Friday, September 18, 2009


Consider the pant-suits of Hillary Clinton and the fluff- skirts of Sarah Palin. Think of the major-general and the monk. Clothes aren't just coverings, they're extensions of one's personality and politics. They tell you at first glance that this woman in the flannel shirt and faded jeans is an organic gardener and a single-payer advocate, or that this man in the tweedy coat and bow-tie is a professor of economics, Keynesian.

Clothes are moving works of art; their frames are inside, not out, and their museum is the world.

Fashion designers are artists in their own right, but there's another group of practitioners, the art-for-art's-sake type, that make not fashion statements but statements about fashion.

Their work is what you see in Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor, an exhibit running through October 4 at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y., 50 miles northeast of New York City. Coordinated by guest curator Barbara J. Bloemink, 36 contemporary artists use dress to comment on politics, religion, national tragedies, and, so to say, the social fabric.

Take, for example, the latest controversial article of clothing, the chador, that head-to-toe covering worn by conservative Muslim women. Mella Jaarsma's version of the garment in "The Follower" (2002) is a colorful pastiche of shoulder- patches from organizations in her native Indonesia — a symbol, one guesses, of unity in diversity. In a 2004 work, Iranian-born Farhad Moshiri puts a plain black chador in a clear plastic package like a 99¢-store tablecloth, stapling a cardboard strip at the top with the cartoon head of a shrouded woman, only her languid eyes exposed, and some conventional promotional slogans: "CHADOR — the protector of inner beauty, with sporty sophistication — exotic — Mysterious — Shocking — As seen on TV." Tradition meets mass-marketing.

"Vigilante" (2003) by the fittingly-named duo of Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz (calling themselves Guerra de la Paz) is a kind of military version of the chador — an eight-foot- tall stuffed camouflage suit enveloping head and face and dribbling down in four serpentine legs to the floor, intimidating and anonymous.

Not surprisingly, many of the pieces dwell on the exploitation of women by fashion. In "Thinner than You" (1990), Maureen Connor has created a gauzy black strapless evening gown in a size so surrealistically slender it could only fit a Giacometti sculpture. Most blatant is Kate Kretz's "Defense Mechanism Coat" (2001), a wool garment with red velvet collar and lining embroidered with a schematic of a body's arteries and veins, and the outside bristling with 150 pounds of rusty roofing nails. Perhaps a bit of anger there?

Two works in the show are particularly fascinating because of the stories behind them. According to the description on the wall, Zoë Sheehan Saldaña went to her Wal-Mart store in Hartford, Conn., on May 26, 2005, bought a Jordache sheer camp shirt colored "Lucky Lime" for $9.87, took it home, and made a look- alike version on her sewing machine. She transferred the labels and tags from the original, photographed her shirt, and brought it to the store, placing it on the same rack the original had come from. On the museum wall, framed, are the store-bought shirt and a print of her copy, enlarged to size. She performs this exercise frequently — "shop-dropping," she calls it — as a surreptitious protest against the "appalling labor conditions" of third-world clothing manufacture. What some unsuspecting buyer gets is a unique garment, lovingly hand-made in the USA.

Related in theme is the "Labels Project Sculpture" (2008) by Luca Pizzaroni. This is a "ready-made" — a collection of shirts, pants, and coats on a circular rack, at first glance a dull parody of mass-market clothing. Atop it, however, is a sign declaring "Clothing Browsing is Permitted," followed by a list of the 193 recognized nations of the world, most in black lettering, a few in red. Reading the explanation on the wall, you understand his "project": it's to acquire an article of clothing from every country, identified by the "MADE IN _____" tag sewn inside. Clothing browsing, I found from personal experience, becomes addictive; I must have spent half an hour at it. There's a Banana Republic sport shirt from Zimbabwe, an Eddie Bauer tee from Burma, a High Sierra woman's top from Brunei, a Van Heusen sport from Mongolia — on and on, 172 countries in all. Who knew? Missing from the rack are only 21, the red ones on the sign, including Iraq and Rwanda and excluding Palestine, which the artist notes is not a "recognized country." His purpose, he writes, is "to foster communication and broader cultural understanding by exposing and informing our instincts about brand." It's a work in progress; like every obsessive collector, he continues to search for the remaining items to complete his set.

It's ironic that the exhibit ends on October 4, St. Francis' Day. Back in the thirteenth century, Francis used clothing as metaphor himself, doffing his wealthy finery in the public square of Assisi and standing naked to vow his life to Lady Poverty.

That was a fashion statement if there ever was one.

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