‘Garmenting: Costume as Contemporary Art’ Review: Dressing Up a Form

The word “garment” comes from the Old French word “guarantee“, a single garment, which derives from the Old French “garnish”— arm, arm, protect. Jump into 20th century Manhattan and the term “garmento” appears, slang for someone who works in the garment industry in the Garment District, the 1930s west of Fifth Avenue. There’s a whiff of Damon Runyon from the crowd about the word (those mid-century makers were tough), so it’s not politically correct to say that anymore. It doesn’t matter anyway, because the ’30s in the West gentrified and the word clothing evolved into something meta, “clothing”, which sounds like a homemade couture version of scrapbooking and actually appeals to memories and to emotions.

Clothing: costume as contemporary art

Museum of Arts and Design

Until August 14

“Garmenting: Costume as Contemporary Art” is an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design that introduces viewers to a rich form of recent artistic expression that has gained a foothold in galleries and museums in the new millennium. Although not about fashion, the garment is based on the body and uses the fashion vocabulary of silhouettes, structural echoes and embellishment. In the exhibition catalog, exhibition curator Alexandra Schwartz, an art historian and assistant professor at the SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology, defines the word with extreme clarity, writing that it “refers to clothing made or modified by artists and exhibited as sculpture or installation; sometimes these clothes also serve as a costume for live or video performance art. You could also say that it extends the old French “garnish” with new infinitives: to question, to protest, to transcend.

The exhibition occupies two floors of the MAD, the fourth and the fifth, with the works of 35 artists organized around five categories: “Functionality”, “Cultural difference”, “Gender”, “Activism” and a video section entitled “Performance “. It’s best to start on the fifth floor, which contains a brief photographic history of clothing, and where “functionality” comes into its own as a starting point.

‘Soundsuit’ (2018), ‘Hustle Coat’ (2017) and ‘Soundsuit’ (2006) by Nick Cave


Museum of Arts and Design/Photo: Jenna Bascom

Citing the traditional hierarchical division between the fine and applied arts, Ms. Schwartz writes that “Garmenting offers a critique of this division by interrogating what makes a garment ‘functional’ (i.e., wearable in the life of everyday) in relation to “art” (i.e., for exhibition or performance). There’s a lot of wiggle room in that phrase, but it’s all simplified by the first piece in this section, “Untitled” (2000), a miniskirt by Brazilian artist Nazareth Pacheco. This latticework of glass beads is gorgeous and looks wearable – it’s reminiscent of the rhinestone headdress on Diana Vreeland’s December 1965 cover of Vogue – until you notice the hemline is edged with scalpel blades. Contemplating the area between the knees and the waist, Madame Pacheco creates a shimmering cage that contains both pleasure and pain, the complexity of sex.

Zoë Buckman’s work in ‘Garmenting’


Museum of Arts and Design/Photo: Jenna Bascom

Some pieces are more expressive than artistic, like Beverly Semmes’ “Famous Twins” (1993), two simply constructed velvet and cotton dresses that are scaled from ceiling to floor, equating female empowerment with a organization of space. But there is also “Hair” (2011) by Vivan Sundaram, a sort of Victorian mourning cloak made of braided black and brown hair, worked into a surface that looks like Persian lamb. It is an abstract memento mori. Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture, “Blue Days” (1996), placed in the center of the gallery, is lighter and airier. On a circular metal structure resembling a clothes horse or tree, the artist has hung seven vintage pieces from his own cabinet, all blue. One of the metal limbs holds a red glass ball – the downfall of humanity, the mother’s blood.

‘February II’ by Devan Shimoyama (2019)


De Buck Gallery, NY/Photo: Phoebe dHeurle

“Cultural difference” is about identity and often goes back to the root of the word “garnish”, to armour. This art is not only about the protection of an individual but of cultures. Three works by Nick Cave are a mini Mardi Gras in color, a camouflage that conceals everything about the wearer while identifying a threat: “Soundsuit” (2018) has an imposing face-covering hood reminiscent of the Klan; “Hustle Coat” (2017) lines a detective’s trench with the gold counterfeits of street vendors. Perhaps more poetic is Xenobia Bailey’s “Zulu Queen Harvest Fire Coat” (1990), which combines the aesthetics of 19th century Namibia, the Zulu people and Britain with a black dress with shiny accents.

“The Cannibal Effect, Garment #4” by Jeffrey Gibson (2019)


Sikkema Jenkins Co., NY

On the fourth floor, “Gender” and “Activism” merge. Zoë Buckman’s “Every Curve” (2016) is a collection of women’s underwear – panties, camisoles, corsets – hanging hauntingly from the ceiling, each piece embroidered with a mostly misogynistic rap lyric. It’s not pretty, this drift of ghosts. “Hanging Coat Nr 1” (1993) by Oliver Herring was made in honor of queer performance artist Ethyl Eichelberger, who committed suicide in 1990, two years after being diagnosed with AIDS. Knitted from transparent ribbon and reflective Mylar, materials that yellow over time, the coat resembles a golden fleece, the mythical symbol of kings.

“The Domba Dance” by Mary Sibande (2019)


Museum of Arts and Design/Photo: Jenna Bascom

With art from Karina Bisch, Sanford Biggers, Raúl de Nieves, Jacolby Satterwhite and Jeffrey Gibson on the show, “Garmenting” brings us up to speed on the names we should know. Devan Shimoyama, 33, one of the youngest artists here, created the sculpture that adorns the exhibition catalog. Floating high on a wall is a hoodie with outstretched arms resembling a crucifix. Entirely covered in silk roses, lilies and yellow, peach and pink daisies, it’s like the skin of flowers on a coffin. The cowl is empty except for a shimmering rhinestone drop inside. Titled “February II” (2019), it is Mr. Shimoyama’s tribute to the resurrected Trayvon Martin.

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