This week my evenings have been spent at an orientation seminar for the Fashion and Textiles Studies MA program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Taking part in this program has been a dream at least seven years in the making, and naturally I am excitedly looking ahead to possible thesis topics and where in the world my research could take me. One idea I had was to head back to Brazil, where my family is from (free lodging, yay!). I was curious if an interest in fashion history has taken hold over there the way it has here in the States, and while the interest is nowhere near as strong as it is here, I learned that earlier this year there had just opened their first museum dedicated to fashion history.
An entire museum dedicated to the history of fashion.
Could it be as good as it seems? I took the liberty of translating from Portuguese to English what the museum’s website says about the project:
Milka Wolff presents one of her major projects: The Fashion Museum (MUM) in Canela, Rio Grande do Sul. A visual reconstruction of 4,000 years of female dress. A mark on the world’s stage.
Its 2,500 square meters take you on a travel through time, telling the tale of 4,000 years of female dress. The pieces were constructed according to the research of the founder and designer Milka Wolff and the museum’s curator, Debora Elman. The fabrics, the dyes, the construction of the pieces, as well as the details and accessories, rigorously conform to the period they represent.
The visitor travels back in time to 2000 B.C., dazzled by dresses made by hand until 1709 A.C. when the first sewing machine was made, up to modern day. The visitor also will find items procured in antique shops from various countries.
So this entire museum is reproduction historical costume, with a smattering of vintage pieces thrown in. Who is Milka Wolff, what are her credentials? As far as I can tell, she is a Brazilian designer. I haven’t found any evidence of credible factual research, no publications, no higher degree, nothing. And apparently these items on display “rigorously conform to the period they represent,” but it looks like the construction of all items post-1709 were done by machine.
My question to you is…is this OK? We have extant garments dating back a few centuries–just take a look at the two largest costume collections of the world, belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. As costume historians, we accept those extant garments as valuable relics of art. But what about dress from even more ancient cultures, like Babylonian or Etruscan civilizations–is it OK for a museum to display a representation of what we think their clothing would look like?
If you visit a natural history museum, chances are you will see a sculpture representing a Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus Rex in full flesh–I know that those certainly do have an impact on helping me visualize what those creatures may have looked like, much more so than just marveling at a near-complete set of fossils arranged to show a skeleton shape. Does the same principle hold true for the history of dress?
I have often toyed with the idea of finding gallery space and displaying my costumes on mannequins as works of art–I think that I could put together a nice presentation showing the same body clothed and accessorized in fashions of the time in a period spanning about 500 years. Is that the same thing? Does the scale matter? I’m not opening an entire 2,500 square meter museum claiming to showcase 4,000 years of women’s dress, I’m just aiming to take the viewer through a selection of the work that I have done over the past few years because I’m proud of some of my costumes–is that what Milka Wolff is doing, too?
So let’s take a look at some of Milka Wolff’s creations.
Do reproduction movie costumes belong in a setting like this, without the distinction of them being movie costumes?
You’d think there would be a whole lot more Carmen Miranda going on, too–national treasure and all.
If you would like to explore more about MUM, please visit their website, http://www.museudamodadecanela.com.br.
I couldn’t resist. Here are a couple more images I pulled from her site: