When compared with disciplines such as the fine arts, photography or architecture, fashion is often seen as a lesser field. Directors of stately institutions and scholars roaming the hallowed grounds of celebrated research universities tend to sniff at the commercial aspect of the discipline, dismissing its intellectual value.
In recent years, however, the perception of its cultural impact has changed, thanks to a group of renowned museums that have enlarged their costume departments and mounted groundbreaking exhibitions.
You could label this phenomenon “the Met effect”: the success of The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, whose recently renovated galleries have been rebranded as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, has made museum directors realise that it's possible to organise academically sound fashion exhibitions while also adding a sheen of glamour to their institutions. Just think of the publicity generated by the Met Ball, the fund-raising gala that the museum holds each May. With other entities such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris making costume shows a cornerstone of their schedule, the acceptance of fashion as a scholarly field is now a given.
There's probably no better person to talk about the role of fashion in academic circles than Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at Les Arts Décoratifs, which is part of the Louvre in Paris. Born in Peru and of French and Chilean descent, Golbin was trained as an art historian at Columbia University in New York, where she also apprenticed at the Met. Since landing her first job at the French institution in 1993, she has been in charge of one of the most extensive costume collections in the world and has organised exhibitions on designers such as Balenciaga, Valentino, Hussein Chalayan and Dries Van Noten.
What do you make of the recent popularity of fashion exhibitions?
In general, the last two decades have been great for museums, which have been doing a great job at making their collections more accessible. Museums today are just part of the cultural landscape. You wouldn't think of going to a city and not visiting one. At the same time fashion has become a global phenomenon. It was international before, but today you can go anywhere around the world and fashion is a crucial industry. So with the two combined, it's only normal that museums and fashion have come together. There has also been a huge amount of work done for fashion exhibitions. Obviously Diana Vreeland has been an incredible mentor at the Costume Institute at the Met that she started in 1973 with an exhibition on Balenciaga, but we at Les Arts Décoratifs opened our fashion galleries on a permanent basis in 1997 – so it's been almost 18 years that we've shown fashion on 17,000 square feet.
What about those who see fashion as a lesser department?
The Dries Van Noten exhibition we recently did is a perfect example. The Louvre lent us paintings, and these aren't just small works of art but masterpieces, and at no point did my fellow curators say no to fashion. On the contrary, my biggest surprise was to see how open and excited about the project they were and it was incredible for me as a curator to be able to speak to my colleagues and see how they said that they'd never seen their art look as good because it was in a different environment.
When you prepare an exhibition, how do you work with the designers?
I try to go in with no preconceived ideas because I think it would be wrong. I often bounce ideas back, asking, “What do you mean by this? What are you talking about?” And then they say, “Oh, I didn't realise that maybe I was thinking about what you told me,” so it's a process of trust and respect. Designers are always about the next thing, not looking back, so when they work with museums, there's this moment they go, “Wait, I don't want to look back'”. What's wonderful about fashion is that, like in any creative field, everybody is wired differently so we have to be very flexible and to let them continue to do what they do, but we have to able to analyse it and put it into context, and that's something that other people cannot do because another question that always comes up is how designers and fashion houses now do their own exhibitions.
Or when a brand sponsors an exhibition. Do you see that as a conflict?
Well, the sponsorship has been a big issue today because before it was just fashion houses but now they're major companies. However, when an artist does a show for a museum, the gallery is always behind the artist and that doesn't pose a problem. I can only speak for our institution but we have always worked with the industrials, whether it would be in decorative arts or fashion. We don't have any problems doing shows on contemporary designers. In America, it's a little bit iffy; it's another way of looking at things. But for us what's important is that contractually the curator has the final say. If a designer wants to do his own show, he can rent his space and do it. The most important thing is that the public knows who did what. That's because the public can be very much interested in what Chanel's point of view is and then the museum's point of view.
When do you feel that an exhibition has finally come together?
It's never-ending, but usually just before the opening. When it opens, it's finished. It's kind of like a collection because when designers receive their prototypes, they're like, “What is this?” But what's incredible about fashion is that it's so proactive and you can change so quickly: there's always that little thing that changes everything and so you have to be very aware so that intuitively you know what needs to be done. I don't think people realise to what extent things are changed just to make sure it's perfect. There are those moments when you're at a fashion show and all of a sudden it's just magical when it all comes together. I think that the passion that everyone involved in the fashion world has is pretty incredible because they're willing to go that extra mile, they're willing to redo everything so that it's perfect.
How do you acquire pieces for the permanent collection?
I work closely with fashion houses. We're very lucky to be here in Paris so we're in constant talk. I go to fashion shows and that's also important for the museum, a part of contemporary culture, but we have a different point of view from a magazine that comes out within a three-month period and has a very specific vision. Our vision is 100 years from now.
Finally, when you did you realise you were going to work in this field?
I saw an 18th-century fashion exhibition here when I was six or seven years old, and what really interested me more than the dresses were the basic questions: how did women dress? How did they put on the pannier? How did they walk through the door? It was huge! How did they sit down? I love fashion but what I love about it is the people. And through fashion you can better understand people and whole eras because it's a visual language. A language that is universal because everybody has to dress.