DressUndress – To conceal or to reveal?
Modemuseum Hasselt, Hasselt
February 26 – November 11, 2022
The pandemic has highlighted the inextricable link between fashion and society. After a period of rolling lockdowns, working from home, social distancing and the resulting preference for comfortable homeware, the body is once again crying out to be seen. The same sentiment was apparent during recent fashion weeks, when models took to the stage in clothes that left little to the imagination. Nudity is back in style! The fascinating to-and-fro between revealing and concealing is nothing new. In fact, it is centuries old. In the exhibition DressUndress, Hasselt Fashion Museum looks back to the past and forward to the future of this exciting game.
“In DressUndress Hasselt Fashion Museum and guest curator Murielle Scherre – the driving force behind sustainable lingerie brand la fille d’O – explore and explain our current attitudes to revealing the body. What is acceptable in fashion today that was unacceptable yesterday? Why the change? Whose decision was it? Via an audio guide, the video installation YOUME and its peripheral programming, Hasselt Fashion Museum presents visitors with various perspectives and encourages them to question prevailing ideals of beauty. Via the same channels, fifteen people converse with visitors and share their views on sexuality, gender identity, the power of “modest” clothing, empowerment, inclusivity, and body positivity“, says Alderwoman for Culture Nele Kelchtermans.
Why are ankles okay and nipples taboo? “Our obsession with the naked body is nothing new,” says Karolien De Clippel, director of Hasselt Fashion Museum. “But from the very start, opinions have differed. The ancient Greeks celebrated the body, whereas Christianity and other monotheistic religions regarded it with shame. Nowhere else is this conflict between the naked and the clothed body more tangible than in fashion.”
Even a quick glance at fashion history reveals that this tension between concealing and revealing is influenced by time-specific values and norms, as are ideas about gender, physicality, beauty, sexuality, modesty and decency. DressUndress explores this significance-imbued corporality from various perspectives, from the late eighteenth century to the present. What is the relationship between the body and fashion? How is fashion instrumental in determining whether we reveal or conceal our bodies? Why do attitudes to this change? What tendencies influence this? These are just a few of the questions DressUndress attempts to answer.
DressUndress has four 4 overarching themes: revealing focuses on bodily display; concealing zooms in on efforts to cover up the body; trompe l’oeil examines garments that deliberately suggest nakedness, and metamorphosis explores fashion’s intriguing experimentation with body shape as it adjusts its output to meet changing tastes and norms.
Designs by Vivienne Westwood, Olivier Theyskens, Walter Van Beirendonck, Elsa Schiaparelli, Alexander McQueen, Raf Simons, Alaïa, Comme des Garçons, Ann Demeulemeester, Versace, Maison Margiela, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and others illustrate how designers have played with the (naked) body in the past, and how that body can be manipulated or modified by revealing or concealing it. Belgian newcomers, such as Ester Manas and Lili Schreiber, illustrate how the latest crop of designers attach great importance to inclusion.
From miniskirt to naked dress. Values and norms are very much time-bound. The diaphanous, empire line dresses of around 1800 are a fine example of this. Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, the décolleté was revealed without embarrassment, but a bare ankle, was out of the question. It would be two decades before the ankle was liberated by the shorter skirts of the Roaring Twenties. A spirit of protest or revolt lay behind this emancipation, just as it did in the Sixties when the miniskirt bared the knees. When they tread the red carpet, celebrities often push the boundaries of the prevailing morality and flirt with the limits of decency. Think of Madonna’s Jean Paul Gaultier outfits, or more recently of the naked dresses of stars like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian. Many designers have played with the trompe-l’oeil effect of semi-sheer dresses in different skin tones. Models in the most recent fashion weeks have made it clear that nudity is back in style. They showed bikini tops, crop tops, lingerie sets, outfits with suggestive cut-outs, revealing miniskirts, and even bare breasts.
Our definition of what is acceptable changes with the time. Naked dresses are as shocking now as bared ankles were back in the nineteenth century. A teenager can go to school in a crop top, but any glimpse of a nipple on social media is immediately censored by special algorithms. Want to go swimming in a burkini? Then prepare yourself for a barrage of criticism. Clothing that is either overtly concealing or revealing is what sets the most tongues wagging. Just think of the backlash Billie Eilish experienced when she swapped her baggy jeans for a revealing corset. So when is revealing or concealing considered acceptable? DressUndress tackles these issues head-on and confronts visitors with their own norms and values.
Five points of view. In the audio tour, guest curator Murielle Scherre encourages visitors to think critically about the rarely innocent game of concealing and revealing. She is aided in this by five fascinating speakers, who each give us their own opinion of the exhibited silhouettes. How can your choice of clothing empower you? Is there maybe a little magic in covering up? Do you see yourself reflected in the current fashion?
Jordy Arthur Vaessen, a 26-year-old fashion designer and influencer, cracks open gender stereotypes to inspire people to find their own style. Yousra Rifi, a 38-year-old entrepreneur and mother of four teenage daughters, alerts visitors to the sexual or stereotypical image clothing can evoke. Sarah Dimani came to the fore in 2012 as a fashion influencer. She is probably best known as a champion of ‘modest’ fashion, in which covering the body is a form of self-expression. Simon Indesteege, a researcher at the University of Hasselt, doesn’t believe in labels. Simon is a proponent of gender freedom and therefore favors clothing and a look that expresses different aspects of masculinity and femininity. Daphne Agten, a 31-year-old performer, theatre-maker, and nude model, finds nudity empowering. She reveals her body in a quest to encourage more inclusive concepts in the fashion industry.
Physical culmination with Murielle Scherre and Jan Verstraeten’s video installation YOUME. The exhibition closes with the video installation YOUME, jointly created by Murielle Scherre and musician and visual artist Jan Verstraeten. “During the preparations for DressUndress, I quickly realized that there was also a need to showcase the body. In DressUndress we see people’s fashion. But how do we reveal the beauty of their bodies? When is it okay to stare shamelessly at a body that isn’t yours? Where can we hear the stories that our bodies don’t always dare to tell, or at least, not without the ‘appropriate’ context? The body deserves and demands respect. When one realises the wonder of the magical body, the only way to approach that body is respectfully”, says Murielle Scherre about the creation of this new video installation.
YOUME takes its name from a song by the German band Einstürzende Neubauten. It is a decelerating pause in a fast-moving world. Murielle and Jan filmed this portrait of four people in disarming slowness and haunting closeness. These people dance and explore their bodies as if they were inhabiting them for the first time. It is a fleeting moment in which people are allowed to move freely, a moment in which people are allowed to watch how the skin lives and laughs, how the arm becomes the hand, and how they move together in a captivating dance. This video installation in the attic is complemented by works of art by Leo Gabin, Nina Vandenbempt and Dolores Bouckaert.
Finally, Murielle converses with ten of the models of la fille d’O. How do they experience their bodies? How do they regard to gender? How do they deal with binary thinking? The models reveal their challenges and how they turn these challenges into life lessons. Each portrait reveals how they have each made their own life choices. The sum total of everything they have experienced makes them unique individuals, but also an inspiration AND a mirror to visitors. “It’s a kind of go-to manual for when we find ourselves in similar situations. It helps us to realise that we are all just people among people. Amazingly similar yet reassuringly individual”, concludes Murielle Scherre.