By Robin Givhan
Sunday, September 14, 2008; M31
Ghostly heads press against a wall of latex. A replica of a once grand mansion crumbles into decay. A solemn death mask stands sentinel behind glass. Skulls hang from a display case. "Gothic: Dark Glamour," the new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, focuses on the dark side: death, sexual fetishes, Satanism. It examines the ways in which those themes have been interpreted by fashion designers and is one of the most captivating exhibitions the museum has mounted in recent memory.
Curator Valerie Steele is something of an authority on fashion's shadowy corners. She's the author of several books that put obsessions such as high heels and corsets into historical and cultural context. She also appears to be prescient. She began work on this exhibition more than two years ago, and its opening last week coincides with a Gothic moment in popular culture. "True Blood," the new HBO vampire fable recently debuted, and the movie version of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" vampire saga is scheduled to open in November. And design houses from Proenza Schouler to Max Azria titillated their audiences during New York's Fashion Week with allusions to harnesses and bondage.
Despite the culture's demand for tidy cause-and-effect relationships, interest in the dark side seems to rise and fall for no clear reason, Steele says. It had a peak in the 1970s for instance and declined in the '80s. But it is always there. A pessimistic economic, political or social outlook does not draw us more emphatically into the gloom. Nor does an optimistic vision of the future spark greater experimentation and a desire to walk the line between darkness and light. "Goth" is not especially political.
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