Something Shiny

“Silver and Gold: Fashion Since 1960”

Philadelphia Musuem of Art

Costume and Textile Studies Gallery

by Gerard Brown

Who’s in? Who’s out? To some, these might be the central questions of the fashion industry, and they came to mind as I looked at Silver and Gold: Fashion Since 1960 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Costume and Textile Studies Gallery. I wasn’t concerned so much with what designers had been included or omitted, but what possible ideas of gender, identity, and commerce this show encouraged and concealed.

Sometimes exhibits are best understood by what they don’t contain, and this is a prime example. Ostensibly ‘about’ the use of metallic textiles in fashion and accessories, Silver and Gold is like a contemporary poem composed through erasure. To see what I mean, imagine a similar exhibit devoted to another kind of material, like wool or cotton. You could have some knockout dresses, but you’d also have utilitarian garments and maybe even pieces designed for men. Possibly some acknowledgment that what is designed for men or women is always worn by men or women. You’d almost certainly have some discussion of the history of the material and its role in the global economy.

None of that here. The show seems dedicated to a peculiar vision of gender performance. You don’t even get a cursory explanatory text to define the presentation (there’s a kind of word cloud on a wall with a monitor that shows objects from the collection not included in the exhibit). Nothing explains why 1960 is chosen as a starting point for the show (despite some really great examples from the 1920s in the slide show). So what is there?

Geoffrey Beene’s 1994-95 “Mercury” Evening Dress is a standout object. The lamé velvet dress clings to the body like a chemical spill, reminding us how profoundly the visual culture of the 1990s was shaped by the murderous, shape-shifting T-1000 android of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Like many of the other sequined wonders included in the show, it dissolves the wearer’s body, transforming it into a shimmering, liquid state.

This idea gets a slightly different spin in a clever handbag (more of a box, really) designed by Judith Leiber. Made of clear acrylic with slender gold straps and hinges, the piece offers no privacy to its user – the woman who carries this bag has her life fully disclosed. Like Beene’s dress and others on display, the handbag’s use of new materials reveals more than it conceals.

The notion of dematerialized beauty is challenged by Paco Rabanne’s curiously industrial Silver and Black Dress of 1966. Rabanne’s garment not only lacks sewing, it dispenses with textile entirely by employing shiny metal disks similar to billboard flickers, joined by wire loops. That the object’s label notes the works inclusion in a 1966 collection called “Twelve Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials” hints at the work’s sculptural underpinnings.

Pierre Cardin’s Black and Chrome Dress (1968) and Rudi Gernreich’s Black and Aluminum Halter Top and Pants (from 1975, with a collar by Christopher Den Blaker, who collaborated on other works with Gernreich) bring the closest thing to heavy metal we get in this tiny exhibit.  Cardin’s chrome ornaments imply another direction for metals and metallic textiles largely missing from the exhibit, which tends to favor shimmering and reflective dematerialization. They imply armor, and suddenly one wonders where are designers like Thierry Mugler, Alexander McQueen, and Versace, whose ideas of clothing women were not so strictly feminine, designers who used fashion to confront and confound gender identity.

Perhaps the one piece in the show that really feels contemporary (or at least aware of contemporary ideas) is Romeo Gigli’s Pewter Colored Dress and Cummerbund (1990). A cloud of dull grey silk, nylon, acetate, and cotton, Gigli’s dress envelops the wearer’s body rather than revealing its contours. It remains strangely classical, though, owing to its symmetry and proportions, as befitting a designer trained in architecture.

I left “Silver and Gold” feeling dull, soft, and brown, and with an overwhelming need to see something that counterweighted the show’s vaporous glamour. I wandered across the street to the PMA’s collection of arms and armor and found myself staring at a generously cut 16th century hauberk, a ceremonial mail shirt made of copper alloy with colored glass details, made in what is now Romania. What did its wearer think as he donned it nearly half a century ago? How much does that thing weigh? Does it come in a 42 regular? Clothing matters to us because it projects a sense of who we want to be as much as it says who we are. After leaving “Silver and Gold” I was disappointed by how little range it afforded women to express anything more than sparkling beauty.


 Gerard Brown  paints, writes about art, and organizes exhibits. His writing appeared in Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (John Hopkins Univeristy Press, 2011), he recently curated the exhibit R/W: Reading and Writing Visual Culture at the Hicks Art Center at Bucks County Community College, and his paintings will be exhibited in a  show at Abington Art Center this summer. He is an Assistant Professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, where he is Chairperson of the Foundation Department.