Fitting Tribute

By Steele, Valerie | Artforum International, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Fitting Tribute


Steele, Valerie, Artforum International


BEFORE RICHARD MARTIN, exhibitions devoted to fashion tended to be characterized by dull anti-quarianism or superficial glitz. By treating the way we dress as a living art, Richard changed everything. In scores of exhibitions and books and more than 100 scholarly articles, he examined fashion through the lens of contemporary art. It was not merely that he traced connections between clothing styles and art movements, still less that he idolized designers as creative "geniuses"; rather, he asked the kinds of serious questions of fashion that had seldom been applied to the supposedly frivolous subject.

For example, in his landmark 1987 Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition "Fashion and Surrealism" and subsequent Rizzoli book, Richard explored how individual artists/designers addressed the relationship between body and clothes. To this end, he compared the Tear-Illusion Dress and Head Scarf (a 1937 collaboration between Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali) to the clothing of the punks, which really was torn, as well as to Rei Kawakubo's infamous "Lace" Sweater of 1982, which was deliberately knitted with gaping holes. He juxtaposed clothing, photographs, illustrations, and paintings in the show, which was organized by such themes as metaphor and metamorphosis, bodies and parts, displacements and illusions. In another brilliant FIT exhibition, "Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo" (1987), he asked whether or not women designers created clothing that differed from that of their male counterparts. Avoiding simplistic answers, he investigated how three very different female desig ners approached their metier. The latter exhibition inspired me to write my book Women of Fashion, the concluding paragraph of which quotes Richards trenchant remarks on the pernicious stereotype of the fashion designer as a young male genius.

I met Richard in 1982 when I was a graduate student delivering my first conference paper. Richard was incredibly kind and encouraging--the way he always was with students. At that time, he was at FIT, where he organized five or six exhibitions a year in collaboration with Harold Koda and Laura Sinderbrand. Richard made the move from art history to fashion in 1982 when he was named executive director of what was then known as the Design Laboratory, FIT's textile and costume collection. Although his first job at the New York school had been as an instructor in the department of art history, it wasn't long before he was also teaching the history of menswear (people who knew him back then say that his own sartorial style changed accordingly--from professorial to dapper in black Armani suits). A fan of Baudelaire, Richard once told me that he thought contemporary fashion was simply more interesting than most contemporary art.

The shows Richard curated at FIT were unprecedented in the way they combined intelligence and visual beauty. Exhibitions such as "Jocks and Nerds" and "The East Village" were witty and fun, but they were also really smart considerations of fashion in its broadest social context. In a further effort to give fashion studies intellectual backbone, Richard helped launch the graduate studies program at FIT, and in 1985 he hired me to teach fashion history there.

Then in 1993 Richard moved uptown to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he organized shows such as "Cubism and Fashion," "Haute Couture," "Orientalism," and (one of his personal favorites) "Wordrobe," an analysis of the relation between text and textiles. His most popular show was a retrospective of Gianni Versace, which attracted more than 410,000 visitors during a three-month run. The attendance bore out what Richard knew all along: "Fashion plays a broader cultural role than anyone had imagined before." Over the years, I saw Richard most often at conferences, where he was a brilliant public speaker who never needed to use notes. …

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