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women's history museum 004 collection new york show
Backstage at Women’s History Museum 004Photography Kelley McNutt

Women’s History Museum show mixes performance, fashion & art

The New York-based anti-fashion label puts on another show featuring its radical clothing

I am at the latest presentation put on by Women’s History Museum, a New York-based fashion label headed by Amanda McGowan and Rivkah Barringer. In just four shows it has quickly surfaced as a post-fashion icon, eschewing utility and permanence in favour of clothes that are sculptural, fragmented and gender non-specific.

The room is small and crowded, flooded with young bodies outlined and illuminated by strong, fluorescent lights. In the middle of the space lies a faux-grass runway that leads into a painting; a curtain portraying what looks like a cottage. Stillness falls over everything as a pair of scissors from the other side begins to cut at the wall between our world and theirs. A statuesque beauty emerges, whose posture, gaze and gait all signify a constant shift between newborn and alien; child and “femme fatale.” Industrial hymns rise from some far off siren’s laptop; the show has now begun.

The pieces in the fourth, and most recent, collection displayed an almost regal quality, incorporating heavy use of lace, fur, and flowing swathes of fabric. Many of the works appeared as gowns, capes or collapsed bodices, always accompanied by an intricate headdress or hairstyle (resembling a kind of crown). However, amidst all the rich, decorative elements and heavy materials, there also emerged at times, strong reference to themes of nature, animals and mythical beasts.

Design elements like cat ears, tails, shapeless fur slippers, and bags resembling stones all spoke to this. While some models treated the grass runway as a runway, others treated the grass as grass, moving throughout the space in a wild and almost non-human manner (dare we say post-human?). One particularly memorable moment,  when one of the models moved briskly and low to the ground, their head and back bent forward as they cradled an arm wrapped in a cast. Towards the end of the runway they pulled from their wrapped limb a small object and held it up to the crowd; a purse, a flag, a pearl, a trophy; depending on interpretation. After the models had walked up and down the AstroTurf trail, each moved to one side of the room, eventually forming two packs of monsters. They spoke to each other in silence, touched hair, smiled, took pictures and stared out at the audience. 

In this way the garments put out by Women’s History Museum cannot be “displayed”; they are not static objects. Rather the pieces can only be shown by being performed, used as tools within the unique choreography of each individual model. If the history of “women” often exists by virtue of sexist frames of reference (painting frames, photo frames, corset frames, text message frames) then Women’s History Museum exists by virtue of frames that are constantly being broken and worn by the bodies inside them.

Discover the collection in the gallery above and watch the show in the video below