Fashion sense & Midwestern sensibility

Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's a pity that the new exhibition at the Textile Museum has such a prim and proper title: "Contemporary Japanese Fashion -- The Mary Baskett Collection." The name suggests that the garments, displayed on foam body forms suspended from the ceiling like floating apparitions, are all aesthetics and no function. Items assembled without emotion or without an investment of personal capital. The viewer could easily be forgiven for thinking these clothes by designers Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo were created as exercises in geometry and then purchased as art objects -- meant to be seen but not worn.

And that's a shame, because nothing could be further from the truth. The most provocative and compelling aspect of the exhibition, which runs through April 11, is that these clothes are part of the day-to-day wardrobe of Baskett, an art dealer and a former curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum. These clothes were pulled directly from her closet, not from some cold storage unit lined with acid-free paper.

Many of the garments date from the 1980s, when Baskett made some of her early forays to Japan and became entranced with the work of these designers. Other dresses and suits were recent purchases that Baskett wore perhaps once before turning them over to the exhibition. These are daring garments with uneven hemlines, inside-out collars, strange protuberances on the hips, missing back panels and extra sleeves. They defy mainstream definitions of beauty and propriety. They have the capacity to make observers uncomfortable. And they were brought to life, not in some eccentric neighborhood in New York, Paris or Tokyo, but in the American Midwest -- the land of pragmatism and show-me politics.

The clothes stand as reminders that discomforting ideas can find a home in the mainstream.

In the summer of 2007, a smaller version of this exhibition debuted at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and it was called "Where Would You Wear That?" There's something so much more honest about that plain-spoken inquiry because it cuts to the core of what makes the work of these designers so fascinating and inspiring. There's plenty to admire in the mind-bending silhouettes and textures of these artful creations. The black pleated "Broken Bride" dress by Kawakubo is a complex blend of melancholia and swaggering power, for instance. But essential to the dazzling appeal of these clothes is their capacity to inspire head-scratching skepticism about their practicality. What could a woman possibly do with a dress that has no back? And the ultimate genius of these garments -- and their owner -- is that they prove the skeptics wrong. Wear the backless black dress with a pair of white hot pants! That's what Baskett did.

All the clothes in this exhibition are wholly wearable -- there's no denying this because Baskett stands as proof -- strangely beautiful and utterly timeless. Many of them are as close to art as fashion can be because they force the wearer and the observer to rethink preconceived ideas about how clothes are supposed to function.

The three designers most prominently featured are often linked in the fashion media because of their heritage and their arrival in Paris, the world's fashion capital, from Japan around the same time in the early 1980s. But their styles vary widely. Miyake is best known for manipulating his materials. He developed a method for permanently pleating fabric that gives it both structure and flexibility. His colorful clothes exude playfulness and elegance. Kawakubo, who designs under the name Comme des Garcons, is more intellectual in her approach to fashion, using frayed edges, cockeyed seams and destroyed fabrics to comment on traditional Western definitions of beauty, femininity, power, class and other markers of status or accomplishment. She remains the exemplar of what it means to be an avant-garde designer even today. And Yamamoto is the quintessential tailor. He appreciates classic French style as embodied by Christian Dior and Chanel. Working mostly in black and white, he plays with volume and traditional silhouettes. He explores oversized shapes and blurs the distinction between masculine and feminine with garments that appear to be trousers from the front but a skirt from the rear.

The exhibition is organized by designer and without any real timeline. The goal is not to show how these collections have evolved over the years. And the exhibition was not organized with an eye toward the most significant pieces from any of these designers' collections. For example, there is nothing from Kawakubo's memorable spring 1997 collection "Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body," in which garments included lumps and bumps that called to mind goiters and dowager humps.

This is a personal collection formed by the gentle hand of an adventurous consumer, not an extrovert who merely wants to make a spectacle. These designs politely nudge at our assumptions about public presentation. It's impossible to tell how fat or thin the owner of these clothes might be. None of them are form-fitting. Instead, the garments relate to the female shape in the manner of architecture. The clothes shelter the body but they are not defined by it. The person in these clothes can move freely and unencumbered by cultural expectations about wasp waists, cleavage or womanly hips.

If anything, the clothes enlarge the body, broadening a woman's personal space and announcing with brio her presence in a room. A woman cannot be ignored in these clothes, but she is not capturing the eye by revealing something as intimate as her own skin. Mostly these clothes are not sexy, not even the apron dress that fully exposes the back -- Kawakubo, if memory serves, showed them with the equivalent of boy shorts and granny panties.

These clothes relate to the body in a way that is sculptural and dynamic. Nothing is decided. Everything is negotiable. If a woman defies all the rules about appropriate attire, does that make her an outcast? After all, sometimes these tattered and worn styles can uncomfortably call to mind the homeless.

This exhibition avoids those connotations because it's not composed of exotic costumes or exercises in flamboyance. This is a personal wardrobe -- collected over two decades -- with a point of view. And it suggests that ignoring the rules has given Baskett a unique freedom: the ability to define her public self on her own terms.

Where might a woman go in a lopsided dress with an inside-out collar? For Baskett, the answer has always been "anywhere." Other women can choose to do the same. They might not feel comfortable in Yamamoto or Kawakubo, and that's fine. It's the act of choosing -- not the choice -- that matters most.

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