A problem of archival research is that the product of that archive is mass deception. There is a discrepancy or conceptual divide between how an item is represented and how it is appraised and understood. Additionally, archives have multiple meanings – what an interpreter brings to the archive (ideas, backgrounds, preconceptions) modifies presented information.
The peripheries and lacunas of Look 10 from The House of Dior’s Haute Couture exhibition evoke Joan Cock’s position that it is
paradoxically in hiding that the secrets of desire come to light (hooks). We will look at what Look 10 ‘hides’, what it overtly does not talk about and address, and consider why this is problematic. These gaps reside in the tension between art, capitalism and the relationship between the body and clothes to society.
The exhibition displayed online and at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, was arguably curated to emphasise that rather than couture being an anachronism, elitist and irrelevant, it is a system that preserves and protects skills, craft and inimitable one-off fashions (Corner 11). Christian Dior considers couture dress to possess
the unique and extraordinary character of art objects. They are among the last remaining things to be made by hand, by human hands whose value remains irreplaceable for they endow everything they create with qualities that a machine could never give them: poetry and life (Dior). In this sense, couture exists as an object of relationality. The archive doesn’t necessarily deceive; Look 10 reminds us it has multiple pasts and multiple meanings that shift according to curation. As Roland Barthes states in The Fashion System (1969)
Clothing concerns all of the human person, all of the body, all of the relationships of the body to society (Corner 45). Barthes purports that wearing clothing is a signification, a social act that lies
at the heart of the dialectic of society (Corner 45). So, when couture is removed from its functional relationship to the body and is instead displayed on exhibition – that objects relationality and symbolic power is transformed; the presentation of that archive (couture) transforms its meaning which has been actively constructed.
Look 10 takes us back to 1947 when Christian Dior created the New Look for the post-war woman (Dior). When I consider Look 10 was remade in 2017 and commissioned from Dior with funds from the recent David Richards Bequest, I interpret this object to reflect Postmodernism in the service of capitalism – fashion is, after all, a multi-billion dollar industry.
When I visited the NGV in Melbourne (in March 2018), I noted Frances Corner’s book Why Fashion Matters (2016) was in the gift shop. Was this text an extension of the object of Look 10? I think so. Did The House of Dior or NGV wish to solidify couture’s status as a beautifully exquisite, skilful and powerful artform through the periphery of Corner’s book? Probably. The archive does not set out to talk about these concerns, it does not explicitly open a dialogue where we consider that brands are symbols on cloth – largely because couture is not just a cloth, and brand that wields power – it is a very intricate, very artistic and very expensive symbol that wields power when clients (consumers) give over to these markers of haute couture which seeks to gain capital via art form.
There is a conceptual divide between those who create and those who decode, and how an object is represented is not the only way it can or will be appraised or interpreted.
The archive as mass deception is of consequence because when we consider that fashion as an archive is so much more than clothes, it is a
physical manifestation of complex ideas and motivations, (Corner 126) this inevitably reinforces the concept Jacques Derrida put forth in Archive Fever that the question of the archive is not a question of the past, it necessarily involves questions of lacuna/periphery in the active construction of an archive (Derrida 36). Like Marcel Duchamp’s signature ‘R. Mutt’ on an upturned urinal, titled Fountain (1917) Corner picks up in Why Fashion Matters, that
Duchamp believed that in labelling the urinal art, it became art (Corner 56). Thus, this idea of the archive as mass deception is brought to light when we consider why we value objects – is it because of the label or craft? Is it because the archive is largely a product of curation and a reflection of our appraisals? Yes, I think so. Still, these questions afford us to reconceptualise the status of art in the archive.