A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the current gallery exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in downtown L.A. Every year the gallery showcases costumes featured on the small screen, including examples from all the Emmy nominees in costume design (for TV series this year it’s Glee, The Good Wife, Mad Men, 30 Rock and The Tudors).
It was especially fun to see costumes from Glee and Mad Men, not only because I’m a fan of both shows, but because it’s rare that you see current fashion trends suspended in the rarified time and space of a gallery exhibition. Even though Mad Men isn’t set in present time, it’s having a tremendous impact on fashion sensibilities. I’m only up to page 628 (ahem) of the September issue of Vogue, but I’ve already spotted several explicit (and countless implicit) references to the show, including the rather shameless spread called “Sweater Girl” (you can guess who comes to mind).
But the influence doesn’t end there. Hairstyles and interior design are also feeling very Don & Betty Draper these days. My office building was just given a facelift and now the color palette, furniture, fixtures and even the fonts used throughout the building simply scream “Sterling Cooper.”
Oddly enough it’s often disappointing to see a costume in person after you’ve admired it on a screen. The former head of the Costume Designer’s Guild, Deborah Landis, once explained to me that costumes for the screen are ontologically different from ready to wear: costume designers consciously use patterns, designs and shapes that will play well on a two-dimensional screen. When you see them in person, they often seem cartoonish and heavy-handed. They also look a lot smaller than you assume they will: actors who loom large on the screen are often teeny in real life.
One of the things that the acting director of the gallery, Barbara Bundy, called to my attention in this year’s selection of costumes was the shocking austerity of the designs from shows with American religious themes. The Big Love showcase was it’s own kind of show-stopper, with several frightening outifts from the dreaded polygamist compound often featured on the show. Costumes from Amish Grace, a Lifetime movie about the 2006 shootings of five girls in an Amish community, seemed like they had been deposited here from another time and space altogether. And isn’t that the story of fashion? It’s always in dialogue with design history, in one way or another.
The exhibition closes September 4. And admission is free!