Fashion and costume exhibits at art museums have become quite popular in the past few years. That probably owes less to women’s fashion magazines and more to the growing influence of reality-television shows and gossip tabloids. The latter have secured the design world’s muses and main characters, the behind-the-scenes glamour, and, most importantly, the bitchfighting, and broadcast them to an audience that may never have dreamed the word “chic” could be incorporated into its daily vernacular.
US Weekly’s “Who Wore It Better,” various prime-time shows (Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, The Agency), and Hollywood gossip blogs featuring wire-agency snaps of professionally styled It Girls have brought the once insular world of fashion into mainstream consciousness. While Whitley doesn’t credit the transition solely to the impact of The Devil Wears Prada, she notes that, today, “Your average person feels that they have a little more understanding and a little more access to [fashion].”
The upstart designers who Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour chooses to promote in the pages of her magazine are still given the same kind of publicity-blitzkrieg golden ticket an author receives when chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. But lately, Wintour’s no longer had the exclusive on which trends explode and which ones die before H&M can propel them into the mass market. According to celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, what Wintour deems relevant may no longer matter, now that fashion is at the mercy of low culture. In a September 16 New York Times Magazine profile, Zoe, who is working to parlay her theory into a self-branded movement, delivered the following burn: “Anna Wintour is one of my heroes, but they say that I’m more influential. As great as it is, Vogue won’t change a designer’s business. But if an unknown brand is worn by a certain person in a tabloid, it will be the biggest designer within a week.”
“Walk This Way” distinguishes itself from other recent fashion-as-art installations, such as the new “The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–1957” exhibit at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum or “Fashion Show: Paris Collections 2006,” the MFA’s blockbuster winter exhibit. The idea is not simply to facilitate museumgoers’s gawking at a lovely set of square-toed silk-satin slippers manufactured by the Parisian firm Viault Esté and leave it at that. The MFA already went that route in its 1978 just-the-shoes gallery show, “Stepping Out,” in which it displayed the bulk of its historic footwear collection. Rather, “Walk This Way” requires the consideration of the period footwear in relation to the dress and culture of the times, whether it’s a strappy pair of suede sandals owned by Marilyn Monroe or a Nubian thong dating back to the Byzantine period.
While some juxtapositions require a bit more conjecture — such as the leather-and-linen English women’s tie shoes decorated with a “counted thread” embroidery technique that matches the seat cover of an American side chair from the late 1700s — a good portion of the 28 pairs of shoes included in “Walk This Way” offer a clear connection between the footwear and the art. A couple of wood-inlaid kabkabs (bath stilts) are placed alongside the willowy, bare-backed woman in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Moorish Bath” in the MFA’s second-floor European gallery. Within the 19th and 20th century American wing, there are two tiny sets of doll shoes trimmed with ribbon and beads and manufactured in France in the 1870s. They’re placed in a case next to John Singer Sargent’s iconic “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” in which one little girl is absorbed in play with an exquisite china doll. Larissa Ponomarenko’s bedazzled pointe shoes from her performance in the Boston Ballet’s Cinderella this past fall are adjacent to Degas’s petite “Little Dancer” sculpture.