One of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of my job is researching, planning and finally, mounting an exhibition. I liken it to what a performer or musician must feel when they step onto stage after months of practice. One of the nuances of this feeling though, is each exhibition has a personality. Moreover, getting to know that personality is at times a joy, or a challenge, or both. Some exhibitions are straightforward and others will throw you for a loop. Nevertheless, these quirks are what propel an exhibition team forward – together. And… like any great performance or concert, it takes a group of people utilizing their aptitude in a variety of ways. Every exhibition at the IMA is supported by a team, made up of members representing different departments, each responsible for an aspect of its’ planning and execution. The upcoming fashion arts exhibition, Body Unbound, Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s Collection, is no different.
Body Unbound, explores the varied approaches modern fashion designers use to manipulate materials and experiment with construction; producing garments that liberate the female body while maintaining a desired aesthetic. Due in part to the emphasis on the body, this exhibit offered us an opportunity to reconsider how we wanted to show the pieces.
This focus on the body is what led our Chief Exhibition Designer to propose a unique suggestion for our mannequins. His idea is to present the mannequins in such a way that the concept of flesh is readily apparent, but executed so that the “skin color” represented is of no one real person. Traditionally in a museum setting, mannequins remain neutral or are painted to tie into the overall design of the space. Done so, frankly, because mannequins are not people and while they represent the physical qualities of a person, it is only because the attributes of the objects, clothing, require specific support. Think of it this way, mannequins are like frames or pedestals, complimenting an artwork or providing a base. Therefore, as if you might choose an appropriate mat color or frame for a photograph, we choose individual mannequins and their colors.
Concurrently, because we chose precise colors for particular objects we needed to be sure that those pieces fit on specific mannequins. Mannequins are primarily chosen for their ability to provide the best support. The second criterion is the appropriate stance or pose. Now, for all you fashion historians who also mount exhibitions, you know how time consuming and challenging mounting clothing can be. (Look for a later post on dressing and undressing mannequins). Most people (myself included, before working with fashion and textiles) think that all one has to do is drape a piece on a form and walk away.
This is not the case.
Bare in mind, these garments were made for people, real people – with short torsos, long arms or wide hips. For that reason, we pad out, slim down, or adjust each mannequin in a way to best fill and support the object. Concerning most, we can manipulate the forms by building upon an existing mannequin using archival materials to create the desired “body.”
However, in other instances, we have to take measures that are more drastic. Such was the case for one of our Rudi Gernreich dresses from 1961, included in the exhibition because of its cutout sides. The dress fit perfectly on a slender mannequin with protruding hips, great for the style of the dress, but sad because her bust was too low. The mannequin had a natural (lower) bust line, more appropriate to exhibit pieces from the 1970s, not the high “bullet” silhouette popular in the 1950s and early 1960s. The decision was made to give the mannequin a reduction.
We called upon on our exhibition preparator, who specializes in mount building. The preparator worked closely with our textile conservator to adjust the body of the mannequin so that it can be used again and so the adjustment is not harmful to the garment when it is exhibited.
After selecting all the mannequins and paint colors, the mannequins were painted individually, in advance, to allow time for off gassing. “Off gassing” is the term used by conservators to describe the release of volatile compounds emitted by the paint as it dries completely over time.” (Thanks Kathleen and Richard!) Thus, each mannequin must sit and dry for at least two weeks before any objects come near them.
After all the mannequins “off-gas,” we will dress each accordingly. Stay tuned for the second installment of this discussion on exhibition preparation and mounting.
In the meantime, mark your calendars for Body Unbound, Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s Collection, opening April 10.
It’s gonna be a good one!