Woman Before Fashion: Diane von Furstenberg exhibition review

5 November 2023, by Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, Costume Society News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews The Fashion and Lace Museum in Brussels’ latest exhibition: Woman Before Fashion: Diane von Furstenberg.

Having opened on the 21st April 2023, Woman Before Fashion is the first European exhibition dedicated to one of the world’s most influential contemporary fashion designers Diane von Furstenberg (DVF). The exhibition’s opening commemorates and celebrates the 50th anniversary of DVF’s most famous silhouette and design, the wrap dress, launched in 1973. “It is very exciting and emotional to be honoured in my native city, Brussels,” DVF said of the exhibition’s opening.

People may not be aware that Diane von Furstenberg was born in Brussels, and the exhibition takes place only a few blocks away from where she attended school as a young girl. In recognition of her Belgian heritage, in 2018 the City of Brussels granted her the title of Honorary Citizen, followed in 2021 by her being awarded Belgium’s Commandeur de l’Ordre de la Couronne (Order of the Crown).

Curated by Nicolas Lor, the exhibition aims to capture the personality of DVF and make her work better known to the Brussels-based, Belgian and European publics. The exhibition opens on fashion, closes on women and is split into four separate chapters over several floors of the museum. Showcasing hundreds of items of which the majority are on loan from DVF’s own archives, the exhibition is not a retrospective and instead focuses on the effortless simplicity of the wrap dress and the freedom it enables women. “For the first time, the brand opened the doors of its archives. Located in DVF’s country home in Connecticut, the archives consist of textile pieces from her entire career as well as a vast graphic and photographic collection. The latter includes rare press archives, painstakingly collected over many years,” Lor shared.

“Since 2017, the Fashion & Lace Museum has been working on collecting and promoting Belgian and in particular Brussels fashion,” exhibition curator Nicolas Lor shared. “While this designer is very famous in the United States, many are unaware of her origins and childhood in Brussels. In my preliminary research, I have been able to glimpse more complex and global aspects of the wrap dress, the designer’s signature work.”

The initial room of the exhibition explores the wrap dress’s Italian origins in the 1970s and the story behind its construction. Interestingly here, the wrap dress is showcased alongside archetype items renowned for similar design principles including kimonos, and a sculpture of Diana of Gabbii draping her tunic . There are also pieces on show by other famed female designers such as a Gabrielle Chanel ensemble, a 1925 silk crepe Madame Vionnet dress and a 1973 Sonia Rykiel ensemble. This room with its dimmer lighting creates an intimate feel.

The second section presents DVF’s key sources of inspirations: women and nature. Her attention to colour and print is explored, before entering the third section of the exhibition which is the American Dream. This section explores the instant success of her jersey wrap dress design in the 1970s and how DVF saw the wrap dress as her vehicle for achieving her own American Dream. As well as dresses, there is a wide array of material culture on show such as runway show videos, fabric swatches, moodboards, photographs of DVF throughout her life and career, letters from fashion legends such as Diana Vreeland and advertisements.

Throughout the exhibition DVF’s enduring support of feminism is communicated, especially in the final section of the exhibition WeAr(e)Able stories, which explores DVF’s conception of clothing as solving women’s problems, the diversity of women who have worn her dresses and her philanthropy. Here there are videos showing four women sharing their own experiences of wearing DVF alongside questions for visitors such as ‘How do you feel when you wear a DVF wrap dress or other items of clothing?’ as well as many mirrors enabling visitors to take selfies. DVF’s touch is clear echoed throughout the exhibition with nice details such as handwritten notes by her on her career timeline and love heart drawings by key dates such as her 1969 marriage to Prince Egon von Furstenberg.

Exhibition curator Lor has a background in history of fashion and has previously worked as an archivist at some of world’s leading luxury houses including Dior, Chanel and Margiela. He was drawn to DVF’s design approach, and with only 18 months to plan this exhibition, Lor enjoyed visiting the archives and the huge collections there to draw out 50 pieces that feature in the exhibition. “I enjoyed working alongside a designer, Diane who was very involved in the exhibition but also allowed me a lot of freedom and space. I was keen to introduce DVF from an academic point of view. My favourite chapter is probably the first one, especially as it introduces the perspective of archetypes and understanding the wrap dress from this point of view. I am very interested in the idea of materiality and the object itself. Of course I always want to show more.”

Diane von Furstenberg recalls how, in his excitement at the prospect of this exhibition, “Nicolas came to America to meet me and enter my archives. We had a natural connection and I was able to share my secret vault and all my inspirations – women, nature and art – and to witness his vision come to life. Together, we retraced a colourful 50-year journey through the images, the inspiration, the life and the fashion… Through many conversations, Nicolas and I formed a deep relationship and were able to discover so much that the exhibition will also have its own book. In my life and work, the woman always come first”.

Housed in a group of historic houses in Brussels, the Fashion and Lace Museum has a collection of 20,000 pieces of lace, clothing and accessories dating from the 16th century to the present day. During this temporary exhibition’s opening, the museum’s lace room on the ground floor is also open, showcasing a small but impressive selection from the collections, highlighting Brussels historic role as a home of lacemaking historically.

The exhibition runs until 7th January 2024 and Lor is already busy planning the next exhibition that will focus on another Belgium born designer.

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