Outfitting the Past

'Fashion in Film' dresses up the Taft Museum of Art

Patrons of the Taft Museum of Art know it to be a rare kind of historical document: An earlier era’s furniture, artwork and architecture summon an aura of rigid manors, ladies’ teas and regency gowns. It’s not surprising then that the Taft would aim its curatorial eye on the traveling exhibition, Fashion in Film: Period Costumes for the Screen.

Brought together by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in Washington, D.C., the exhibition makes its debut in Cincinnati this Saturday. Visitors will doubtlessly be charmed by the decadent designs, but there is more here than simple ornament — there is the merging of the Taft home and the film costumes as artifacts and re-creations of a bygone era.

Nancy Huth, curator of education at the Taft and on-site curator for the Fashion in Film exhibition, gets excited when she talks about the show.

“It’s different from costume collections at the (Metropolitan Museum of Art) or even the (Cincinnati) Art Museum,” she says.

The distinction lies in the fact that these costumes are not actual relics. Instead, they are meticulously researched, intricately beaded or gilded, sewn and meant for performances about the past. They are, in other words, contemporary artworks designed to conjure an illusion.

“Generally speaking, the costumes represent the time period — the 19th century — when this house was inhabited,” Huth says.

But the costumes delve deeper into the past than just that. In fact, the exhibition illustrates four centuries of dress, mostly English, from Elizabethan times to the mid-20th century. The fact that this span greatly outlasts the time period in which the Taft house was in use does not bother Huth. Indeed, there are certain and definite connections between the earliest costumes and Taft’s permanent art collection.

“There are dresses here that mimic paintings in the collection,” Huth says.

She draws a parallel between a Scottish painting by artist Sir Henry Raeburn and gowns worn in a 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. Raeburn’s painting is a portrait, and there is little doubt that his sitter was actually clad in the silk and lace regency gown in which she is depicted. Two dresses from Pride and Prejudice, designed by Dinah Collin, illustrate the same fashion. The film was set in 1810-12, roughly the same years as the Raeburn portrait.

Huth reveals another connection between the exhibition and the painting collection. A 1902 portrait of Annie Taft in evening dress reveals a strong connection to several dresses in Fashion in Film— three from the 2000 film The Golden Bowl (dresses designed by John Bright) and one from A Room with a View, 1986, also designed by Bright and Jenny Beavan. Both The Golden Bowl and A Room with a View were set between 1900-1908.

The dresses speak volumes about the careful consideration of manners during this time. Only certain things could be worn to certain occasions. Moral standing was everything. Everything from hemline to neckline was seriously considered. More than that, though, there is also the amazing fact that women during this time had very little room for self-expression. Through dress — color, fit and design — wealthy women were able to say something publicly about themselves. The Taft archives have a letter written to William Howard Taft from a male relative speaking of how happy his wife was about a certain dress she had just received.

Beyond the obvious connections, Huth says, the exhibition “fills in the gaps” of the Taft’s painting collection. There are several Renaissance-era paintings in the collection, and Jenny Beaven’s satin and gauze gown from Ever After (1998) as well as Alexandra Byrne’s velvet and silk dress from Elizabeth (1998) offer a more tactile display of what these women must have worn.

“So little (actual clothing) exists from this period,” Huth says, speaking of the 1500s and 1600s. Lace and silk and velvet and netting all succumb to time. Not to mention that garments a priori were meant to be worn, used-up. The re-creation of the Renaissance costumes is based more on portraits than on vintage, and is therefore often more loosely adapted.

As time moves forward and better care was taken to preserve clothing, costume designers are able to base their creations on actual artifacts. Vintage pieces of lace, beading, silk and silk brocade are used as trimmings in new dresses, adding an extra flare of authenticity to costumes such as “One Piece Evening Gown” worn by Uma Thurman in The Golden Bowl (the sequins on this dress are vintage to the early 1900s).

Costume design has rightfully found a new home in art museums. Though it is easier to dismiss such items as make-believe, seeing them in person reveals an unimaginable skill in design, composition, craftsmanship and technique, as well as a profound understanding of dress as a part of life. Perhaps becauseof this newfound interest in fashion-as-art we are now interested in learning more about the process of design — just look at the popularity of Project Runway.

But according to Huth, "This is a different kind of reality show!"

FASHION IN FILM opens at the Taft Museum of Art on Saturday and continues through April 26. Get museum details and find nearby restaurants and bars here.

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