Photo: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Gift of Christine Suppes in Memory of Mary Jane Johnson
Fashion has long been an integral part of San Francisco’s identity and is also in the DNA of one of the city’s most important cultural institutions: the de Young Museum. In fact, de Young is a major holder of costumes and textiles, with one of the largest fashion collections in the United States, spanning 3,000 years of human history. Some of the museum’s most important holdings, plus pieces borrowed from many fashionable San Franciscans, are on display in the museum’s beautiful new Fashioning San Francisco exhibit.
Related: Brighten up the year: the dazzling visions of Viviane Sassen – in pictures
Fashioning San Francisco is self-consciously a West Coast show, trying to differentiate itself from the East Coast shows. “We don’t want to just mirror the programs of museums out East,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Here we are in California, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. We want to reflect the physicality of our location and our different traditions.”
Fashion San Francisco looks west and attracts many of the Pacific Rim’s best designers, even though it features designs from European greats like Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Christian Dior and Karl Lagerfeld. California’s well-known designers in the West include Frederick Gibson Bayh, a local powerhouse in the 1940s who designed for the legendary luxury department store Gump’s; Kaisik Wong, who learned his trade in San Francisco’s Chinatown and was perhaps best known for having a design highlighted by Balenciaga for the Spring/Summer 2002 collection; Japanese pioneer Yohji Yamamoto, renowned for his avant-garde aesthetic; and Rei Kawakubo, the Japanese founder of the luxury label Comme des Garçons.
“The collection here is very broad. It encompasses approximately 125 countries or cultures,” said exhibition curator Laura L. Camerlengo. She added that Fashioning San Francisco is all about bringing fresh, new stories to audiences. “My previous work at the museum made me think about how we can tell broader stories in the stories we tell, beyond the more typical and familiar exhibitions and themes.”
These broader stories are evident in the avant-garde section of Fashioning San Francisco, in the form of dresses such as Vivienne Tam’s Chairman Mao, which bears some resemblance to Andy Warhol’s Mao in the way the famous photo of the Chinese leader appears in multiple forms is rearranged. , including priest and schoolgirl. The dress, which premiered as part of Tam’s Spring 1995 collection, caused a range of reactions, from confusion (one buyer speculated that the person on Tam’s dress was her father) to criticism that Tam was ridiculing a dictator responsible for heinous acts. .
Part of the fascination of Fashioning San Francisco is that you see a dress like Chairman Mao less as a contemporary object and more as a moment in the vast history of fashion. We could speculate about where the dress’s former owner, identified in the exhibition as Sally Yu Leung, might have worn it, or we could compare it to Yamamoto’s adjacent avant-garde offering, also a ready-to-wear piece from 1995, but much more. traditional in its aesthetics. It’s funny to think that both dresses arrived in San Francisco in the spring of 1995 and may even have been worn for the same function.
Seeing these clothes as worn objects, and not just as pieces of fashion history, was central to Camerlengo’s thoughts as she curated this show. “One of the things I was really interested in was telling women’s stories,” she said. “I hope this exhibition helps enhance the story by connecting the clothing to these really important pillars of our community – suffragettes, poets, entrepreneurs, founders of important organizations like the Free Library, Stern Grove and the de Young Museum.”
Attention to the lives of the women who wore, owned and donated these objects to become part of de Young’s permanent collection is something that sets Fashioning San Francisco apart from other fashion-oriented museum exhibitions. Speaking to Camerlengo, she revealed a true passion for bringing feminist notes to the exhibition. This attention extends all the way to the level of something like the attribution on an exhibition placard, which, she notes, has often fallen prey to sexism.
“We were thinking about things like even the simple act of writing a line of credit,” Camerlengo said, “which historically would mean ‘Gift from Mrs. So-and-so.’ That’s a way to obscure a woman’s name, her identity. This provided a great opportunity to have the women’s names displayed as their full names. We also say who wore it, and that’s a great way to bring women back into the stories around our collection.”
Camerlengo and her team have absolutely nailed the staging of the exhibition, which offers an uptown evening feel while referencing many parts of San Francisco through innovative staging of the exhibition’s seven sections. Chic music that follows the timeline of the exhibition lasts an hour – about the time an average visitor would take to see the show – and ties in nicely with the visual aesthetic of the exhibition to create an intimate and sensual feeling to create: not the easiest thing to conjure up in the interior of a large art museum. “We really wanted to bring the city to the galleries,” Camerlengo said.
Another fun part of the exhibit is that they’ve partnered with Snap to present “mirrors” that allow visitors to virtually see themselves in three of the exhibit dresses, and download photos of themselves. These mirrors give the show a playful energy, and such augmented reality experiences are things that Camerlengo and Campbell, they told me, hope to bring more and more into shows. “It was really fun to see how people dealt with it,” Camerlengo said. “I have a four-year-old and she thought it was the most amazing technology she ever tried.”
Fashioning San Francisco is a satisfying, evocative tribute to a lesser-known but no less important American fashion capital, even if it is often overshadowed by New York. Camerlengo hopes the exhibition can open – and change – some minds. “I hope that people who see the exhibition will be so excited about San Francisco as a place and the different style stories we have here. I hope people are surprised and see that San Francisco has always been an international player in fashion history.”