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That look is so '80s

It's no snide remark -- an exhibition of fashion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shows how themes of that decade evolved to challenge clothing conventions.

September 20, 2006|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

IT'S no small feat, teasing out historical significance from two of fashion's most maligned decades, especially when they happened, what, two seconds ago? Yet, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new costume exhibition lines up proof that the trashy '80s and the brooding '90s also had some radical moments that still influence how we think about clothes.

We just couldn't see them under all those acid-washed jeans and black pantsuits.

"Breaking the Mode: Contemporary Fashion From the Permanent Collection," which opened Sunday, is like a highlights reel of some of fashion's big ideas that, conceptually speaking, got even bigger through time: bustles, pouf skirts, distorted silhouettes and funky materials. Set in a museum, some of the runway's most outrageous moments look perfectly at home, such as Issey Miyake's "Minaret" dress that descends into a tower-like shape, or his "Flying Saucer" dress that looks like an expanded, rainbow accordion.

Perhaps only in a museum could Rei Kawakubo's 1997 collection of pillows stuck under stretchy dresses be fully validated as art, not folly. Here, in hindsight, the exuberance of Christian Lacroix's 1980s pouf skirts seems like the inevitable interpretation of 19th century pannier skirts.

That's the strength of this exhibit -- its ability to turn what once seemed like fashion insanity into the perfectly logical outcome of those ideas. Looking at a 1953 Rudi Gernreich red knit cocktail dress, we forget that corsets, girdles and extreme tailoring, not our natural bodies, gave the era's garments their shape. Throughout the exhibit, we see how bodies gradually were allowed to shape clothes, and the converse, how designers disregarded the human form beneath, in alien ways.

Co-curators Sharon Takeda and Kaye Spilker of LACMA's costume and textiles department have created an instructional, somewhat cerebral overview of the major themes that emerged beginning in the 1980s and evolved to challenge many clothing traditions. By adding historical costumes for reference, they help establish the art worthiness of their acquisitions. They may also set off a mini-Miyake renaissance, as his work figures into nearly every point they're trying to make.

Japanese influence

The exhibition of more than 100 ensembles from about 50 designers aims to show how the wearer was, at last, given a say in how she wanted to look. How, for example, she would button, or not, all the dangling appendages of a Dolce & Gabbana cotton blouse. It was only recently, in the curator's own 1950s youth, that designers dictated exactly how an ensemble should appear and guaranteed the outcome with sturdy, bulletproof tailoring.

Though the exhibit's seminal era, the 1980s, is best remembered for big hair and pouf skirts, it was also when Japanese designers began to challenge Western notions of design. Miyake and Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons shifted classic proportions, unstuffed rigid proportions and created new textiles that transformed clothing into kinetic sculpture.

The exhibit also hints at how black escaped its mourning moorings and emerged as an everyday basic. In a notable 1999 Yohji Yamamoto ensemble, the designer blended a funereal menswear-inspired pantsuit with a huge, lacy wedding veil. Today, the idea of pairing a frilly blouse with a severe black suit seems completely natural, as does androgyny.

"We hope that people recognize that things may not seem radical today, but they were at one time," Spilker says.

It's in that light that deconstruction emerges from its artistic conceit to an accepted part of mainstream fashion. Classic tailoring that strictly controlled the precise dimension of a pleat, flare of a skirt or shape of a shoulder was quite literally torn apart in the '80s and '90s as Jean Paul Gaultier, Martin Margiela and others explored the beauty of deconstruction's frayed hems, exposed basting and inside-out ensembles. Junya Watanabe shredded denim to resemble lace, and Margiela created new garments out of retailored old ones.

When Kawakubo inserted those organ-shaped pillows beneath sheer dresses nearly a decade ago, the new "bumps" they created commented on fashion's obsession with amplified body parts. An era of kidney worship never emerged, but her point was taken. We plumped our lips instead.

Innovative looks

Six years ago, when Gaultier cut a lining larger than a simple shift dress, the torque of the mismatched layers made the dress twist, creating with each step an unpredictable display of the vivid red lining. Christian Dior, whose immobile, immaculate black '50s cocktail dress is displayed for comparison, would have been horrified by the randomness.

"These are the innovators. These are the people from whom many things have happened," says Spilker, surveying the room of crinolines, capes, coats and garments seemingly fitted for bendy cartoon characters.

The exhibit showcases the strengths of the LACMA permanent collection, such as its focus on Pacific Rim designers. Indeed, the show is weighted toward the Japanese with 22 pieces from Miyake, 13 from Yamamoto and 12 from Kawakubo. But there are weaknesses too, such as the absence of innovators such as Viktor & Rolf and not enough contributions from Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld or John Galliano.

That's the benefit, and challenge, of being a modern-day costume curator: A lot of history is hanging in closets still. They just need to get it before EBay does.


'Breaking the Mode'

Contemporary Fashion From the Permanent Collection

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Through Jan. 7

Contact: (323) 857-6000,

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