Under Your Nose: The Dress Becomes a Work of Art

Posted October 20, 2009 at 4:08pm

Avant garde Japanese fashion isn’t exactly the stuff of your typical D.C. museum exhibit.

[IMGCAP(1)]But then again, the Textile Museum isn’t exactly the typical D.C. museum.

Situated alongside the embassies and historic homes of the Kalorama neighborhood, the nearly 85-year-old museum promotes the showcase, study and preservation of textiles and similar collectibles. Two new exhibits — one featuring pieces from landmark Japanese designers, another on the textiles that help bring those clothes to life — premiered on Saturday, highlighting the unique nature of one of D.C.’s most unusual landmarks.

Founded in 1925 by textile collector George Hewitt Myers, the museum is home to nearly 18,000 textiles, rugs and other treasures. Along with displaying some of those pieces, the museum also offers the Textile Learning Center, which sponsors hands-on activities that let visitors learn about spinning wool, weaving and natural dyes.

The museum easily blends in with its historic surroundings in the Northwest neighborhood. Its entrance is actually the Myers family home, which was designed in 1913 by architect John Russell Pope. The galleries are housed in an adjacent building, which Myers acquired specifically for the museum’s growing needs. A large garden behind the museum also is open to the public.

Myers actively collected Asian fabrics and textiles during his lifetime, so it makes sense that the museum would decide to stage two exhibits inspired by the fashions of the Far East. Asymmetrical dresses, pleated polyester and coats that blend Eastern tradition with Western sensibility make up one of the exhibits, “Contemporary Japanese Fashion: The Mary Baskett Collection.—

An art dealer and former curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Baskett often traveled to Asia for work and developed a love of Japanese-designed garments and artwork. She even opened a gallery in 1977 to stage the pieces she collected — although some of the pieces in the Textile Museum’s show weren’t initially exhibited, for a very understandable reason.

“These pieces in the exhibition are her wardrobe,— said Cynthia Amnéus, a curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum who helped stage the D.C. show. “They are a collection, but they are things she wears every day. So her closets are kind of empty right now.—

Designers Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto are featured, offering the visitor an eclectic view of Japanese fashion that goes well beyond those stereotypical kimonos. Amnéus chose not to place the clothes on mannequins, instead creating a special apparatus to display the pieces so they are “viewed as pieces of artwork.—

But Japanese fashion wouldn’t have its unique identity if not for the thriving textile industry in the country. That makes the second exhibit, “Fabrics of Features and Steel: The Innovation of Nuno,— a worthwhile accompaniment to the Baskett collection.

The Nuno Studio is a small but thriving textile design and manufacturing corporation that integrates traditional fabric-making techniques and aesthetics with new technology to make innovative fabric. Textiles are a very important part of Japanese fashion, as designers base their pieces off the fabric they will use rather than the elements of the body, as is the case in most Western fashion, said Lee Talbot, an assistant curator at the museum.

Eighteen examples from the studio are featured in the exhibit, including one textile with bird feathers delicately sewn into it (by hand!) and another of handmade velvet made on an antique loom (an out-of-favor practice that Nuno is trying to revive). And the museum also is displaying smaller samples of the textiles so visitors can get a feel for the fabrics.

“As a textile museum, we have to be careful and have a no-touching policy, which is really a shame,— Talbot said. “For these, we knew people couldn’t resist.—

The two exhibits work well together; the uniqueness of Japanese textiles come to life in Baskett’s clothing.

Yamamoto’s pieces are perhaps the most accessible to visitors, as they blend typical Western style but add “something different,— Amnéus said. One simple off-white suit could resemble something any female Member of Congress might sport on Capitol Hill, for example — except that one side of the suit jacket is several inches longer than the other. “There’s always a subtle twist,— Amnéus said.

While Yamamoto’s taste is clearly influenced by the West, Miyake’s is focused on the person wearing the clothes — he takes pains to ensure that the pieces are comfortable and involve the wearer in some way, Amnéus said.

For example, Miyake’s “Bouncing Dress— is actually made of several pieces of fabric, each in a different color, that the wearer can add or remove at will. “People can make their own style,— Amnéus said.

Kawakubo, the third designer in the show, puts forth clothes that, according to Amnéus, “aren’t necessarily pretty, but yet we think it’s beautiful.— Many of her pieces lack a sleeve or other component, which is very artistic but also likely to be the least accessible to the average wearer.

One piece featured in the show, for example, is a cardigan sweater with a dress attached to the front of it — but not the back.

“You put the sweater on, and the dress is just hanging in front of you,— Amnéus said.

The Textile Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free, but a donation of $5 is suggested.