Connecting Politics and Fashion

by Laura Dahmer

Design Exchange, Canada’s Design Museum, is hosting its current exhibition “Politics of Fashion/Fashion of Politics” in Toronto, Canada. The show is guest curated by Jeanne Beker, Canadian television personality and fashion icon. Sara Nickelson, Design Exchange curator, talked to zeeBigBang about the connection between politics and fashion and the creative process behind the exhibition.

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Where did the idea for this exhibition come from?

Sara Nickelson: It all started with Jeanne Beker. She had long wanted to do a television show called “The Politics of Fashion and the Fashion of Politics”, highlighting places where fashion and politics intersect. Since she is such an icon in Canada, we approached her about making this topic an exhibition – we knew that she would bring a unique insight to it.

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How do fashion and politics intersect, and how is that represented in your show?

As Design Exchange tends to focus on contemporary topics and design, we decided to begin the story at 1960. During this period, the youth became an important and powerful demographic – and they wanted a society far different than that of their parents. A lot of them communicated who they were and what values they share through clothing. It was also an incredibly tumultuous political era. Consequently, the different subcultures of youth used fashion as a political statement: anti-Vietnam field jackets, paper dresses from political conventions and topless bikinis. In our exhibition, we seek to demonstrate how Youth movements have built on one another, touching on issues of racism, women’s movement and civil rights – through fashion.

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What was the creative process while creating the “Politics of Fashion”?

It was a lot about brainstorming and tons of research. Jeanne started by recounting moments, trends and designers that made waves within the industry. From there we buried ourselves in books and online resources. We had to discover the stories behind the garments to choose for display. To me, a vital part of the creative process is also the connection between exhibition design and exhibition content. I worked together very closely with Jeremy Laing, designer of the exhibition space, constantly informing one another about design and curatorial decisions.

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What are the reactions you get from visitors?

What I’ve heard most often is that people didn’t realize how meaningful fashion could be. There is a prevailing belief that fashion is frivolous – mainly concerned with the task of making a person look beautiful or prestigious. Visitors are quite thrilled to see fashion’s potential to make strong statements about the world we live in. We want people to leave the exhibition feeling empowered by the potential in dress, or having learned something about its relevance in furthering social and political causes.

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What have you personally learned from this exhibition?

I’ve always had an appreciation of fashion, but I learned its depth in researching works and stories for the show. My background is in Art and Industrial Design – an interesting place to draw from -, but I had to spend a lot of time reading and searching, getting acquainted with fashion by experts. Jeanne was a wealth of knowledge and guidance for me. Much like our visitors, though, I came across many things I didn’t know before, and that inspired me.

Read more about “The Politics of Fashion/The Fashion of Politics” at www.dx.org.

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