Museums all over the world are coming up with all sorts of fashion exhibitions at the moment. Visitors can virtually choose between several monumental retrospectives about historical fashion houses, or events about contemporary designers and fashion labels.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh offers the chance to visit (until 3rd May 2015) what could be defined as the smallest exhibition about fashion ever organised with the biggest and maybe untapped potential for visitors.
"Beauty by Design: Fashioning the Renaissance" (until 3rd Mary 2015) occupies indeed only a small section of the ground floor of the building, but the pieces on display are inspired by selected portraits that can be viewed upstairs on other gallery floors, or at the Scottish National Gallery. Visitors can therefore take their notes and get inspired by further paintings and artworks, expanding in this way their culture and - why not - developing their own pieces and collections.
The exhibition is the result of a collaborative research initiative launched in 2012, devised by Mal Burkinshaw and Dr Jill Burke (Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh), and set to bring together art historians, curators, artists and designers.
The main point of the project is investigating the possibilities of using Renaissance paintings to challenge and question modern assumptions about beauty and body image, prompting visitors to ponder a bit about the plump and fleshy Vs thin and skinny ideals and the possibility of improving self-esteem through the adoption of more diverse approaches to fashion design.
Some of the visual sources employed for the pieces showcased on the ground floor can be viewed in the "Reformation to Revolution" gallery on the top floor of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
The six paintings that inspired the contemporary pieces include James VI (1566-1625) by Arnold Bronckorst (about 1574); Esther Inglis (1571-1624) by an unknown artist (1595); Lady Agnes Douglas, Countess of Argyll (about 1574-1607) attributed to Adrian Vanson (1599); Lady Arabella Stuart (1575-1615), attributed to Robert Peake (1605); Charles I, when Duke of York and Albany (1600-1649) by Robert Peake (about 1610), and Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) by known artist (about 1610-15).
Ruffs, intricate embroideries and lace collars abound in these paintings, while Esther Inglis wears a rather unusual and exaggeratedly elongated hat, and, incidentally, the opening piece in the exhibition seems to move from these accessories - ruffs and hats.
In the shape and silhouette of the opening headdress (laser-cut acrylic, gold-plated pins, glass pearls and crystals) entitled "Memento Flori" and designed by Edinburgh-based milliner Sally-Ann Provan there are echoes of the elaborate collars and ruffs worn by wealthy men and women in the Renaissance and seen in the paintings, such as the one portraying Lady Agnes Douglas.
The construction with pins of this piece was borrowed from period garments that featured pins employed to join together separate elements.
Provan integrated in the headdress specific symbols from the portraits in the Gallery's collection: carnations (standing for betrothal and a woman's love), butterflies (calling to mind the brevity of life), the rose (a symbol of the Virgin Mary) and the honeysuckle (fidelity, love and devotion) were reworked by Provan into patterns based on Sophie Hallette lace designs that were then laser-cut and laser-engraved into transparent Perspex. Pearls - references to wealth and purity - were also incorporated in the headdress. While the form of this accessory hasn't substantially mutated (the headdress is reminiscent of a ruff), its function has changed: rather than framing the head, this piece now frames the face in a unique way.
The elaborate dress (in the fashion of the Jacobean court) lavishly trimmed with gold thread and pearls at the collar, pointed bodice and low-cut black overdress highlighting the pale skin of her chest donned by Margaret Graham, Lady Napier, in the painting by Adam de Colone (1626) inspired instead a series of jackets by fashion designer, lecturer and creator of the educational platform All Walks Beyond the Catwalk Diversity Network, Mal Burkinshaw.
Margaret Graham's overdress opened on a red velvet underskirt and at the sleeves, revealing an elaborately embroidered linen jacket with flower motifs. These jackets were fashionable with the ladies in the early 1600s. White lace features prominently in the outfit, at her cuffs and in the wired stiff collar that forms a semicircle behind her shoulders.
Burkinshaw combined in his "Silhouettes en Dentelle - Series 1" (Lace Silhouettes - Series 1, 2013-2014) the modern jacket with Renaissance fashion, trying to engage in the same garment different historical periods, trends and body shapes.
The result is a series of black nylon netting jackets with Sophie Hallette lace hand-appliquéd onto them. The garments do not conform to standard UK size measurements and are non-gender specific, inviting therefore visitors to question perceptions of beauty and sizes.
The process to create each jacket was quite interesting as Burkinshaw used a large light box, collaging intricately cut motifs of lace, that were then appliquéd onto the jackets (a time-consuming process that took over 800 hours of embellishment). In a way it was as if the artist painted each jacket with lace.
The striking silhouettes of the costumes donned by the sitters in their portraits are replicated in a black gown by Claire Ferguson. Inspired by the portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Lady Arabella Stuart, the knitwear designer (she has worked with Calvin Klein, Pringle and Isa Arfen) and lecturer, explored three themes - body size, silhouette and fabric - coming up with two dresses in one.
The lace dress represents a contemporary body shape and the knitted outer dress fuses an historically inspired silhouette with a fine cotton, ribbed-like structure, reminiscent of the Witch's (Meryl Streep) gown (View this photo) in Into the Woods (and therefore proving that this film costume was in turn inspired by Renaissance paintings...).
The two silhouettes of the dress interact with one another through their outline, scale, texture and space, as the knitted dress encloses the lace dress at the waist, highlighting the proportions of the female figure during the Renaissance.
The designer derived another element from the Renaissance - the stitch construction that moves from ruffs. The lace for this dress was also provided by Sophie Hallette, a historical manufacturer of tulle and lace (on traditional looms) based in Caudry, Northern France, since 1887, favoured by famous fashion houses including Louis Vuitton, Dior and Versace, and sponsor of this event.
The most interesting aspect of this two-in-one dress is the fact that the designer came up with her own knitted fabric, characterised by structure and flexibility and created on a hand-operated Stoll V-bed flat knitting machine.
The third and last contemporary piece in this exhibition is a modern triptych that moves from the painting "Venetian Women at their Toilet" by Paris Bordon (about 1545).
The scene focuses on three women - probably a maid and two courtesans - getting ready in their chamber. In the painting a North-African maidservant with facial tattoos holds a mirror for a woman with long blonde hair wearing a crimson velvet gown, with white linen underclothes. The delicate rouge colour on her chest and cheeks, applied with a sponge nearby, contrasts with her pale skin. A younger woman on the right side of the painting in a green gown and an elaborate hairstyle glances instead at the viewer. The fleshy bodies of the courtesans are perfect examples of Renaissance beauty, and their use of cosmetics - though pointing towards more modern habits - was very common in those times in Italy.
The painting is juxtaposed to a collaborative work by artist Paul Hodgson, lecturer Sharon Lloyd, stylist and writer Philip Clarke and accessories designer and lecturer Anne Chaisty.
The Triptych shows a contemporary beauty salon with bottles of nail varnish perfectly lined up in the backgrounds, while the client waits; the central figure shows instead a mature woman in a controlled Neoclassical pose and in a structured environment in which her clothes and the objects around her look perfectly arranged.
The third image with two young men mirrors instead the figures in Bordon's painting, with one of the men wearing translucent clothes, and creating a strong contrast with the man in dark clothes behind him.
The main point of this work is raising questions about fashion media expectations, gender codes, beauty, morality and the power of digital technology that can help achieving richness and subtlety of colours.
Despite being extremely small for today's monumental standards, "Beauty by Design" actually manages to make visitors stop and think about art and modern fashion and allows them to grasp the main concept behind this event - learning to look and make comparisons, building relationships and connections. In our times in which, to attract large number of visitors, museums often end up bombarding them with quantity rather than quality, this is definitely something to praise.
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