Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
“His & Hers,” The Museum at FIT, November 30, 2010- May 10, 2011

Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

The Royal Wedding took center stage this weekend. Most of the anticipation revolved around the identity of the designer assigned with the tremendous task of dressing the future Queen of England on her wedding day. Not much speculation was allowed on Prince William’s attire. The Palace had issued a press release on April 28 (the day before the wedding) explaining that the groom would wear the uniform of the colonel of the Irish Guards. This would not reflect his actual military rank (lieutenant in the Household Cavalry and flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force) but rather a senior honorary appointment. The Prince looked stunning in his uniform made by Kashket and Partners, a London-based coat and uniform atelier. The design comprised a red tunic with a gold and crimson sash and gold sword slings (left sans sword).

Having read the press release and having already watched the prince exiting the Rolls Royce in regal elegance in front of Westminster Abbey, I was shocked at an anchor’s comment that Catherine Middleton would be put to the test because “she [would] have to compete with Prince William in elegance in order to establish her position.” Is “compete” the right word? I don’t think so.

Colleen Hill and Jennifer Farley, organizers of the exhibition “His & Hers” (November 30, 2010-May 15, 2011, The Museum at FIT) would also disagree with the anchor. Fashion for men and women has evolved in the last 250 years in a multitude of ways, at times allowing the two sexes to coalesce or to deviate from a single approach to cloth making. The curators decided to pull the crowds in by placing a stunning evening dress by Alexander McQueen (leather, silk, and tulle, Fall 2008, in the Museum at FIT collection) right across from the entrance. This piece resonates with the opulence of the early 18th century–which is a trend McQueen expressed consistently with his technique. But McQueen’s evening dress stands alone and outside of the exhibit’s storyline, serving perhaps as a postscript that reminds us that regardless of fashion’s cyclical nature, great talent has been abundant on both sides of the Atlantic and much celebrated in its own time and for years to come.

“His & Hers” actually begins with a brocaded silk court dress from circa 1760 and an elaborately embroidered velvet men’s suit from circa 1785. Aristocracy in the 1700s and 1800s showed a preference for luxurious fabrics and lavish adornments on elegantly cut outfits for both sexes. As the show progresses through the decades and centuries, it is made evident that sober tones and cuts were the results of industrialization and modern living that turned excessive decorations to superfluous and frivolous outcasts. In fact, it was only in house attire (robes for men and women) that one continued to enjoy more luxurious fabrics and an extra dose of flair for meticulously painted or embroidered fabrics, surprisingly more so for men than for women. (Photography is not allowed in the gallery but you can browse The Museum at FIT’s photostream on flickr:

The exhibit that takes up the entire Fashion and Textile History Gallery is filled with information: the progression of time is marked with pairs of male/female outfits decade by decade; the history, provenance, and evolution of each piece of clothing and accessories is explained in the text at the bottom of the platform on which the mannequins stand (you will find here great examples that reveal the cyclicality of fashion as in a pair of Versace boots from the 1980s easily mistaken for late renaissance relics); contextual information in the form of textiles for the home or ad pages from magazines and mail order catalogues bring the viewer closer to an encompassing understanding of how clothing functioned in the every day lives of men and women in the Western World—the exhibit comprises pieces by American and European designers in what is defined as Western fashion.

While the viewer encounters a series of references to popular culture and images familiar to all from the pages of fashion magazines, the exhibit requires as much time and attention as one is willing to give. A quick stroll through the gallery allows one to get a first reading of history, while careful observation of the contextual information reveals what an amazing job the curators have accomplished: a single piece of fabric on the wall exudes the 1980s vibe better than Don Johnson himself! And as the decades of the late twentieth century usher the viewer to the western end of the gallery where celebrity designers have been crowded to a slightly faster progression of tastes and moods, the viewer’s walk finishes with pieces from the 2010-11 winter collections and right across from a stunning pair of Nehru suits from 1967 made in the USA.

This pair alone, a purple Nehru suit for men and a red Nehru suit for women, exemplifies the ideal place for men and women in fashion: elegant; powerful; personal in its details, cut, and color; simple and expressive. In essence, male and female fashions are mere counterpoints of each other. This is how timelessness is achieved rather than with competition. In my mind, this is why Catherine Middleton did not need to compete for anything. She just had to complete the picture, which she did in Sarah Burton’s for Alexander McQueen design.

© Thomaï Serdari