A few months after the launch of an exhibition about the rich history of the color Pink*, the New York FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) is now chosing to highlight the importance of textiles in the history of not only fashion…but of the world too. With Fabric in Fashion” curator of Elizabeth Way wants to re-center the fashion narrative on materiality** and explores the cultural history of textiles in the Euro-American women’s fashion of the last 250 years.

Showcasing 65 garments and more than 30 different textiles, the «Fabric In Fashion» exhibit investigates the core of textiles and their evolution. From court dresses to the 2017-18 winner of the International Woolmark Prize, Bodice, the pieces presented are examples of innovation and novelty. The visitor can observe the work of designers such asChristian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mariano Fortuny, Azzedine Alaia, Isabel Toledo, Issey Miyake, Missoni, Alexander Wang

Exhibition view, Fabric In Fashion, ©The Museum at FIT.

Through this collection of historical and contemporary pieces, fabrics amples and films, the exhibition displays the impact of fabrics on the evolution of fashion silhouettes. The importance of fabrics selection is emphasized through careful pairing of garments. The role of patterns is also studied, through the presentation of a court dress upon which are projected 3 centuries of patterns from all over the world (contemporary Nigerian motifs, pop art, leopard fur, a mid-18th century indian paisley), showing how pattern alone can radically transform a garment.

Exhibition view, Fabric In Fashion, ©The Museum at FIT.

Beyond designers, the choice of fabrics made by consumers matters and the exhibition warns against the current way of blind over consumption. One of the texts at the beginning of the exhibit reminds the visitor that before the 20th century, women who consumed western fashion were more knowledge able about cloth that nowadays consumers. They could easily distinguish fibers and weavings and knew the origin, quality and manufacturing costs of the fabrics they wore.

abeautifulmess.com – natural dyes

Nevertheless, the real focal point of the exhibition is the exploration of the origins of the 4 most common fibers in Western women’s fashion (silk, wool, cottonand syntheticfabrics) as well as their impact on fashion and on the world. From the legendary Silk Road to theslavery of cotton workersin theSouth of America, curator Elizabeth Way is questioning the social motivations that are driving fashion.

Exhibition view, Fabric In Fashion, ©The Museum at FIT.

Silk and the road to Globalization.

Highly coveted for its luxurious” appearance, silk is imported from China from the 2nd century B.C.via a network of trade routes (the Silk Road), and this transport represents the beginning of the globalization of international trade. Brocades*** and damasks**** are indeed very coveted and arrive daily on the European continent, until France and Italy are able to create their own manufactories inthe 18th century.

Exhibition view, Fabric In Fashion, ©The Museum at FIT. 

Evening dress made of silk faille, 1955,1. Elsa Schiaparelli, crédit Eileen Costa


Wool: radiance ofcustom-made costume and British power.

The qualities of wool, between the fiber heat and malleability, allow the development of a large quantity of silhouettes including the creation of the tailor-made costume. Reserved exclusively to the mens wardrobe until the 19th century, the costume is one of the greatest western contributions to the fashion world. The ubiquity of wool and its importance for the British economy since the Middle Ages goes on after the British colonization of India, until the development of a new fiber that then supersedes it: cotton

Exhibition view, Fabric In Fashion, ©The Museum at FIT. 

Robe et manteau en laine à double face Mila Schön, 1968, Italie.

Cotton: between the popularity and the increasing exploitation of workers.

Originally from India, this hand-woven material popularized at the end of the 18th century. The demand continue to increase during the 19th century due to its accessible cost, how successfully it accepted color and with also the development of new production techniques of the Industrial Revolution starting in the United Kingdom. But this strong demand also contributed greatly to the development of cotton workers’ slavery in the American southern states.

Exhibition view, Fabric In Fashion, ©The Museum at FIT. 

Dress made of white cotton muslin with embroidery in silver thread. and sleeves in silk taffeta, from around1795-1800.

Synthetic fabrics: new creative territories vs. environmental consequences.

After the Industrial Revolution, the 19th century saw the birth of synthetic fibers such as rayon. With  its silk-like appearance, it is a low-cost, durable alternative used for dresses and blouses (but very polluting). Petroleum-based nylon and polyester then entered the Western womens fashion market in the early 20th century. New technological processes such as thermo-reactive fibers are developed by designers who want to meet the evolving and complex expectations of consumers. With their futuristic aesthetics, these fibers also satisfy thcreative desires of the designers, as we can see below with this metallic synthetic cape signed Issey Miyake. The challenge today remains to succeed in producing biodegradable, less toxic and environmentally harmful fibers.

Ensemble with metallic synthetic cape, 1982, Japon, Issey Miyake, credit Eileen Costa.

Evening Cape made of silk gazar,1962, France, Balenciaga, credit Eileen Costa

Running until May 4, 2019 at the FIT, Fabric in Fashion” focuses on the value of the materials and on the responsibility of both the designer and the consumer, in the time of fastfashion where we often lose sight of the concrete essential heart of fashion: the fabrics that shape our clothing and weave the thread of the world.

* « Pink : the history of a punk, pretty, powerful color », FIT, NY

** Elizabeth Wayopening essay of « Fabric in Fashion »  http://www.wagmag.com/fabric-in-focus-at-fit/)

***  Brocade: heavy fabric interwoven with a rich and raised design.

**** Damask:  silk made with similar colored threads


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