Bones’ Beat: Getting ‘Gothic’ at FIT


This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, plumbs the bizarre, dark depths of one of New York’s least visited cultural landmarks, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. As it turns out, dark things are afoot…

On Saturday I visited the Fashion Institute of Technology for the first time. Two blocks long, with a surprisingly peaceful central promenade running the length of 27th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue, FIT is a miraculous shanty town of bonkers architecture. I’ve wanted for years to prowl the limestone monster on 7th that is the school’s prominent public face because, like all great Brutalist edifices, it is cold, forbidding, ugly and scary. It seems to have around 30 windows in total, lonely things pasted across an oddly ordered and mighty fussy tangle of giant rectangular stone slabs. The building cantilevers out on the higher floors, providing shelter at street level—along with an incessant looming fear of being crushed. I sang praises to this beautiful creature through the afternoon’s heavy jelly of fog and rain, trying to find the proper entrance for Gothic, the Museum at FIT’s new special exhibition.

The Museum, free to visit and open five days a week, with a dedicated exhibition program and hundreds of thousands of pieces in its archives, is no slouch. Did you know this? I ask simply because I’ve never seen FIT’s Museum put into play during the competitive cultural checklist section of bourgeois bonehead NY gatherings I occasionally attend, and those folks are constantly looking for fun new finds with which to trump each other. I can’t understand why this scholarly and well-endowed place has to exist like this, below most radar, unconsidered in depth by the popular press, brushed from the dinner-party tablecloth like baguette crumbs. Perhaps FIT doesn’t advertise enough. Could it be as simple as that?

I can’t help but start by saying that Gothic (subtitle: Dark Glamour), an exhibition of a century and a half of outfits, jewelry, and photographs under the genre’s both broad and monolithic rubric, is incredibly goofy, and not like other museum exhibitions. It was so dimly lit that one risked bashing into people, many of them old dears, at all times. Scribbling freshmen clustered like moths around scant beams, struggling with their assignments. The main exhibition space is divided into spaces with names like ‘The Ruined Castle’, ‘The Haunted Palace,’ and ‘The Graveyard’. Obsidian paint washes everything from the walls to the jumbo props, an array that includes wrought-iron fencing, crumbling bricks, and obelisks. The wall text is at times amusingly pedantic, informing you that Dracula only started wearing a cape with the advent of cinema, and times bafflingly hollow: “Skingraft Design purveys very high-end Goth styles”, says one, inviting a good quizzical head-scratch. A full moon is projected on to the wall, with clouds drifting through.

There are very affecting moments. A Thierry Mugler ‘Bat Dress’ from 1981, eerily timeless, performs sterling service in debunking common bias and cliché surrounding ’80s fashion. A Hussein Chalayan top with an oversized sort of boil enveloping the head does speak of “claustrophobia and vertigo” as the text suggests, but also, adorably, makes the lady look like a giant owl. A Comme Des Garçons piece from 1997 features not just a gigantic bustled bumper but also fearsome razored shoulder blade protuberances: rosy health and anorexic illness at war on the female form. Observations as potent as these take place when one is in the presence of art.

I first realized there was a problem while standing by a large vitrine of contemporary Gothic style, where first-wave punk gear, ornate worn motorcycle leathers, and cyber concoctions are displayed behind two-way mirrors. Lights on a timer mean you see the clothes for a minute or two, then yourself for a minute or two, then the clothes… you get the picture. The ruse, of seeing the dark side inside of yourself, is creaky from the get-go and, worse still, intensely frustrating. I understood there, in front of a display that patently didn’t work, that I was sealed in an environment struggling with its own reflection. One expects a Museum devoted to fashion to be intensely committed to questions of appearance, but the mirror only echoes what is already there. The notion of Gothic is, at this point in time, a lot more interesting than black clothes, and infant death, and full moons, and wrought iron, and hellhounds going “ahwoooo!” Gothic in New York City is puddles with hues of indeterminate origin, and your cellphone saying ‘Private Number’, and construction work that starts outside your bedroom window at five in the morning. Gothic in New York City is a building on 7th Avenue that says it will hate you forever while you profess your undying love.

Evolving style movements seam and pill in the fabric of our everyday lives, and their discovery and refinement on our doorstep is always an inspiration, and a source of great pride. The Museum at FIT stands very still, a passive participant to be looked at instead of one who looks. Perhaps this is why FIT, while meaning well, is too hermetic to mean a lot to New York. It would certainly help if we talked about it more. So please do pay a visit. You’ll smile and it doesn’t cost a dime, and that’s two urgently needed gifts in one place. -Bones

Gothic is up at the Museum at FIT until February 21st, 2009. Though many of FIT’s buildings are closed to the general public, it is easy to roam much of the campus without too much trouble.

Next Week, Bones checks in on the second half of Chris Johanson’s solo exhibition at Deitch Projects in Soho. Johanson has been a totemic hero of Luddite/Hobo humility to young artists for about a decade. In New York he fraternizes with Jeffrey Deitch, one of the art world’s top-flight big boys. How does it all add up?