Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mary McFadden Exhibit at NMWA

The National Museum of Women in the Arts has an exhibit of work by designer Mary McFadden, called "Goddesses," through August 30, 2009. The Museum is not part of the Smithsonian system so admission is not free, which is why I'd never been. I am very spoiled by free museum entrance here in DC. The opportunity to see a fashion exhibition was well worth my $10.

My aesthetic is pretty much the exact opposite of McFadden's. She does plain, neutral colors in (for the most part) very simple designs, but with heavy embellishment either in the form of beading or elaborate hand painting. I prefer bright colors, mostly prints, and the details to be in the designs.

McFadden is sometimes referred to as a "fashion archaeologist." Her collections were inspired almost exclusively by ancient history, from Italy and Greece to India and China. To me, there is a very fine line to be walked between "inspiration" and "cultural appropriation," and for the most part she did an excellent job interpreting history without trying to claim it as her own or rely on the "noble savage" concept.

The collection on display at the Museum is the designer's own, and presumably includes some of her favorite pieces (or else the pieces that didn't sell???). Most of them are of her patented Marii fabric, a polyester blend with a permanent crinkle designed to mimic Fortuny's pleated silk for his Delphos gowns, as at right. McFadden patented the process for creating her fabric, which goes through six steps on a couple of different continents to get its texture. It is lightweight with a nice sheen; the air conditioning in the museum wafted the hems ever so slightly.

Although I appreciate the medium she created, I find it more interesting as a historical artifact than as a viable textile. Having grown up with the ubiquitous, cheap broomstick skirts of the 90s the fabric was nothing new to me and the polyester content makes it seem not very special. However, at the time it was introduced I imagine it was novel and exciting.

While I didn't find much to inspire me directly in the collection, with the exception of a draped white gown similar to one worn by Jackie Kennedy, it is so great to see a fashion exhibition in DC! I can appreciate the workmanship that went into the gowns, and you can get really up close and personal with them. They are not in cases and although you cannot touch them (obviously!) they are not alarmed so you can get very close without worrying anybody.

The collection is well-curated with good explanatory signage. There is a short video on loop with snippets of interviews with the designer and a slide show of some of her creations. The gowns are spaced well, so they are not overwhelming and you can appreciate each piece on its own. While they are clustered loosely by theme, the curator did not feel obligated to group all pieces of a particular collection or season together, which I appreciated.

The exhibit also includes several cases of jewelry, both historical pieces collected by McFadden and her own designs. I was a much bigger fan of her jewelry than her clothing. It's chunky and ethnic without being clownish or condescending. One bracelet in particular, a scrolled/floral cuff about 8 inches long, evoked some covetousness in me.

Here is a slideshow of this exhibition as displayed at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.


Marita said...

I love Mary McFadden, althoug I much prefer frills and flowers and stuff I can also appreciate the simple stuff as well.

In the late 70's when I bought my first Vogue till today there's only a few names that arise from 70's and 80's and she is one of them, the others are Norma Kamali, Geoffrey Beene, Valentino, Dior and Armani.

I always love reading what you write.

Lisette M said...

I've never been there either...I think for a fashion exhibition in our area I'm willing to pay :o Did you get some jewelry making inspiration?