EXHIBITION: Tattered and Torn

Here are some photos from a really wonderful exhibit I just saw at Governors Island called “Tattered and Torn: On the Road to Deaccession”. The dresses on display here are being “deaccessioned” (removed from museum collections) because they’ve been deemed too damaged to display. What’s ironic but probably not too surprising is that their compromised condition actually enhances their value as sites of critical engagement.

As museum discards, they no longer warrant the kinds of conservation measures and security that high art objects receive. There was no glass, velvet rope, or electric fence separating the viewer from the object. The result is that visitors can get very close to the displays – many were touching them – as well as walk all the way around them, seeing and engaging with them from all sides. From a curatorial standpoint, the exhibit opened up tremendous opportunities for creative display. Some clothes were simply hung on hangers in open closets and others were displayed in domestic settings like the kitchen, bedroom, hallway, etc. Whatever the reason for the institutional neglect of these couture gowns, this neglect conditioned the possibility for their exhibition in a non-traditional museum space where they could be brought back to life and really appreciated – close up.

There wasn’t a whole lot of information about where these gowns came from or why they had been so neglected but I couldn’t help comparing this collection of abandoned clothes with the kinds of clothes that are so prevalent in Of Another Fashion. The organizational structures of museums (from the public arrangement of displays to the behind-the-scenes preservation of the objects) reflect and reproduce a dominant value system about what objects are beautiful, valuable, and worth protecting. But if clothing functions as a material sign of social status and a site of knowledge production about the meanings of beauty, value, and worth, then the choice of which clothes are worth saving and studying is also a decision about what kinds of lives are valuable and worth remembering. I’ve often described Of Another Fashion, borrowing the words of Verne Harris, as “a site of oppositional memory . . . against systematic forgetting” – I think “Tattered and Torn” is created in this spirit as well.

If you’re in the area between now and September 30, I’d really recommend visiting Governors Island for this exhibit.




4 responses to “EXHIBITION: Tattered and Torn

  1. I love this idea. Clothing exhibits generally do not allow viewing from all angles although obviously as an art form clothing is meant to be seen from all angles. Also distance prevents you from being able to see details of the construction which are most interesting. I know for the safety of collections these steps are necessary, but they detract from the enjoyment and education of the viewer.

  2. RH

    Thanks for this recap of “Tattered and Torn.” Though I haven’t seen the exhibit, it sounds compelling and clearly offers very unique opportunities for visitor engagement. It’s great that visitors can interact with the garments from multiple perspectives, including visual and tactile. This is so rare in museum exhibitions.

    I want to make a comment regarding your suggestion that the garments in “Tattered and Torn” are in their current state because they have suffered from institutional neglect. Though this can’t be discounted without knowing the specific history of each garment, I’d bet the condition of the objects has more to do with issues outside the control of the specific individuals or institutions who work/ed with these garments. Though museum employees strive to preserve and protect the integrity of the objects in their collections, we can’t save every object from its own inherent vice.

    For example, 19th century silk was often “weighted,” or treated with metallic salts to increase its weight and therefore its market price. Weighted silk is extremely brittle, often shattering at the lightest touch. “Flapper” dresses of the 1920s often consist of heavy beading on a tissue thin fabric ground. When hung for a long period, the weight of the embellishment causes the ground fabric to rip and shred. As with weighted silk, it is difficult to reverse or repair this damage. Anything made from rubber degrades, often turning brittle, yellow or sticky. These are just a few examples of how garments, or garment components, decay in ways that are outside the control of museum staff.

    • excellent points! and you may very well be right – the exhibit just recalled for me the kinds of institutional neglect i see in Of Another Fashion. what i really appreciated about the exhibit (like Of Another Fashion) is the kinds of knowledge that discarded fashions convey.

  3. What a fascinating concept and an interesting exhibition to have been able to go to! I wonder what it’d be like to actually be able to touch and see the fabrics without glass – thank you for posting about this 🙂