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Fashion and Cultural Identity

September 1, 2012

I spent this morning having a lovely time at the McMichael Gallery’s Fashionality Exhibit. The McMichael Gallery is best known around here for its permanent collection of Group of Seven work. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven are required learning in your average Southern Ontario elementary school art class so I had been there before, but this exhibit was fascinating.

It was described as an examination of the role fashion and clothing plays in our personal and national identity and there were definitely some installations that spoke directly to those themes particularly a discussion on sterotypes that included 20 ft tall red flannel shirt with buttons the size of my handspan and a wool work sock that would have made a family sized sleeping bag. Go Canadian “fashion” stereotypes! There was also a series of paintings of the favourite dresses of prominent Canadian women and a discussion on cultural appropriation in fashion which I think I will leave to another post.

Several of the installations struck me in particular.

1. Natalie Purschwitz spent a year making clothing: outerwear, underwear, shoes, and she wore nothing she had not made herself that whole year. Now I, like many other home sewists, will often wear full outfits I’ve made myself but, so far, my wardrobe is not completely home made and I don’t know the first thing about making shoes although I am beginning to think I should remedy that.

The exhibit included a display of the clothing and shoes she made and images of her wearing the different outfites. There was a combination of woven and knit items and she has an unfinished, raw, sort of aesthetic to what she has created that seems to reflect items sewn in a hurry out of necessity. I could imagine creating similar outfits if I woke up one morning to find all of my clothing gone and find, in its place, a pile of fabric and notions.

She has blogged about her project here: http://makeshiftproject.blogspot.ca/

2. I was also mesmerized by the beautiful creations of the WeedRobes project:http://www.nicoledextras.com/index.php?/garmentssummer/weedrobes-wardrobe/ .  Artist, Nicole Dextras created fabulous outfits out of plants and then allowed them to decay naturally and demonstrates that they retain a certain beauty even then. The video accompanying her work shows a model wearing one of her Victorian plant dresses (Anne of Green Gables would kill for those puffed sleeves) in a shopping district and engaging passers by in conversations about the importance of knowing where and from what your clothes are made.

She also created a dress that could double as a tent in which the hoop skirt doubled as the tent frame. I’m sure the ladies of the hoop skirt era would  have been scandalized to expose their hoops in such a way.

3. Barb Hunt’s examination of war and death by working with camouflage material was compelling: http://www.barbhunt.com/
and Michèle Karch – Ackerman’s project to create miniature sweaters to honour the 801 Newfoundland soldiers who fought in the battle of Beaumont Hamel in WWI was similarly inspiring.

4. I was also intrigued by the satirical work of Kent Monkman whose work on exhibit poked pointed fun at the cultural appropriation of native North American art and tools high heeled red patent leather platform stilleto peep toed moccasins anyone? and also seemed to touch on our current obsession with brands. He created a quiver printed with a garish Louis Vuiton-esque print: http://kentmonkman.com/main.php

It was a fascinating exhibit that is, unfortunately leaving the gallery on Monday. I’m very glad I got to see it and I am looking forward to further exploring the work of many of the artists involved.

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