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.
Steele defines Gothic as far more than the cliche of the disaffected teenager with dyed black hair, white makeup and Doc Martens boots. In the exhibition, which runs through Feb. 21, Steele goes back to its origins in literature, art and religion. She points to Gothic tales from authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, who toyed with terror, entrapment and claustrophobia. Vampires, of course, play an enormous role in the Gothic narrative because of their ability to defy death and their submission to their basest passions. The exhibit explores the influence of the Victorian tradition of mourning, in which widows dressed in black for a year. And finally, Steele emphasizes the Dark Ages, in which superstitions and sorcery took precedence over science and reason.
In the hands of fashion designers, those ideas inform garments that reflect the beauty in decay, the unsettling passion of death and the subversive interest in the macabre -- from death masks to skulls, which have become as ubiquitous in fashion as polka dots and floral prints.
One of the designers most powerfully represented in the exhibition is Alexander McQueen, who has long expressed an interest in the lesser angels of the human spirit. He has created collections inspired by abandonment, hopelessness, lunacy and religious oppression. One of his most memorable presentations was inspired by the story of an ancestor who was executed for witchcraft. His video backdrop included sequences of grotesque decay, and his models wore dresses that were at once constricting and compelling. It was hard to turn away from his mannequins even as you were repelled by the cruel manner in which they seemed to have been treated.
For spring 2001, the backdrop for his collection was the holding area of an insane asylum, and he toyed with the idea that great creativity sometimes comes from a damaged mind. The exhibit includes a dress from this collection that was made, in part, from microscope slides dyed red.
There are examples of work from the designer Rick Owens, an American working in Paris. He defies the constraints of the human body, using fabric and intricate cutting techniques to transform sleeves into wings, collars into horns and jackets into protective shells. He plays with the idea of man as miscreant.
Owens is most closely connected to those teenage Goths gathered in musty nightclubs who proclaim themselves outsiders. His vein of fashion is associated with identity, using attire not just to stand out but to stand apart. He has distilled teenage angst into high fashion.
The exhibition also includes a lushly gathered evening gown from the fall 2008 Rodarte collection. The designers, Laura and Kate Mulleavy, were inspired by Japanese horror movies and worked furiously to ensure that the red dye used on the dress mimicked the effect of blood pooling in water. The result is both breathtaking and disturbing. Isn't there something inherently wrong about seeing beauty in violence and death?
Fashion is tapping into the same tension that fuels the work of a director like Quentin Tarantino or that keeps adolescents hunched over violent video games. We like being horrified. The threat of death is both arousing and stunning.
The wall text for "Gothic: Dark Glamour" includes a quote from the work of the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, suggesting that fashion, by its very nature, is part of the Gothic story line.
Fashion: "I am fashion, your sister."
Death: "My sister?"
Fashion: "Yes, don't you remember that both of us are daughters of decay?"
The fashion industry is in constant pursuit of youth, working zealously to help us avoid our own mortality. Yet at the same time, fashion is obsessed with destruction. It is constantly ripping apart our perceptions of identity. Telling us that certain assumptions and traditions are over and done. It is a marker of time, dying one season only to be reborn the next. It is a memento mori hanging in our closet.
"Gothic: Dark Glamour" celebrates those tensions -- as well as the beauty hidden in the fears that haunt our dreams.