While this may sound all a little dry and historical to some, research, museums, and archives full of cultural history are totally my thing. I fully enjoy geeking out over ’60s and ’70s fashion, like a plastic umbrella by Peter Max, paper poster dresses by Harry Gordon, and a patchwork and faux fur jacket by Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat. So it’s no surprise that I enjoyed reading Fabulous! a large, heavy, and rich text full of visual and written information about some of the most interesting artifacts acquired between 2000 and 2010 by the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. This catalogue was produced for an exhibit of the same name, which was on view at the FIDM Museum and Galleries from September 10, 2011 to December 17, 2011.
For many buyers, this book might have been a souvenir from the museum’s gift shop; full of beautiful images, and a great addition to any fashion lover’s bookshelf. It is also a document that supports the mandate of the FIDM: to collect and preserve clothing and accessories that are superbly designed and of the highest craftsmanship. Their efforts are appreciated not only by those visiting exhibits like Fabulous!, but scholars, artists, and design students alike. For those with an interest in French haute couture, mid-twentieth century American designers, and international contemporary fashion, the recent acquisitions featured in this book are sure to please, regardless of your perspective as a reader.
The book itself is arranged chronologically, which acknowledges the ways in which the Fabulous! exhibit looks back throughout fashion history. Artifacts included in the publication date as far back as 1800, such as delicately structured and rarely seen Empire era underpinnings, to items as recent as postmodern runway pieces like Westwood’s 1994 corset and short ensemble adorned with furs, tassles, and a silkscreened copy of a 1743 painting by Francois Boucher. Where the front cover features a close-up of lace on Alexander McQueen’s peacock embellished evening gown from 2008/2009, the back shows the detail of a French court suit, dating between 1810 and 1814. While there may be an implied historical progression given the chronological arrangement of the pieces in the book, the way in which you can flip from page to page and cite influences throughout the ages, such as Westwood’s appropriation of a much earlier work of art, is fascinating. Almost like walking forwards and backwards in time.
In between the heavy cover images lie page upon page of photographs, both full shots and detailed examinations, of the individual garments featured in the exhibit. Alongside each item is a short description, which takes up the item’s cultural significance, fabrication, materials, historical context, and often, its provenance. A 1920’s day ensemble purchased at the Bergdorf Goodman department store “by Marion Drasker to wear on her honeymoon in Atlantic City, N.J.” provides evidence of the department store shopping experience. Judging by the beautiful gold and black silk, dramatic fur scarf, and shimmering black beaded and tasseled bag, Marion was a stylish lady who enjoyed the newly offered one-stop shopping experience. These may be museum objects removed from their original surroundings, but the intimate act of owning and wearing a garment remains.
Chapters are divided by specific eras in fashion history, each beginning with a fold out page situating acquisitions along a timeline of significant dates and events. Relevant events that occurred in art, politics, and science are also included. These brief introductions help to set the tone for each chapter, emphasizing the major forces shaping culture during the specific point in time under examination. For someone looking to grasp the more recent parts of Western fashion history, Fabulous! is a great place to start.
To me, sitting in a library slowly turning the pages of this book sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon. It seems as if this might be the best way to experience this book—it’s big and probably not something you’d toss in your purse for public reading (though nothing beats well dressed and well read if you don’t mind the weight). With that in mind, encourage your favourite librarian to request it for you if you can’t find it in the stacks, or splurge and treat yourself or a friend to this fabulous book.
photography // Brianne Burnell