Think of your favorite statement pieces — the crochet crossbody bag purchased at an art show or the maxi dress you snagged at a music festival. Remember the embroidered denim shorts you made at camp and wore until they disintegrated? And what about the patchwork sweater grandma knitted when you were a teenager, that still lives at the edge of your bed?
These pieces are always appropriate and in style. The fact that our bodies were the canvas made them extra special.
Body as canvas is the theme of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s latest costume exhibit, Off the Wall: American Art to Wear. Unlike many hoity-toity museum shows that feature clothes, Off the Wall isn’t about the couture gowns of heiresses, but rather pieces you may be able to connect with on a deeper level because, perhaps, someone might have made one for you.
Housed in three main first floor galleries of the Perelman Building, Off the Wall features 115 one-of-a-kind pieces by 62 fiber artists, painters, illustrators and sculptors made between 1967 and 1997. Many of the artists found favor in the art world by association with Julie Schafler Dale’s Madison Avenue gallery. Dale is credited with ushering in the art-as-fashion movement though her 40 years of tireless promotion to elite art collectors. Dale closed her gallery in 2013.
Even those with just a passing interest in fashion can connect with Off the Wall’s vast and colorful collection of dusters, capes, silk-screen kimonos, tubular maxi dresses, embroidered vests, dazzling fascinators. But the artists who made them, including weaver Debra Rapoport, crochet artists Janet Lipkin and Nicki Hitz Edson , and illustrator and clothing designers Fred and Candace Kling — although incredibly talented — are unknown outside this exclusive world. All of them, however, are considered pioneers of the art-as-fashion movement. Without them, you very well may not have had that darling crochet dress you love so much.
“Art to wear has been looked at as an extension of fashion or as a craft, but this is the first generation of artists who saw their work as art on the body,” explained Dilys E. Blum, the museum’s senior curator of costumes and textiles. “These wearable sculptures and paintings represented a new attitude in art.”
Bill Cunningham is one name at Off the Wall that might be familiar to fashion connoisseurs. Before the late photojournalist was the New York Times’ street photographer, he was a milliner. Off the Wall features a feathered mask of his that one might find on a horror-movie villain. Scary.
The seeds of the exhibit were planted after Blum met Dale in 2008 at a talk. Earlier this year, Dale promised to give 48 pieces from her collection to the museum — 30 of which are in Off the Wall. The gift, explained Blum, makes PMA one of the premiere go-to places for the art-as-fashion genre.
Off the Wall is arranged in nine sections, with names that come directly from songs popular during the 30 years of American history the exhibit spans. Not only is the name of the song visible, the name of the artist is prominently displayed.
Here is where I can’t hold my tongue, though, because I find it not just peculiar, but shady, that although Off the Wall is the name of Michael Jackson’s 1979 first solo album — one of the greatest albums ever — there is no reference to the King of Pop in the exhibit. At all.
When I asked why he was left out, Blum said that song wasn’t a part of that era.
Off the Wall is a pleasant walk-through, however, because the mood is all things upbeat and happy. In the section “Good Vibrations,” named after the Beach Boys’ hit, I couldn’t help but feel all Age of Aquarius surrounded by mannequins in lotus position wearing tie-dyed outfits and maxi dresses dotted with lush illustrations of California landscapes. “In a Land Called Fantasy," for Earth, Wind & Fire’s jam, there is a striking moth cape that looks as if it could leap off the wall and on to my back. Another favorite: a pair of fantastical, above-the-knee socks by artist Susanna E. Lewis stitched with dancing images from The Wizard of Oz that I’d totally wear on a cold day.