Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Angry Dispatches From The Prada-Free Zone

This week I found myself enraged by an article published over a decade ago.  On Monday I met with the director of my museum to talk about the possibility of doing a major fashion exhibition in the future. He liked my idea but also encouraged me to think critically and ponder some tough questions before preparing a more official proposal. 

One of the issues he brought up was the fact that some of the themes of my proposed exhibition were similar to a 2001 show MOHAI did called Who? What? Wear!. I had heard about it, but what I didn't know was that it had gotten a snarkily scathing review in the New York Times.  He encouraged me to read the review and acquaint myself with what I would be up against. 

The piece in question was written by Alex Witchel and titled "Seattle Style: A Contradiction In Terms?" Let me walk you through it. 

It starts like this: 

The first name this town ever had was given to it by settlers in 1851: ''New York Alki,'' which translated from Chinook jargon means ''New York . . . Someday!''

One hundred and fifty years later, the question remains: But when?

Wow. Awesome. She starts out by making it sound like Seattle has desperately, pathetically, always wished it was New York. I have usually heard the translation as "New York by and by," which to me has a cooler "just wait this city is going to be awesome" connotation than "Someday!" which sounds like it is being sung by a starry-eyed cowboy in a musical. 

The next line goes right for the jugular.

The delay was painfully evident at the Museum of History and Industry's current exhibition, ''Who? What? Wear!'' 

Can we just pause here for a moment and bring up the fact that in 2001 MOHAI had way fewer resources that it does now? It was a small museum with a small budget in an aging venue. You are really going to judge the progress of an entire city based on one one exhibit in an underfunded museum?  

At a time when fashion has been invading museums and the Jacqueline Kennedy exhibition is packing them in at the Met in New York, the home of Eddie Bauer finds itself wrestling with the sticky questions, ''What is Seattle Style?'' and, perhaps more to the point, ''Is there a Seattle Style?''

Oh, here we go. MOHAI a fair comparison to the Met and Eddie Bauer as the one and only point of reference for clothing in Seattle. I'm shocked that grunge didn't get mixed in there too. 

For a while she diverts to explain that her only knowledge of the city comes from a 1960s TV show and that for assistance she recruited Stranger editor Dan Savage as a companion for the tour. 

Mr. Savage qualified as a tour guide in this Prada-free zone was that he freely admits to being clueless about clothes.


Seattle style, which seems to have two claims to fame: Eddie Bauer, with his insulated down jackets and outerwear, and Kurt Cobain, with his secondhand flannel shirts and ripped jeans, which inspired the grunge craze.

After making fun of the fact that there was no one else in the museum, Savage starts spouting some pretty brutal Seattle shade:

"Seattle thinks it's Paris but it's really Dubuque...Seattle has that Podunk thing going on -- the people running it haven't ever been anywhere else. Anybody who's been to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Met in New York, to say nothing of Europe, would walk into the Seattle Art Museum and have to take a fistful of Xanax."

Yep. Seattle museums are smaller and less lavish because we are all homebound hicks who down't know any better. 

At that moment, Leonard Garfield, the museum's executive director, appeared, clearly unnerved at the prospect of having the town malcontent aim his ire at the rain poncho and stirrup pants from the Century 21 fashion show at the 1962 World's Fair, which was to have introduced Seattle Style to the world.

Ok, fact check. The fashion show at the the World's Fair was sponsored by Vogue and starred ready-to-wear clothing from all over the country. Any snark about those clothes should be directed toward the American clothing industry, not Seattle. 

Then, some more bitchery from Savage:

"It's like the Victoria and Albert concept applied to a place where people have only been wearing clothes for 150 years,'' Mr. Savage observed. ''Until the 50's, all of Seattle was Times Square, filled with whorehouses, and now they're trying to stamp that out..."


...After surveying different displays of Earth shoes, a christening gown and an evening gown on a mannequin wearing a paper hat fastened with a brooch, Mr. Savage threw up his hands. ''I lived in Europe for four years,'' he said. ''You see the Vatican Museum, and even the Egyptians at the Met in New York bores you after you've seen what the Pope got first. So displays like these, applied to Grandpa's closet, are just weird.''

Ugh, tell me about it. Any museum less dazzling than the V&A, the Vatican, or the Met should just shrivel up and die already. 

After Savage explains that Seattle is transitioning into becoming a big city, Witchel concludes the review this way:

It still has a way to go. At the front desk, I asked a receptionist if the museum had a restaurant where we might sit down and keep talking.

She smiled brightly. ''No, we just have junk food in vending machines,'' she said.

Ah. Maybe someday.

Ugh. Condescending crap like this is what gives New Yorkers a bad name. 

Now, I understand that I am a "Let's give everyone a medal just for participating!" sort of person, and that sometimes reviews are about handing out harsh truths. Seattle is not New York. True. Who? What? Wear! was probably not the most polished of exhibits, and whatever I create won't be on par the Met or the Museum at FIT either. True. 

But looking at one exhibition to prove a point about style in Seattle? Measuring all museums against the top institutions in the world, and assuming all shortcomings are proof that the local idiots must not know any better? Picking someone who doesn't care about clothes as the ideal informant about fashion in Seattle? Doing no research and relying on old cliches about Eddie Bauer and grunge? 

This is me applauding your amazing, insightful review

Oh, and BTW we aren't a Prada-free zone and weren't in 2001 either. You could buy Prada at Barney's in Seattle in the 1990s and Nordstrom sells it now too. Also, be careful what you say. The Schiaparelli and Prada exhibition at the Met was possible thanks to funding from Seattle online retailer 

It made me all the more excited to try to prove this kind of thinking wrong. Seattle is different from New York yes, but its style is interesting, complicated, innovative, and sometimes devastatingly glamorous. You'll see. I'll have my revenge...Alki. 

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