The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection - Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection

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In the small group of high-culture institutions that venerate the art of fashion, Black designers have been largely overlooked.

It would have been one of the most glamorous events of Paris Fashion Week.

On Oct. 1 the Palais Galliera, the Paris fashion museum, is scheduled to reopen after a two-year and almost $10 million renovation with the blockbuster exhibition “Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto,” the first Paris retrospective of the designer’s work (hard as that may be to believe). There would have been a big party. There would have been Champagne and much swanning around. There would have been a lot of Chanel and Chanel-adjacent celebrities.

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Now, of course, the evening has been canceled because of the pandemic. The museum will reopen by appointment, and quietly.

Still, select guests will get to ooh and aah over the show, as well as the other major change in the space: a doubling of the museum’s galleries that will allow it to display, for the first time, a rotating sample of its permanent collection, which includes approximately 200,000 objects dating from the 18th century to today. It is one of the largest and most extraordinary collections of fashion in the world.

But just as extraordinary is another, much less glamorous reality: Of those 200,000 objects, according to Miren Arzalluz, the director, only 77 pieces of clothing were created by Black designers (and only seven Black designers are represented). That’s about .04 percent.

It’s a startling imbalance, but it is effectively the status quo in the small group of globally renowned high-culture institutions historically charged with preserving and protecting the art of fashion.

There have been specific shows on Black designers, such as “Willi Smith: Street Couture,” currently on view at the Cooper Hewitt in New York, and “Black Fashion Designers,” a 2016 exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology. And while the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington includes dress, the globally renowned galleries that have historically crowned the kings and queens of fashion have hewed to a canon of Great European Designers that is entirely white: Worth, James, Dior, Vionnet, Poiret, Chanel, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli, Grès, Givenchy and Saint Laurent (to name a few).

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At the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, none of the named designers in the three pages of online “highlights” from the 33,000-piece collection are Black. (A spokeswoman for the department noted that the highlights section “is part of The Met’s Digital department, and the CI has not reviewed the page in more than 20 years. It is in need of updating.”)


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