Rick Owens, s/s 2014

Rick Owens, s/s 2014

The nearly 100-piece showcase was an acrobatic feat in itself–from the spiked reinterpretation of the pointe shoe by Alexander McQueen (2010) to Martha Graham’s defiant red and black dress that rebuked the Nazi regime’s invitation for her to perform at the 1938 Olympics, a message is presented loud and clear: fashion mediates the movement of our culture and the fashioned body is capable of expressing what words cannot.

In spite of the fashion friendliness of film director Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and the artistic collaboration between Rei Kawakubo and Merce Cunningham (entitled Scenario, 1997), Valerie Steele had no idea what Rick Owens had up his sleeve for his spring/summer 2014 show when he surprised a poker-faced audience with a full-figured step team from the U.S. (comprised primarily of African-American women), stomping down the runway in place of the conventionally lithe (and primarily white) models Paris fashion week had been so accustomed to. Steele began masterminding this exhibition two years ago, and relished in her impeccable timing. “All of our exhibitions are planned at least two years in advance – I’ve been working on one for two years… I started to think that it would be really cool to do a show on dance and fashion, and plotting ahead, it’s seemed to become something more and more relevant – fortunately, I was right.”


‘Scenario’ by Merce Cunningham (1997), costumes by Rei Kawakubo

A fierce, warrior ensemble lent from the much talked about Rick Owens show entitled Vicious, offered the most freshly expressed illustration of Steele’s transnational survey of fashion and dance, showing how the garment works in tandem with the body as it navigates and pushes through space, from the stage to the street. Steele continued, “This exhibition is really about the body/clothes unit. It was important for me to think about both dance and fashion as ‘bodied art forms’ – that it plays itself out on the body.”

As I reflected on our collective fascination with the dancer on stage, Steele offered her own rationale as to what we expect from the professional dancing body, what their bodies demand from the clothes they wear and how their movement transcends our expectations. “People tend to think of ballerinas in particular as being sort of frail little magic characters, but in fact, they’re really athletes. I worked with Marc Happel, the Costume Director for the New York City Ballet, and he has to deal with all of these fashion designers who come in and have asked to design the ballet, and he keeps saying, ‘they’re not just walking down a runway, people. They’re athletes – they’re leaping onstage, they’re leaping into the air, they’re caught, twirled around, grabbed, lifted, dragged across the stage…and they’ll do this for hours every night for months!’”

When it comes to how we dress, I pointed to the fact that we romanticise and emulate these dancing ‘characters’, borrowing and developing iterations of their effortlessly chic off-duty ensembles. Steele agreed adding, “I think that there’s a sense that dancers have both a tremendous mystique–in being romantic and almost princess-like, and yet also, they’re very much athletes, and people–not just fashion designers – have a tremendous attraction to them as both physical and romantic figures.”

So what does this exhibition tell us about the evolution of our collective everyday style? Steele offers her fashion history insight: “It comes from ballet, it comes from modern dance, and it comes from cross-overs, back and forth. When leotards, for example, started to really enter into fashion in the 1970s, that was when you were seeing a back and forth – everyone was, essentially, wearing “rehearsal clothes” on the street. So that was a very big moment, but it had been happening for a long time. We had the picture of Margot Fonteyn in her rehearsal clothes because it was so much like the kind of thing we see people wearing today.

So one of the things that we are trying to do is bring different images of dancers from different genres and time periods, and [show] how they’ve influenced our perception of what it means to be an “attractive woman” or sometimes man, because men’s costumes have had less of an impact by far than women’s. The tendency for men is to undress them, while for women it has been to play with the mystique of the costumes – now that can feed into women’s fashion.”

'Two Hearts' by by Benjamin Millepied (2012), costumes by Rodarte

‘Two Hearts’ by by Benjamin Millepied (2012), costumes by Rodarte

Steele’s analysis and explanation of how dance on the stage has worked its way into wardrobes also signals another fashion movement from the runway to the streets (and vice versa): a resurgence of athletic wear worn everyday as fashion. One can see through this exhibition that Steele carefully squares the relationship between fashion and the body, as dance can be situated as both an art form and athletic performance: “I think nowadays, people are sort of interested in the crossover between sports and athletics and fashion. When you start thinking of dancers being not only artists but also athletes, then you see once again what impact that really had on the public in general.”

When it comes to the dancing and moving body, the ‘Dance and Fashion’ exhibition shows us what is possible. Whether it is a garment that performs as an act of protest, an ornate embellishment for the body or the inspiration that provides a collection “moment” for a designer, the next movement of fashion has lept from the stage to the street.

Kim Jenkins
Kim Jenkins is interested in the particular ways that we use fashion to attain and embody a sense of psychological resilience. In addition, she lends her focus to how identity is tempered by sociocultural messages and representation. Kim explored these concepts and phenomena during her time at Parsons The New School for Design where she earned an MA in Fashion Studies in 2013. Kim is a part-time lecturer at Parsons, Visiting Assistant Professor of fashion history and theory at the Pratt Institute and host of the Pratt talk series, ‘Exploring Fashion and Culture with Kim Jenkins’. Follow Kim on Twitter @kimjangles