The art museum was today, all day, with just an hour of Latin as an appetizer. What a joy and privilege to be the guide on a whirlwind tour of western history, from Ancient Egypt to yesterday, all through fashion as seen in art. In the car on the way there we chatted about what fashion was.
“It is what is cool.”
“How do you find out what is cool?”
“Sometimes when your friends have it. Like when everyone came to school with silly bands last fall.”
“How do they find out?”
“But who decides? Why do they decide? Why do fashions change all the time?”
“It's what kids find in the store that looks cool.”
“Do you think if Mrs. Obama wore a certain style other people would like to dress like her?”
“Hmm… Maybe, but I don’t think she wears silly bands.”
We chanced to meet a wonderful docent on the way in and told her our mission: to see how modern western high fashion looks back into history and across to world cultures to find inspiration and comment on the present. She guided us to the perfect piece to start our quest. It was a modern work, 1999, by an artist born in Taiwan, but who lives and works in Beijing. Alas I left the artist’s name written in my journal at school. A tall female manga character in a sleek, space age, silver and blue body suit was the central character. Her blue hair floated about her head like a halo, a video effect made her large eyes move ever so slightly. She stood on a small field of bright green Astroturf, bordered on three sides by colorful cartoon flowers. Behind this figure was the blurred architecture of a medieval nave. At her feet Twelfth century European saints, popes and bishops gazed up at the central figure. Above them, rank on rank of angels rose, and all had golden halos glimmering and shimmering ever so slightly as they gazed adoringly at the Manga Madonna. It was the perfect start!
We moved through Egypt, Greece and Rome. When we arrived in medieval Europe my students cried out in recognition as they saw the many depictions of the Madonna surrounded by ranks of adoring gilded angels. We talked about beauty; watched as the ideal changed over the centuries. The students were amazed at the extremes people went to in order to shape their bodies to fashion. We tried on corsets and a bum roll we found in a discovery closet near paintings from Elizabethan England. Marveled at the stiffness of children dressed as miniature adults. Watched neoclassical style turn its head back towards Greece and Rome. Saw pastoral peasants relaxing in an idealized countryside. And on up to modern silver body suits inspired by the first space walk.
In the car on the ride home the students talked about fashion again as they searched for and found parallels between images from the last fourty years of Vogue and all the bits of history we had wandered through that day.
“I wonder if two hundred years from now people will think our fashions are funny?”
“I wonder why people try and change their bodies so much to be fashionable?”
“What would fashion be like if it was just for normal body shapes?”
There was power in their discoveries today, and I hardly taught at all!