Elements of Style: Pantsuits at an Exhibition


November 14, 2000

OK, you be the judge: Either (A) the people at the Guggenheim who decide what shows to mount went into a huddle and emerged shouting, “Let’s do that guy who took the padding out of suit jackets!” or (B) the fact that Giorgio Armani has promised to donate a rumored $15 million to the Guggenheim had a little something to do with his name springing to committee members’ lips. If you believe the answer is A, then the curators at the Guggenheim are a bunch of boobs with only the dimmest idea about who, or what, is worthy of a museum retrospective. If you picked B, then something far more sinister than ignorance is afoot.

No matter what you decide, the evidence that Mr. Armani scarcely deserves the laurels laid at his impeccably shod feet is fully revealed on those Frank Lloyd Wright ramps: a collection of dull, ordinary day clothes, mostly from the late ’90s, that seem to have gotten lost on their way from Bloomingdale’s to Loehmann’s, and a gaggle of evening dresses that, while pretty, are in fact no prettier than plenty of the stuff in upscale department stores, where some of these same garments no doubt recently hung. (Or in the case of the fall 2000 items on exhibit, currently hang.)

Which is not to say that Armani hasn’t made any contributions to the history of fashion. He has—just not enough, after 25 years in business and a raft of licensees that include everything from eyeglasses to underwear, to justify a retrospective. So for the record: Yes, Mr. Armani eliminated shoulder pads and linings from men’s suits. And yes, he offered those same deconstructed suits to women, thereby giving female executives something to wear to work besides stiff “dressed-for-success” suits and bow ties. And yes, he also came up with something known as the “power suit,” which was the polar opposite of the deconstructed suit and featured broad shoulders and a slim-fitting waist. All of these were offered in neutral, inoffensive shades of beige and gray, as were many of Armani’s evening gowns, conceived to make a subdued splash on the red carpet outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The first outfit that greets you as you ascend the ramps—a trek that becomes increasingly benumbing as you trundle on—is a black-and-white beaded pantsuit: modest and tasteful despite the slight vulgarity allover beading invariably imparts, and no doubt intended for a youthful mother of the bride who shuns pastels, a prosperous uptown type who is, like as not, a contributor to institutions like the Guggenheim.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. People need clothes, and Armani’s things, with their famous droopy silhouette and bland palette, at least have the advantage of not embarrassing the wearer—a problem, alas, with plenty of other designer clothing. And the elaborate evening gowns, especially the ones with fancy themes like lily pads and spiderwebs, are undeniably arresting, at least as nice as the party clothes currently enshrined at Bergdorf’s 30 blocks south.

Of course, unlike the Guggenheim, Bergdorf’s doesn’t have a whole separate room papered with blurry photos of movie stars and a roving spotlight illuminating first one gray celeb, then another, all wearing Armani outfits. Underneath this panoply are the dresses themselves, with little note cards describing who sported what when. (If you don’t care what Rita Wilson donned for an awards benefit, you are obviously not the intended audience for this display, but plenty of other people are: The putative sponsor of the show—at least the one the museum is willing to credit—is the phenomenally popular InStyle magazine.) Actually, the big draw in this room is the gigantic video screen showing clips of films with Armani-clad actors including Richard Gere, though one suspects the crowd gathered is hanging around in hopes of gaining a glimpse of Gere’s bare heinie rather than his American Gigolo outfits.

The museum-goers viewing these displays don’t seem to know quite what to make of this stuff. They gaze hard, then turn to each other and say things like “Don’t you have pants like that?” Too bad they didn’t read the catalog ($49.95 in paperback; $175 for the special gift-box edition); then they could look at a woman’s suit from 1994 and spout sentiments like “Armani’s affinity for a Bauhaus reductivism does not manifest itself as a blind functionalism. Rather, collarpieces, the skirt of a jacket, or the finish on a lapel can become an ornamental flourish derived from a vestigial structural component.” Or perhaps they’d prefer to quote semiotician Marshall Blonsky, who, in one of the catalog’s many bloated essays, describes a necktie thus: “I have on my desk as I write a tie that I wore last night. It is a five-year-old, heavy, olive silk whose ‘striping’ is not colored at all but is rather ribbing, threads that have been made to surge from the surface, sometimes the thread becoming not a thread at all, but a fold. It is as if you were looking at a dried-up river, the ridges of its bed now visible. An ancient Green Sea. It makes you look in.” Gee, and you thought that, even if you got it for free, sometimes a tie was just a tie.

But let’s not pick on Blonsky (though his essay does manage to disinter the battered corpse of Karl Marx and force even him to join the chorus of Yes, Giorgios). Plenty of other folks fall over each other in the catalog, including Vogue’s Hamish Bowles, who, in an essay called “Armani and Hollywood,” has a novel way of describing Armani’s practice of shipping crates of free clothes to celebrities before Oscar night, hoping to get publicity in exchange for clothes: “Armani has developed symbiotic relationships with today’s stars.”

The exhibit does break new ground in one respect—print ads, billboards, and other selling tools Armani has employed over the years are deemed worthy of inclusion in the show. (If you can’t bear to leave without a souvenir, note cards decorated with Armani ads are available in the three gift shops that punctuate the exhibit.) The catalog, too, finds room to extol the virtues of Armani advertisements. Susan Cross, in an essay about a magazine spread depicting three barely dressed teenage girls, says, “an advertisement for the spring/summer 2000 women’s collection features a triad of Lolita-like beauties in barely-there bikinis, sheer hot pants, and cropped tanks. . . . This representation of woman (or girl) as object of desire is one of a number of guises traditionally offered to women that we can now choose to appropriate and re-create.” How fresh and new: see-through hot pants for a 12-year-old to appropriate and re-create.

If someone only slightly younger than these half-clad nymphs accompanies you to the Guggenheim, the museum supplies a “Family Activity Guide” full of pictures of white people in Armani ensembles. “Imagine that you are wearing one of these suits,” the Activity Guide instructs. “Circle the word or words below that might describe your feelings if you were wearing this suit.” Suggestions include “formal,” “important,” “comfortable,” “proud,” and “elegant.” For some reason, the museum forgot “spoiled,” “craven,” “unprincipled,” “$15 million.”