It was difficult not to get a bit carried away with my weekend trip to Antwerp. This is the city where after all I had made a number of fashion-specific pilgrimages to in my late teens/twenties because of the Antwerp Six, the reputation of the Royal Academy School and the fact that it’s still a bit of a tucked away fashion destination. Due to the fact that the jury schedule for the Antwerp Royal Academy’s fashion deparment was quite tight, it left me with precisely two hours before my train back to London to cram in a visit to all of my usual haunts – Labels Inc, Dries van Noten and the brilliant fashion museum MOMU. I was gutted not to see the Happy Birthday Academie exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the fashion department at the Academy. By all accounts and if the catalogue is anything to go by, that was a epic exhibition.
Currently, MOMU is playing host to feathers. Well, specifically Birds of Paradise: Plumes and Feathers in Fashion, and despite the seemingly specialised nature of that title, the exhibition is anything but feather-light. I’m not sure other physical embellishments in fashion design could warrant its own exhibition like a feather does. That’s down to the history of the feather, worn with symbolic gesture through the ages, the physical varieties of feathers (ostrich, swan, pheasant, duck and surprisingly, chicken seem to be the dominant types on display) but also the number of ways fashion designers have used feathers in their work in the 20th-21st century. That’s how the exhibition is partially split up as it looks at the feather used as a trimming, as a trompe l’oeil print or as an overall texture. These parts of the exhibition showcase the intricate and work of premiere plumassiers such as Maison Lemarié in Paris (who contributed to MOMU for the exhibition) for haute couture houses and there are stellar examples on display. Chanel of course features heavily as does Cristóbal Balenciaga, who employed feathers to create some of his most striking silhouettes in the sixties and Yves Saint Laurent, who emancipated the feather (and arguably women) from being merely ornamental.
There are parochial points of categorisations such as examples of feathers used in footwear and hats. They feel like filler cabinets, although the collection of feather-adorned Roger Viviers are a delight to see in terms of colour and what was once directional experimentation. Where the exhibition does excel though is when it explores the more emotive and ethereal moments where feathers are explored for their symbolic and poetic qualities. Thierry Mugler’s fantastical bird, butterly and woman hybrid dress from his 1997 haute couture collection opens the exhibition with an impressive feathered wingspan that depicts woman as flighty and mysterious. Ann Demulemeester is given a section to herself as she has turned to the feather (particularly the feather of a dove) time and time again as a personal talisman, believing in its natural beauty. “We cannot perfect nature,” she says in the programme notes. The duality of the White and Black Swan play out in two sections, led bu two Alexander McQueen feathered gowns pitted against each other (incidentally the one white dress is designed by Sarah Burton and the black by Lee McQueen).
It’s here where feathers go far and beyond simply decorating a dress but imbuing it with a special aura, playing into mythical bird women imagery. That mysterious feeling surrounding a bird feather are further emphasised with installations by British artist Kate MccGwire dotted around the exhibition. Their scale startles you and makes you stop for a moment to respond to their strangeness. Ditto for Sølve Sundsbø’s famous Perroquet video series for SHOWStudio.com. You leave wondering how all this strange beauty can be derived from supposedly lightweight feathers.
Hermès printed dress 1970-80