Folk Couture

(American Folk Art Museum, January 21-April 23, 2014)

Designer: John Bartlett

Designer: John Bartlett

The thirteen ensembles in the Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art exhibition are arranged in four categories: Pattern, Narrative, Disembodiment, and Playfulness. Don’t take the categories too seriously. Certainly, they are a useful reminder of elements you can expect within each section. So, for instance, “Narrative” will steer you towards designers who created stories about the characters they were designing for. Other than that, the two dresses in that category have very little in common. “Disembodiment” is a wonderful illustration of two very different ways in which a dress can be abstracted – through scale and through texture. But then again, when designers create costumes for a museum exhibition – the Museum commissioned the designers to respond to folk arts objects in its collection -- they are all essentially disembodying their clothes.

Designer: Fabio Costa

Designer: Fabio Costa

The most productive category, perhaps, was Pattern, where five designers, with very diverse styles, picked patterns to riff off of. The result is a jazz-like collection of symbols, reinterpreted again and again. Fabio Costa’s minimalist capelet and skirt features white on white tree of life motifs. Also, white on white, Catherine Malandrino’s handkerchief dress took its inspiration from the Odd Fellows Symbol on an old paper cut in the museum’s collection. And the brilliant play of colors and layering in threeAsFOUR’s laser-cut leather dress interlaces stars – the four-pointed Christian star, the five-pointed Muslim Star, and the six-pointed Star of David. (The “friendship quilt” that the designers used as a departure point featured the Star of David and was woven by Quaker women in Pennsylvania in the 1800s.)

The success of this category is a reminder of how universal these metaphors are, across place and time, across high and low art. And though the New York Times does not agree, this is safe territory, for a designer. For bolder work, for ensembles that were harder to enjoy immediately, go to the other categories. My favorite piece at the show was Yeohlee Teng’s paper dress. The Malaysian designer took her inspiration from four animal sculptures at the museum: a ram, a coyote, a Jackalope, and a dog. Photos of the sculptures were printed out on brown Kraft paper and layered on a basic A-line dress. The outfit is deceptively simple and elegant.

Designer: Yeohlee Teng

Designer: Yeohlee Teng

Wasting as little material as possible is a crucial principle in Teng’s process. And this minimalism is in evidence here.  The dress is an invitation to observe and imagine. The animals are photographed from below as if the viewer were looking at carvings on an altar. Teng calls the ensemble “Shamanistic Printed Prayer Flag Dress of Brown Kraft Paper” and the viewer has to work with that title to understand the meaning of the dress. Prayer. Brown. Kraft. Allow the words to sink in. Notice how the brown bottom layer of the dress is almost golden in hue. Let the white throat of the dog, carved by Sam Doyle, an African-American artist from the Gullah community, make you wonder what he was howling for.

The brown paper dress did not take my breath away visually as Koos van den Akker’s glamorous aquamarine trailing gown did. It offered a more meditative moment, an opportunity to understand my own surprise. Seldom do modern-day designers have to work within the constraints that folk artists had to work within. Yeohlee Teng’s paper dress and her obsession with not wasting any material reminded me of the starkness of the blue jacket in James Castle’s drawing (which in turn served as inspiration for Ronaldus Shamask’s wispy translucent gown.) Castle was a twentieth-century artist who made his own implements and paints from sharpened sticks, soot, saliva, and ground tissue paper.

In fact, this unexpected conversation is the true delight of the show. Bibhu Mohapatra’s wavy organza dress (inspired by a sailor tattoo in a rare book of nautical-themed tattoo designs) and the river in the twentieth century painting that Koos van den Akker imprinted on his dress both use the physiography of water bodies to suggest the geography of long flowing gowns. Thus, though each designer’s work is shown next to the works that inspired it, what is truly magical is the overall conversation between the designers and the folk artists, between one man’s inspiration and another woman’s creation. Across the centuries, the dresses, the quilts, the animal carvings, the stars and the paisleys, are talking to each other in this room.

(Shahnaz Habib is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Her fiction and essays have been published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Caravan, Afar, and other magazines, and collected in the books Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers and 21 Under 40.)