The first bit of physical fashion I’ve seen since emerging from my postpartum haze wasn’t even on a human being. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even categorise it as fashion. Jonathan Anderson has taken me to some unexpected non-obvious venues. Places where art and design live and breathe and when his clothes are presented in those contexts, they feel believable. One time, it was the The Millinery Works, a wonderful arts and craft furniture dealer in London, for a Loewe dinner celebrating a collaboration with the textile artist John Allen. Another time, it was up to Cambridge for a J.W. Anderson resort presentation at Kettle’s Yard, where former Tate curator Jim Ede’s 20th century collection was a backdrop for the zany mix of metallic knee-high boots and polka dotty frills. With a very very kind offer to take Nico in tow with us, Steve and I journeyed up to Wakefield last weekend to the opening of Disobedient Bodies, an exhibition curated by Anderson at the Hepworth Gallery, the first of its kind as the gallery invites creatives from outside of the art world to come and present their perspective on the gallery’s modern British art collection.
Anderson’s starting point was that problematic quandary of “Is fashion art?”, a question that he admits was something that irked him. Then two years ago, invited by the Hepworth to come and curate its collection, and embarking on a collaborative process of selecting pieces to converse with one another, Anderson became a convert to the idea of fashion sitting alongside art, sculpture and design on an equal and almost indistinguishable footing. The result is Disobedient Bodies, gathering together over a hundred pieces by artists, sculptors, choreographers, furniture designers, fashion creators and even ceramicists, who have all looked at the body in a rebellious manner. In most instances, the body is absent, altered or abstracted in some way and together it’s an extraordinary assembly of aesthetics.
Henry Moore’s wooden sculpture, the “Reclining Figure” from 1936 marks the beginning of this fluid and unconventional exhibition, where a Madame Grès pleated dress is draped haphazardly on an Eileen Gray Transat chair. Or where a Christian Dior haute couture dress from A/W 1952 with architectured jutting out and undulating hips stands like a totem next to Jean Arp’s S’élevant (Rising Up) sculpture or indeed, Barbara Hepworth’s white marble Totem, both conceived in 1962. One of the central anchor pieces of the exhibition sees a Jean Paul Gaultier jersey dress pulled tautly over a specially made mannequin body where the conical breasts are exaggerated to mimic Moore’s curvaceous figure.
“Can Helmut Lang be seen as powerful as Louise Bourgeois or a Giacometti?” was another hypothetical question that Anderson posed and so Lang’s iconic harnesses and holsters hang behind the spindly Standing Woman by Alberto Giacometti. Aesthetic similarities are drawn in a deliberate bold fashion as the flat steel planes of Naum Gabo’s Head No. 2 are paired with the felt brilliance of Rei Kawakubo’s “2D” A/W 12 Comme des Garćons collection. The padded out fabric tubes of Kawakubo’s “Monster” collection is seen on parity with Sarah Lucas’ “Bunny” works made out of stuffed flesh-coloured tights.
Anderson doesn’t shy away from calling out his heroes and references in his own work. Kawakubo is one of course as is Issey Miyake, whose pleated garments hang next to the lamps of Isamu Noguchi. Other fashion design purists such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens also feature in the exhibition. Anderson’s own work isn’t necessarily the main focal point, but is present where it feels necessary and significant. For instance, a grouping of clear plastic Loewe garments stand next to the only bit of natural light in the exhibition, with Wakefield’s old factory buildings looming in the background.
Housing all of these conversations are curtain-esque partitions made out of surplus fabric from Anderson’s studio, devised by 6a architects in London. It’s an intentional nod at domesticity as are the tables for displaying some of the pieces. You almost trip over the gingham ‘lumps and bumps’ of the infamous Comme des Garcons S/S 97 ‘Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body’ collection as they lay on the floor like casually placed boulders. The tangibility is something that Anderson wanted to convey even if it isn’t quite possible to maul our hands over the art works on display. Hence why the central room of the exhibition has been filled with an installation of twenty eight floor-to-ceiling elongated jumpers, drawing from Anderson’s love of knitwear. Here you can twist and interact with yarn, forming your own tactile ties. Much like the local kids of three schools in Wakefield, who were photographed wearing the exhibition’s fashion pieces by Anderson’s longtime collaborator Jamie Hawkesworth.
That acknowledgement of the Hepworth’s out-of-London location was one of the primary reasons why Anderson was drawn to the project. “London is an island,” said Anderson at the dinner feting the exhibition on Friday night, “We don’t end up sharing or seeing outside of our bubbles.” That’s of course a valid sentiment cited as one of the primary driving forces behind people voting for Brexit. By placing Disobedient Bodies at the Hepworth, Anderson is keen on empathising with this sentiment, by wanting to share creativity across the whole country, and not just within the M25. It’s an attitude that makes sense coming from the Northern Irish Anderson, who once told me he never really identified himself as a “London” designer.
It seems appropriate that for my first work outing, after my own personal life-change, that the fashion that I did see was placed in a context that makes you really think about its true value. Can fashion matter or make a difference? Is it worthy of a similar stature of say, the work of Louise Bourgeois or of course, Barbara Hepworth? Can it comment on our times and the significant world beyond the hyper-glam and privileged surfaces that whirs past us during fashion month? Why yes is the answer which is why when the time comes I’ll gingerly attempt to enthuse Nico about it all. Even if she doth protests.