“Dress Code: Are You Playing Fashion?” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, does not privilege particular designer brands, though they are there: Chanel, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Comme des Garcons, Vetements. Nor is it simply a chronological survey of historical transitions, though around 90 items from The Kyoto Costume Institute range from 18th-century European court dress to contemporary Japanese street culture.
Fashion is here identified as a game. The rules are not entirely clear, but there are conducts to be observed, codes to be broken, winners, losers and, finally, stylistic exhaustion. The exhibition’s foci are the negotiations between polarities, between participants and spectators; seeing and being seen; equalization and differentiation; individualism and conformism; contexts and their de-contextualization.
For “Photo Notes” (1992-2019), Dutch artist Hans Eijkelboom frequented the shopping streets of the world and snapped passers-by. With images assembled into grids, men in one configuration wear the double-denim pairing of jean and jacket. In another, women sport Burberry scarves, or both sexes don yellow vests recently popularized by French grassroots activism. Eijkelboom’s photographic arrangements indicate how fashion archetypes are individualized, and they remind us of what conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher did for architectural design with their postwar “typologies.”
Another thrust of the exhibition indicates the rapid tempo of change leading to contemporary fashion’s anarchy of styles. Indigo denim, originally the work clothes of miners and 19th-century American West pioneers, eventually became the stuff of Junya Watanabe’s Comme des Garcons spring/summer catwalk show of 2002. Trench coats and camo garments were initially early 20th-century military attire. The former is now the battle dress of the job seeker and the corporate warrior, while camo has featured in a Richard James Savile Row “Suit (Jacket and Trousers)” (1998) and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s “Yukata and Obi” (2000).
Stylistic free fall is celebrated in the heady bricolage of Alessandro Michele’s “Jacket, Top, Skirt, Spats, Stole, and Shoes” (2018) for Gucci. The nylon taffeta jacket is patterned with a gaudy floral motif and kitschy Japanese manga, and finished with a New York Yankees logo. This is complemented by sequined embroidery, rose print spats, and red and green striped white shoes capped with a metal tiger charm.
This “anything goes” aesthetic is fueled by fusion, incoherence, identity politics and pop culture. It is largely the fashion industry’s belated nod to the late 20th century art world’s postmodern malaise. Notably, the artists featured in the exhibition are Andy Warhol with his “Campbell’s Soup I” (1968); Barbara Kruger’s art-as-logo, “I Shop, Therefore I Am,” which was turned into a T-shirt by Uniqlo in 2004; the cross-dressing impersonations of Marilyn Monroe by Yasumasa Morimura from the mid-1990s; and Jeff Koons’ collaboration with Louis Vuitton to co-opt high art’s cachet for fashion accessories, such as the “The Mona Lisa” backpack (2017).
This celebration of heady idiosyncrasy recalls postmodernism’s dispersal of meta-narratives, replaced by mininarratives of directionless pluralism. For the latter, photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki certainly entertains with his documentation of eccentric youth trends (2019) and his “Tsuru to Kame” magazine editorship (2013-19) images that featured fashionable elders of rural Oku Shinano, Nagano Prefecture.
“Dress Code: Are You Playing Fashion?” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs until Oct. 14; ¥1,300. After Kyoto it will move to other locations. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp.