“Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk” opens next May at the National Museum of Scotland. It’s an exhibition devoted to exploring fashion from the point of view of inclusivity and body positivity, and that it’s the first museum show to do so is both a cause for celebration and a reminder of how much more still needs to be done. However, given that politically we’re currently living through (OK, I am just going to say it) the worst of times, any politicization of fashion is, well, welcome and doesn’t even begin to do justice to how energizing and important it is.
The show (on view May 24–October 20, 2019) has been curated by Georgina Ripley, the museum’s senior curator of modern and contemporary fashion. Earlier this fall, she sat down and talked about “Body Beautiful,” which is commendable not only for its subject matter but also for its ambition—an attempt by Ripley and her colleagues to connect fashion to a far broader and more meaningful dialogue with contemporary life and, ergo, those visiting the museum’s monumental Chambers Street home. In fact, ambition for the fashion department defined the conversation, from the future plans for the institution’s impressive and important Jean Muir archive, bequeathed to it after the late British designer’s company ceased operations, to the new guard of London talents she’d love to add to the permanent collection.
Tell me about how “Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk” came about.
We’d been having discussions [last year] about creating something for 2019 to keep the momentum going around fashion. At the time that was happening, Edward Enninful had just been appointed editor in chief of British Vogue, and we’d seen the Fall 2017 shows, which had been the most diverse in history. It felt like the conversation [around diversity] had obviously been bubbling along for a while, yet it felt like a moment, the right moment, and I thought, okay, this could be interesting. We’d already been working closely with the Diversity Network.
It’s Edinburgh College of Art’s Diversity Network, which it set up with Caryn Franklin and Debra Bourne of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk. Working with the Edinburgh College of Art . . . it’s a nice way to tie things up, because it is the first university to establish a module around diversity, and students are taught design and pattern cutting for different shapes and sizes. We’re working with them [on the show], and hopefully we will have the students involved, as well as have some of their pieces incorporated into the exhibition.
I like that “Body Beautiful” is both a celebration of creativity and an uncompromising and important statement about the world today.
It’s not really an exhibition about fashion; it’s about something so much bigger. It’s about culture, social history. In terms of building an audience, hopefully it has a bigger scope of interest to encourage people to come see it. There are five themes—race, age, disability, gender and sexuality, and size—and we’re aiming for four to five designers within each [theme].
How are you approaching the exhibition?
There are two ways we’ve approached it. Designers who are diverse in their casting, who’ve shown their collections on different sizes and ethnicities, and there are also those designers who have approached diversity within the clothing itself—for me, that’s people like Rick Owens, Walter Van Beirendonck, Jean Paul Gaultier, Charles Jeffrey. With their garments they’re already playing with conventions, so the pieces already say something by themselves, while in other cases we might need to have the catwalk image next to the garment to show who wore it.
Who are you including?
There’s Vivienne Westwood, whose outfit will appear in the disability section; we have a piece that she showed on the actor RJ Mitte [who has cerebral palsy]. We’ve got Teatum Jones in that section, too; we’re using pieces from its Spring 2018 collection, which was inspired by Natasha Baker [the British Paralympian], and we’re going to be exploring Natasha’s story, as well. There’s Antonio Urzi, who has worked with models who are wheelchair users. We’ve got Ashish Gupta sending us looks from his Spring 2015 collection, which was shown only on models of color, and from Spring 2017, which was a celebration of Indian culture, as well as how it’s an integral part of British culture. We’ll look at how designers have shown the hijab on the catwalk. And we’ve connected with [writer and academic] Sinéad Burke; we’d like to bring different voices into the exhibition.
Can you tell me how you’re going to do that—and why?
If we’re going to speak about the need for greater diversity within the industry, the creation of fashion and fashion imagery that is authentically diverse . . . we want to speak to a number of different casting directors, photographers, the British Fashion Council, model advocates, campaigners. Hopefully we will be able to capture their different perspectives and their different experiences. And unusually for a museum, we want the interpretation of the various pieces to be written by them and not by the curators; for their voices to be the labels. If you’re looking at something, you’ll hopefully not only have the designer’s inspiration for it, but also why inclusivity is important to them or to the model who wore it.
The show is coming at a time in which there seems to be a greater push for fashion exhibitions not only at your museum but elsewhere.
In the past 10 years there has been a shift in terms of how museums think about fashion, and we have the Costume Institute and the Victoria and Albert to thank for that. There’s a catching up to this idea that fashion can have a place in a museum. It’s usually popular with visitors, and it’s an area that we know we need to build our audience, as it’s a bit of an unknown for us. But generally, the exhibitions [we’ve done] have been very popular. I recently read Fashion Curating, which looked at different case studies of how fashion had been dealt with in museums around the world, and it seemed . . . the public can really relate to clothing; you can’t necessarily go into a sculpture gallery and feel that you can understand everything in there without some experience of art history. But everybody can go to a fashion exhibition and connect with it on some level; whether they’re actively interested in it [fashion] or not, you might catch their attention. The whole discipline of history of fashion as an academic subject, fashion curating as an academic subject, it’s all fairly recent in comparison to other things within the museum. And I think it’s all coming together and having a moment. When you get a million-plus visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Heavenly Bodies,” for example: All of that helps make the case to say fashion is really important to people.
“Heavenly Bodies” was hugely successful, but I think what changed everything was “Savage Beauty”; there emerged this real hunger for authoritative museum shows on fashion. Last year’s Rei Kawakubo show, “Art of the In-Between,” proved that, too.
I reviewed the catalog of that show for the Costume Society’s journal, and that catalog, the dialogue between Rei Kawakubo and Andrew Bolton, was really insightful, maybe more than it was meant to be.
It was so insightful into how you curate an exhibition with a living designer, and the kind of back-and-forth that can go on between designer and institution; how they sought to interpret fashion and that they felt interpretation should be kept to a minimum. That was all quite interesting, and took fashion to a higher level; it wasn’t just a showcase for Rei Kawakubo’s work, but was really a much more intellectual interrogation of what she’d done, and also the process of curating fashion exhibitions. I think those approaches are really valuable in terms of legitimizing the big blockbuster exhibitions for those people who feel that they don’t have a place in a museum. Yet still, I do think people want to go see these shows, even those who have reservations about them. There’s always something around these exhibitions that people are curious about.
Over the summer you very kindly showed me your mind-blowing Jean Muir archive; that must be something you’d want to do a show of at some point, no?
While we’re working on “Body Beautiful,” and then the next show for 2020, we’re also very aware that we have her archives, which we have to do more research on; in terms of scope and size, this archive . . . only Charles James at the Met rivals it in terms of what’s held on one designer by a museum. We would like to do the definitive Jean Muir exhibition. We’d really like to see if there’s a bigger picture. And also maybe to interrogate her work in the context of her peers, as well, which hasn’t really been done. She played a huge part in the movement of postwar designers from the mid- to late 20th century.
Her work is incredible; the rigor, the intelligence, the technique.
A lot of students haven’t heard of her. When they see what we have in the gallery, they say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ but they don’t necessarily connect with it, because her things are deceptively simple. If you can’t touch Jean Muir, or see the work close up, you don’t really benefit. It’s important we make this archive more accessible. When students come in and work in the archive, they really fall in love with her; they start to understand how intellectual her work is in many ways, and there is immense skill in her cutting. And in terms of its long-lasting legacy, it’s really about the basics of dressmaking. It’s wonderful to be creative and conceptual, but you have to understand the basics; her work is really illustrative of the very basics of fashion design. She was very much a women’s designer. A woman designing for women, in the way that Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were. It was all about making a woman feel good in her clothes, how they would move on the body, how they would feel, how comfortable they were. She saw herself as a dressmaker, not a designer. She was very much about her designs going out into the world, and then getting an identity when they were worn. Jean Muir believed her clothes had a life that went far beyond her.
That’s what you have. What would you like to add to the museum’s collection? What does it feel important to have now?
We’ve been lucky to get so much primarily through donation and not actively acquiring contemporary things, so there are gaps. We are particularly lacking in 20th-century menswear, so I am interested in bringing together contemporary collecting and menswear, particularly looking at designers who are pushing the boundaries in terms of men’s fashion—people like Thom Browne and Rick Owens. There are a lot of emerging designers I find interesting, like Charles Jeffrey, also because he’s Scottish. While we don’t have the remit to collect Scottish designers, obviously we would like to have them. And I am interested in who’s popping up around Charles, [designers] like Edward Crutchley and Matty Bovan.
You’ve added quite a cutting-edge selection of fashion to the museum’s permanent display.
It’s one of the most exciting parts for me, because it is such a new thing for us, such a new direction. We had certain pieces already—such as from Vivienne Westwood—but it has been great to start to make connections with designers, whether it was Walter Van Beirendonck or Nabil Nayal or Holly Fulton or the recent Edinburgh College of Art graduate Lorn Jean, who was influenced by Paco Rabanne, so she’s displayed next to a Paco tunic. To be able to get the Hussein Chalayan airmail dress, to be able to pepper our collection with really iconic things . . . it’s nice to walk into the gallery and see those.
This article first appeared on Vogue.com