Brocade, burkas and Madonna’s bra

It’s not every day that the burka is celebrated for its fashion status but the full-body gown worn by some Muslim women will be one of the subjects of the exhibition Faith Fashion Fusion, which opens next year at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. The exhibition, which is likely to challenge western ideas of how Muslim women dress, also draws attention to the growing number of fashion museums, from Moscow to Kyoto, that compete to preserve, showcase and debate the history of fashion.

In the past, costume exhibitions were chiefly the province of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York or Victoria & Albert Museum in London. But recent openings include the Russian Museum of Fashion in Moscow; the Ningbo Costume Museum, the first specialised costume museum in China; and Chile’s Museo de la Moda. The latter was opened in 2009 in Santiago by Jorge Yarur Bascunan, a descendent of Palestinian textile merchants. Building upon his mother’s impressive collection of dresses, the museum has become a rival to established players such as London’s V&A.

Making headlines with acquisitions that have included a conical bra designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna, the museum has collected 10,000 pieces. These include a piece from the 5th century BC; a tutu worn by Margot Fonteyn; classics from the television show Dynasty; and an English helmet from the first world war through which a bullet had passed – not to mention the dress Amy Winehouse wore on the cover of her album Back to Black, which it bought amid great brouhaha for about £43,000. “Our goal as a museum is to showcase fashion as a representation of society,” says Yarur Bascunan.

“Acquiring new pieces has always been a challenge for Museo de la Moda,” he says. “Interest in fashion has increased, with new buyers from China and Russia as potential competitors contributing to this market’s explosive development. The enormous wealth generated in China and Russia during past years has created a number of rich people who are interested in textiles and are active participants in this market as an investment.”

Madonna’s bra by Jean Paul Gaultier, at Chile’s Museo de la Moda

Akiko Fukai, director and chief curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute, which owns 12,000 pieces, holds a similar view. “We started collecting historical costumes in the mid-1970s,” he says. “At that time few museums were interested in fashion exhibitions, which is why we could obtain good pieces easily and at a reasonable cost. Now many institutions are interested in them; there is more competition.”

Consider the excitement before this week’s Elizabeth Taylor sale at Christie’s, where coveted pieces included a Versace beaded evening jacket covered with portraits of the actress and a sunflower yellow dress designed by Irene Sharaff for Taylor’s wedding to Richard Burton. Curators still talk about the Paul Poiret auction in Paris in 2005, when a new record was set for an auction when a jacket sold for $167,000.

An Oscar de la Renta outfit, c1978, at New York’s Museum at the Fashion

“There are fewer big auction houses than there used to be doing this. For the most part, you don’t see Christie’s and Sotheby’s unless there is a big celebrity component,” says Dr Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, whose current show, Great Designers, showcases select items from the museum’s collection of 50,000 pieces, focusing on 20th- and 21st-century fashion. Steele says museums have been forced to think increasingly creatively about where they source their inventory.

FIT, for example, works with both fashion houses and private collectors; acquisitions this year have included two Alexander McQueen pieces, a new Rodarte dress, an Isabel Toledo dress from the 1980s and some “outstanding” men’s pieces from the 18th century, such as a three-piece green velvet suit, a silver brocade banyan and a 19th-century riding habit, all sourced from a combination of private dealers, eBay, designers and auctions.

“Fashion museums collect, that is a crucial,” says Steele. “You collect clothes and conserve them. We have a laboratory with a couple of crucial pieces. It is hard to exhibit them if you aren’t a specialist because you need special mannequins, and to do research and explain pieces.”

Other museum directors have taken what might seem like the desperate measure of combing through the trash. For example, despite an annual budget of €30,000, Kaat Debo, director of Antwerp’s prestigious MoMu Fashion Museum, likes to look at what’s been thrown out. “We get asked to come and see private pieces that people want to give away, and often these are pieces that hold an emotional value for them but aren’t necessarily valuable. I often find some of the best pieces when people have cleared house; they have been put in the trash,” she says. The MoMu mandate is to preserve national design and its collection includes a spectrum of new Belgian designers, from Martin Margiela to Dries van Noten, as well as historic pieces.

Walter Van Beirendonck coat at MoMu

Debo usually buys to build the museum’s collection. “If there is a really special piece, then we might have to buy it over two or three years but I never buy for an exhibition because you can loan those pieces,” she says. The museum is currently working on an acquisition of a major historic collection of 250 dresses from the collector Jacoba de Jonge and has purchased six complete looks this year. Current exhibitions include Walter Van Beirendonck: Dream the World Awake.

Glynis Jones, curator for fashion and dress, design and society at Australia’s Powerhouse, also found a “beautiful printed cotton dress” in the rubbish in a donor’s garage. Fukai of the Kyoto Costume Institute, says: “I found some pieces from a friend of mine in Paris who had a superb pair of shoes by Roger Vivier.”

Dealing with a limited budget, Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris develops its collection mostly through donors and patrons. Beatrice Salmon, the museum’s director, says: “The scientific work of curators and the networks they build with fashion houses and collectors are fundamental.” She is currently looking for sponsors of the acquisition of a collection of buttons dating from the 17th to the 20th century.

“There is an increasing number of fashion exhibitions organised worldwide,” admits Salmon. “However, there are requirements in terms of preventive conservation. An infrastructure is necessary to organise regular exhibitions. Teams must be specialised to handle and safeguard pieces. Only a few museums have those tools and skills.”


THE CELEBRITY FACTOR: Collectors of clothes with cachet

Call to mind a very famous dress and chances are it has changed hands for a fortune. Take Marilyn Monroe’s white halter-neck dress that famously blew up around her waist in The Seven Year Itch. It sold earlier this year to an unidentified telephone bidder for a record-breaking $4.6m and the final bid more than tripled the previous record bid for a single garment. The dress was the star lot in a collection of Hollywood memorabilia belonging to actress Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds, who reluctantly sold her collection after failing to receive financial backing for a dedicated museum, cried as the dress, which she originally bought for $200, was sold.

The interest in pieces from the silver screen has long since been significant; Christie’s “Unforgettable: Fashion of the Oscars” auction in March 1999 saw the periwinkle blue Edith Head dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor to the 1969 Academy Awards sell for $167,500. Seven years later the ne plus ultra of little black dresses – Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy black satin column frock from the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s – was sold at Christie’s in London for £807,000.

It’s not only Hollywood dresses that cause a buzz: royalty or future royalty adds a premium. Earlier this year a dress designed by a student and modelled by Kate Middleton in a charity fashion show during her time at St Andrews sold for £78,000.

Diana, Princess of Wales recognised the potential value of her own garments when she hosted a charity sale at Christie’s in June 1997, auctioning off 79 of the dresses worn during her marriage to Prince Charles. The Victor Edelstein gown she wore to dance with John Travolta at a White House reception broke Christie’s records, fetching $225,000.

In June 2010 a taffeta gown by the Emanuels worn by Diana for her first official engagement with Prince Charles sold to Yarur Buscanan for his Museo de la Moda for £192,000, almost four times its £50,000 estimate.

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