Shoulder pads. Monokinis. Elizabethan ruffs. It’s no mystery why many dread looking back at the fashions fads of yesteryear, whether they still lurk in that dark corner of the closet or died a natural death decades — or centuries — before acid-washed jeans were, like, totally bodacious.
With the world’s top designers churning out look after trendsetting look, always pushing on to that next new “thing,” it’s easy to write off fashion’s long history as so last season. Yet we need only look at today’s skinny jeans — a cleverly marketed reincarnation of the tapered pants that have been around since the 1950s — to realize that fashion’s past is never truly over. One seasonal exhibit at the Shelburne Museum runs with that theme, seamlessly linking today’s haute couture with yesterday’s.
As a whole, “In Fashion: High Style, 1690-2011,” which opened last Saturday, plays with the distance between vintage and modern looks. But a section of the exhibit called “Complete the Look” takes the concept further: Each garment displayed here bridges the gap between past and present.
The garments are dresses, each consisting of a bodice and skirt separated in time by at least a century. The tops were unearthed from the museum’s expansive collection. The skirts, stitched just months ago, aim to bring these artifacts into 21st-century fashion.
Behind these forward-thinking composite creations are the very designers charged with the future of fashion: current students at New York City’s internationally recognized Fashion Institute of Technology. Its strenuous, real-world curriculum attracts pacesetters looking to join the big leagues of fashion and design. Primed for “Project Runway”-style competition, FIT students vied to produce the best match for the vintage tops in a fashion throwdown devised by the museum’s senior curator, Jean Burks.
The winner is Kyle Edmund Pearson, a 22-year-old senior who took first prize and $2000. In his piece, an elegant, high-collared burgundy velvet bodice, circa 1906 and straight out of the museum’s collections, is propelled into the modern era by a highly structured skirt that playfully mixes plaids with royal-blue silk. The colorful fabrics cascade to the floor via an angular, futuristic bustle. The hybrid piece brings to mind the bold, pattern-heavy designs of Mondo Guerra — a favorite on season eight of “Project Runway” — while paying homage to the flowing dresses of the Gilded Age.
The inspiration for involving FIT students in the fashion exhibit came from an oddity in the museum’s collections.
“We found that there were a number of pieces that didn’t have their skirts,” explains objects conservator Nancie Ravenel. “We’re not sure why that’s the case ... It’s possible they came into the collections just as the bodices,” she suggests. It also could be that, in the early days of the museum, the textiles were exhibited under damaging fluorescent lights for extended periods, deteriorating parts of the fabric to the point where they had to be discarded.
The Case of the Missing Skirts remains an unsolved mystery, as do the identities of the makers and former owners of most of the bodices. Their incompletion led Burks to an idea: The museum would hold a contest challenging today’s designers to finish the outfits — with a fashion-forward twist.
“We didn’t want them to re-create the look from 1890,” says Burks. “We wanted them to push the look [into our era] ... We always try to tie the present to the past.” That connection has become an important aspect of the museum’s seasonal exhibits.
Guided by the museum’s desire to work with and attract younger audiences — and influenced by “Project Runway,” of which all of the curators are big fans — Burks pitched the project to FIT early last fall.
“[We] realized we really needed to go through a design school,” she explains. “The quality would not be guaranteed” if the contest was simply open to the general public. While other schools Burks approached were “flummoxed” by the idea, FIT was already set up to hold contests with outside organizations. The school has a reputation for turning aspiring designers into industry leaders — its alumni include Calvin Klein and Chris Madden — and the student competitors showed themselves well equipped for the challenge.
Twenty responded to FIT’s open contest call, most of them juniors and seniors in their early twenties. In the first round of competition last fall, the entrants submitted their design concepts for three skirts as sketches. In the second round, 15 were asked to further their designs from one of the sketches, chosen by three FIT faculty members. In mid-December, eight students were given a budget of $300 to produce their garments for the exhibition by the end of March. Museum curators awarded monetary prizes to the top three finished looks, as well as to the best art board.
Juggling regular classes and design projects with the contest couldn’t have been easy. A bigger challenge? None of the designers ever laid a finger on the bodices.
“I’m sure they need to feel what they’re working with, and they never had a chance to do that,” says Burks. The competitors did all their designing based on measurements and photos posted to the contest website. “The students would be sending me fabric swatches that looked good on the computer, but when I got them, they were way off,” Burks says.
In one case, Burks and a designer relied on paint chips to nail the color of a faded lace. The hurdle may seem unusual, but Marilyn Hefferen, assistant professor at FIT and contest coordinator for the fashion-design program, says that, these days, not having the fabric at arm’s reach isn’t such an anomaly.
“More than likely, today’s student is used to working more with online references,” she explains. In this digital age, designers frequently take leaps of faith as they order fabric from all over the world. FIT students are also well versed in costume history, which is a strong part of the school’s upper-level programs.
“The students really get a strong understanding of what’s happening in fashion through all the different decades,” says Hefferen.
It helps that classes take frequent trips to the nearby Museum at FIT. Founded in 1969, it has permanent collections — composed of more than 50,000 items from the 18th century to today — focused on “aesthetically and historically significant ‘directional’ clothing, accessories, textiles and visual materials,” notes its website. The Fashion and Textile History Gallery’s rotating selections span 250 years, lending historical context to fashion studies.
“Students walk away being able to create from inspiration, from art, from architecture, from nature. But they are also able to [draw] from history,” says Hefferen.
That’s evident in the design board of recent grad Jusil Carroll, whose skirt won second place. At the time her bodice was created, in 1910, women “were subject to a wide variety of social inequality, the inability to vote being a major issue,” she writes on the board. “I decided to design the lower portion of this look to be bold, elegant and, most importantly, freeing.”
Taking further inspiration from the crane, a bird symbolizing both independence and beauty, Carroll crafted a loosely hand-knit black skirt that flows to the floor like feathers, counteracting the severity of the coarse bobbin-lace bodice. Instead of being tucked into the skirt, as it would have been in the early 20th century, the fabric hangs freely, creating a delicate, peasant-shirt-like feel.
The velvet bodice Kyle Pearson chose spoke to him similarly. His award-winning plaid skirt has an undeniable fun factor to it, something that stemmed from a small detail of the top.
“I really liked the flounce on the neckline,” Pearson recalls as he finally stands in front of his completed ensemble at the museum on a recent Thursday. “I was drawn to that one more than the others.”
To match that adornment of an otherwise prim-and-proper shirt, which would no doubt have been worn over a bone-crushing corset, Pearson designed his playful riff on a historical bustle. While he acknowledges that the gathered fabric is all style and no function — “You can’t sit down in this bustle,” he says, laughing — his entry, both edgy and blithe, is a definite departure from the past.
Another look, designed by Domingo Gomez, makes a parallel effort at whimsy. But, without a nod to the past like Pearson’s, the two garments seem to struggle to connect. The bodice itself is a bit bizarre. Its muted pink-and-lavender-rose print is interrupted by stripes of black silk and ruffled black netting. With puffed sleeves and two long tails draping to the floor, it has a costume-y feel that recalls Shelburne Museum’s 2010 circus exhibit.
Gomez’s sketch of a bright-pink, fitted skirt with three-dimensional, multicolored flowers seems stylish and promising, but the finished design’s ungainly, tissue-paper-like blossoms leave the viewer a little confused. Then again, so do many pioneering looks that parade down the runway.
“It’s rare, at least in my experience, that the contest is historic in nature,” notes Hefferen. Most of FIT’s other competitions lean toward the avant-garde. “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for the students to think in another direction,” she continues, noting that, while most of the designs were in keeping with the historical reference, they departed from the past by using unconventional materials such as feathers and knitwear.
“[Pearson] got the spirit of the contest completely right,” Burks says. “He kept that idea of the bustle, but the materials and colors made it a new garment ... We all immediately thought it was fabulous.”
As for the other competitors, “They really embraced the quirky concept of the museum,” Burks says. “They were just stunned at the forward-looking nature of this place.”
When the exhibit closes in October, skirts and bodices will be separated once again. But keep an eye out for the “Complete the Look” concept in the museum’s future exhibits, fashion focused or not.
“It’s quite a good model,” says Burks. “I think we’ll be doing this again.”