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Curator Chic: are arts professionals the new fashionistas?

23 April 2014

The love affair between art and fashion has been in a pretty healthy state for the last few years. Designers anchor their credibility by collaborating with artists – witness Louis Vuitton pairing up with Yayoi Kusama, Richard Prince and Stephen Sprouse – and museums harness the power of the fashion world to raise their media profiles, as evidenced by the annual Met Ball. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that shows no sign of fading away. Is it the case, though, that this relationship has an impact on the day-to-day style of those of us who work in museums and galleries? Are arts professionals the new fashionistas, or is ‘curator chic’ a style all its own?

A frivolous question? Well, no. I’d argue that personal style is an extension of the work that curators and other arts professionals do – thinking about ways of representing, about the nuances of imagery and context, and the relationships between points of cultural reference. Our work is all about looking and being looked at, and it follows that we are similarly attuned to our own self-presentation. We are all sartor resartus, if you like.

That said, the reality of quotidian dressing can’t be summed up with an easy stereotype or two. There are some curators who fit the fashion plate idea, dressed in the latest that London Fashion Week has to offer before the rest of us have learned to pronounce Erdem Moralioğlu. A few wholeheartedly embrace the anti-fashion art school look – black, navy blue, complicated angles and deliberately unflattering hemlines – while others play up the heritage aspect of their work with traditional, preppy ensembles of tweed, corduroy and cardigans.

So, those stereotypes have a little bit of traction, but they gloss over the practicalities of the job: climbing ladders to open display cases one minute, meeting visiting researchers the next. Not to mention the fact that, as a field, it’s not terribly well remunerated, and most of us don’t have money for Marni. Derisive chuckles were aimed at high-end retailer J. Crew recently, for offering the ‘Curator Pant’ at a mere £168. What exactly makes these women’s trousers more curatorial than any other pair, I am at a loss to understand. It suggests, however, the semantic power of the ‘curator’ trope when it comes to fashion and self-fashioning. It might be an elaborate fantasy, but it’s a fantasy many are willing to buy into.

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Made in Italy, ‘The Glamour of Italian Fashion’ at the V&A (Rosalind McKever)

‘Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol’ at the Fashion and Textile Museum (Carey Gibbons)

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