Benjamin investigated this in his unfinished and skeletal work The Arcades Project, which consists of hundreds of pages of fractured notes on Paris in the 19th century, amalgamated from 1927 to his death in 1940.
In the exhibition RetroSpective at the FIT Museum in New York, this tiger’s leap is put on display in a series of outfits lined up to demonstrate how such historical borrowing takes place. The exhibition covers over 200 years of the practice, taking in pieces from the 18th century through to more recent examples of grunge, which are now appearing on the catwalk again a mere 20 years after being established as a subculture.
As Benjamin’s text suggests - and this exhibition proves - looking into the past is a prerequisite in fashion. The practice is not about historicism, or slavishly following the lines of historical dress; it’s about taking details from past pieces and inventing new shapes with those details as starting points.
Take for example a light blue taffeta and mauve velvet evening dress by Pierre Balmain from 1951. Like its neighbour in the exhibition - a robe a l’anglaise from the 1760s - the dress' structure is completely reliant on its undergarments. To create width at the hips there is a pannier, while the waist is made slim by a corset. Although the references to the 18th century dress is there, the Balmain piece is a new departure that is extremely modern in its deconstruction.
Retrospective is divided like this throughout, each section focused on a different period dress. Yet as the exhibition continues, the borrowing doesn’t leap so far back in time. The last section features fashion that recalls the last two decades, such as a dress in printed cotton knit by Nicholas Ghesquière for the house of Balenciaga, which seems to reference New York designer Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti dresses from the 1980s, also on display.
Yet this type of specific pinpointing of references is a little problematic, given that the process of creating a collection often has several starting points. Simply put, the post-construction of a context in which a piece fits is too easy; whether the Ghesquière dress does in fact have a specific starting point in Sprouse’s work is not ascertained.
The show brings to mind another exhibition looking at fashion’s retrospection: Spectres - When Fashion Turns Back, which was shown at the V&A and the Mode Museum in Antwerp in 2005.
Instead of such a literal textbook display as Retrospective, Spectres was a beautifully poised exhibition tackling fashion’s tendency to look back in time. Here the spectres of dresses, silhouettes of times passed, were set up as a series of seven fairground attractions by the curator Judith Clark.
This more nebulous set-up seemed to more accurately present the creative process, which by its very nature is often labyrinthine and surreal. It encouraged the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about retrospection, instead of lining up examples along a straight line.
In this way Spectres seemed more true to Benjamin’s idea of the Tigersprung, and its surreal juxtaposition of times and ideas. It was Spectres, rather than Retrospective, that better captured fashion’s playfulness.