All artistic practices inevitably borrow from the past, but fashion, in particular, seems to revel in revivals. Whether skillfully appropriated or brazenly duplicated, the familiar frequently finds its way back to the runway, be it in 1940s wide pants, ’50s flared skirts, ’60s babydoll dresses, ’70s bell-bottoms or ’80s cropped tops.
Both “Pleasure in the History of Fashion” at the Setagaya Art Museum and “Paris Haute Couture” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo take us back to where most scholars believe such sartorial obsessions began.
“Pleasure in the History of Fashion,” a chronological display of fashion illustrations from the collection of Western-clothing scholar Akira Ishiyama, starts by swiftly moving from Jean-Jacques Boissard’s 16th-century monochrome “The Dresses of Different Nations” to colored fashion plates of 19th-century periodicals.
At a cursory glance, the garments appear similar — a series of tightly corseted waists, voluptuously full skirts and masses of protruding bustles in predominantly subdued tones of pink, green and blue. But like the pages of a flip-book, each illustration reveals subtle differences that correspond with historical changes in textiles and lifestyles, as well as society’s view of beauty, be it restrictive or empowering.
Dresses became fuller as mid-19th-century crinoline support cages grew to ridiculous proportions, and then gradually slimmed when the bustle proved a more practical way to support heavy fabrics and maintain the desired hour-glass silhouette. By the late 19th century, the bustle became a deliberately over-exaggerated fashion feature until a torturous S-bend corset that flattened the stomach and accentuated the hips rendered them redundant during the early 1900s.
If you feel the pain of the women who had to carry kilos of fabric and spend hours squeezing themselves into constricting corsets, then the 1920s revival of neoclassical draping in the next section of the Setagaya Art Museum’s exhibition offers a sigh of relief. Likewise, artistic freedom can be seen, as the illustrations, influenced by Art Deco and Art Nouveau, became more colorful and abstract.
It was the designer Paul Poiret, influenced by Greek chiton and Orientalism, who declared, “I freed the bust and shackled the legs.” His plates, along with those of George Barbier, Pierre Brissaud, Charles Martin and others, depict both empire and dropped waists, draped skirts, “kimono sleeve” jackets, bold colors and patterns that give us the first glimpses of modern fashion.
Though “Pleasure in the History of Fashion” is overflowing with beautiful illustrations, aside from a few dresses on loan from the Kobe Museum of Fashion, it can be a little difficult to imagine how some of the ensembles might have actually appeared — especially those in the highly stylized, flattened perspective of the 1920s pochoir stencil prints, which is where the exhibition’s timeline ends.
This makes the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum’s “Paris Haute Couture” and its 70 outfits a great companion exhibition. It begins with a vibrant 19th-century tulle-embellished red evening cape by Charles Frederick Worth, the designer credited with spearheading the haute couture phenomenon with his custom-fitted dresses and use of live models. Juxtaposed with the cape is a red-and-black 1987 ensemble by Christian Lacroix. Seemingly an homage to Worth, it’s an immediate acknowledgment of the retrospective nature of fashion.
As the show progresses through the 1920s, those empire lines, draped skirts, detailed embroidery and embellishments of the Setagaya Art Museum’s plates not only come to life on mannequins, but also flaunt a timelessness that is highlighted by accompanying contemporary garments. A midnight-blue 1923 Chanel mid-length dress that features a waterfall of shoulder draping is paired with a similarly colored and shaped 2013 Bouchra Jarrar dress. Madeleine Voinnet’s 1932 signature bias-cut dress in cream silk is surprisingly modern in its simplicity.
Other familiar forms include 1940s asymmetric cuts over layers of checks and stripes, echoed in the exhibition by a 1999 ensemble by the avant-garde Alexander McQueen. After a few decades of returning to nipped-in waists and full skirts, the 1960s perhaps resonates the strongest in today’s fashion. Chanel’s classic suit was reborn as a dress by Karl Lagerfeld in 1995 and continues to inspire designers. Pierre Cardin’s bold patterns and A-line mini-dresses have been appropriated so many times, they don’t even need a contemporary counterpart on show.
Perhaps one of the best examples of timeless design is one of the dresses that closes the exhibition — a glamorous and unusual asymmetric pink silk ensemble. Full length at the back but cropped short at the front to reveal a cascade of feathery blossoms beneath, its contemporary boxy and structured shape raised eyebrows when Cate Blanchett wore it at the 2013 premiere of “Blue Jasmine.” No one criticized the fact that her bold dress was a faithful Balenciaga re-issue of this 1967 design; in fact, many were none the wiser.
“Pleasure in the History of Fashion: From the Akira Ishiyama Collection” at the Setagaya Art Museum runs until April 10; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.setagayaartmuseum.or.jp “Paris Haute Couture” at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo runs until May 22; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.) ¥1,700. Closed Mon. mimt.jp/paris-hc
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