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The very title of the Temporary Fashion Museum is an oxymoron, suggesting some provocative reflections on the position of fashion within the museological realm. Rather than simply exhibiting fashion, Het Nieuwe Instituut's Temporary Fashion Museum hints at what the fashion museum could be, or (more specifically) makes a proposal for a possible fashion museum. What is the fashion museum today? What could a fashion museum become? And what can museums do to facilitate the way we understand fashion? In this essay, I will begin to answer these questions, placing Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Temporary Fashion Museum within a larger discourse on fashion museology and advancing some reflections on its scope and legacy. In many ways, the Temporary Fashion Museum is a moment to reflect on the dérive of the fashion museum, its current condition and, not least of all, its potential to enable a new knowledge of fashion’s frontiers in the 21st century.

Fashion in the Museum

At first, fashion’s entry into the museum was through the back door. Despite the many institutions now focusing their energies on it, and the recent proliferation of exhibitions devoted to it in museums of various kinds, fashion has not always been considered worthy of being collected in its own right. It was as garments that it originally entered the museum – conserved for the quality of their textiles, or for their cultural or ethnographic value. Behind this restricted kind of collecting lay a moral judgment on the capitalist basis of the fashion industry, and the denigration of fashion as a frivolous, female affair. Although this prejudice was slowly overcome after World War II and the advent of fashion museums and costume galleries, it still reverberates today. It can be seen in the difficulties that attend any definition of the ontology of the fashion museum — a process that perhaps raises more questions than it answers, among them: what are the specific qualities of a fashion museum? And which practices of collecting, conserving, studying and exhibiting should be employed in fashion museums?

Many scholars and curators have started answering such questions through an analytical study of the history of fashion exhibitions and the curatorial strategies adopted by past curators like Diana Vreeland and Cecil Beaton, as well as more recent figures like Maria Luisa Frisa and Judith Clark. They have arrived at some alternative contemporary curatorial practices that have pushed the meaning of fashion in the museum – with Olivier Saillard’s performances with Tilda Swinton being a key example – in a way that questions the very ontology of the museum.

Canons of Time

The Temporary Fashion Museum enters this discussion through multiple narratives which, in their various ways, disrupt the canonical idea of what a fashion museum is. Most obviously, the exhibition’s focus on time argues for the need to think of fashion in a momentary and impermanent framework, rather than in some permanent, solid form. While the title and limited duration of the exhibition recall such temporary conditions, what best evokes this character is the dynamism of the various sections and the objects showcased within them. These question the contradiction between the speed of fashion on the one hand and the notion of the museum as the repository of the past on the other.

This becomes particularly evident if looked at through the lenses of fashion. Ontologically standing between the commercial and the cultural, the extraordinary and the ordinary, the past and the present, fashion highlights the contemporary contradictions of museums, provocatively suggesting that a museum may act like a fashion brand. As observed by Melchior, fashion in museums has often been used to attract media attention and to re-contextualize different cultural institutions. These are increasingly influenced and informed by fashion-production practices (and also consumption practices), as evidenced in the Temporary Fashion Museum.

This seems a paradox, since fashion is now becoming fashionable with museums for precisely those qualities that initially led them to ignore the phenomenon. In the exhibition Are Clothes Modern?, curated by the architect Bernhard Rudosfky and held in 1944 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the aim was not to be a fashion exhibition, to “show[s] the maze of irrational clothing” and bring visitors “to ignore the appeals of advertisers and fashion editors”[12]. The distance from and criticism of the fashion industry resulted in MoMA’s decision not to collect clothing.

In a perverse process, fashion is now appealing to museums exactly for its “maze” and capacity to “appeal” that have kept fashion and its industry practices far from the museum during the majority of the 20th century. Today however, the situation has changed drastically. In fact, MoMA has recently announced the exhibition Items: Is fashion Modern?, which will be held in 2017. As the title suggests, this not only demonstrates an ontological revision of previous ideas about what is modern, but also recognizes the shifting museological paradigms regarding fashion.

Re-fashioning the Institution

Considering such developments, the Temporary Fashion Museum helps to explore and critique the potentiality of fashion’s new attraction for museums, while it also highlights the need to critically rethink the fashion museum in relation to the shifting paradigms of the fashion industry. In this sense, the Temporary Fashion Museum illustrates the potential of an institution like Het Nieuwe Instituut to facilitate and nurture a critical attitude towards fashion in a manner similar to the  ‘institutional critique’ which, in the 1960s, challenged the institutionalization of art. As performance artist Andrea Fraser recalls, the institution was at the centre of an attack by artists who criticized it as a space of control and governance of art, and aimed to expose “the structures and logic of museums and art galleries”. 

Is it possible that the institution has now become a space for self-criticism or, to use Fraser’s words, for “institutional critique”? Enacting a sort of short circuit, Het Nieuwe Instituut shows how the idea of the ‘institution’ may be rethought today and transformed into what art critic Francesco Bonami suggested in his critique to the role of museums in XXI century.[13]

"A contemporary institution should be a temporary point of transit for visions that may also contradict its identity, and which can, in their contradictions, take part in the inevitable and necessary process of transformation."

Such words resonates in the experience of the Temporary Fashion Museum at Het Nieuwe Instituut, which shows how the ‘institution’ may now be re-thought, transformed, or (better yet) re-fashioned into an agile structure able to resist ‘institutionalization’. Such a paradox couples with the oxymoronic attempt of the Temporary Fashion Museum which – lacking a collection and other restrictive museological traits – is able to disrupt the canons of time in the museum as well as ideas of what a fashion museum should or should not be. It seems to suggest the importance of thinking of multiple fashion museums, able to specify their languages and approaches to the phenomenon, while also fostering themselves through collaboration and networking with other museums and different segments of the industry, reminding us of the importance of critically engaging with them.


[1] See Vanessa Friedman, “Hedi Slimane’s Dangerous Legacy”, New York Times, published 02nd April 2016, accessed on 6th April 2016

[2] An example could be seen in the exhibition Fashion Mix. Mode d’ici. Créateurs d’ailleurs, curated by Olivier Saillard and held at the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration – 9th December 2014 – 28 June 2015. Here notions of immigration (also due to the location of the exhibition) were often blended with the simple commercial practices of fashion designers coming to Paris simply to show their collection. Furthermore, the exhibition seemed to perpetuate the 19th-century myth of Paris as epicenter of culture and art via specific curatorial practices, rather than problematize ideas of national identity and creativity in fashion.

[3] Caroline Evans, “Forward”, in Fashion Cultures Revisited: Theories, Explorartions and Analysis, edited by Stella Bruzzi, Pamela Church Gibson, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 77-102

[4] See Carol Vogel, “Architectural Underpinnings of Cinderella”, New York Times, published 30th April 2014, Accessed 10th Apri

[5] Caroline Evans, The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900-1929, Durnham: Yale University, 2013, pp. 177

[6] Laura Marks, Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, pp. 115

[7] Heike Jenss, Fashioning Memory: Vintage Style and Youth Culture, New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, pp. 104

[8] Debora Silverman, Selling Culture. Bloomingdale’s, Diana Vreeland and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan’s America, London: Pantheon, 1986.

[9] Suzy Menkes, “Museum Integrity vs Designer Flash”, The New York Times, published 25th February, 2007, accessed 14th March 2016

[10] Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toeplr, “Commerce and the muse: Are art museums becoming commercial?” in To Profit or Not To Profit. The Commercial Transformation of the Non-Profit Sector, edited by Burton A. Weisbrod, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 233-248.

[11] “‘We’re Not in the Fashion Business’: Fashion in the Museum and the Academy”. Fashion Theory 12.1 (2008): 65-82.

[12] MoMA, “Tradition Challenged in Musuem of Modern Art Exhibition, Are Clothes Modern?”, press release of the exhibition ‘Are Clothes Modern?’ , New York: Museum of Modern Art 

[13] Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Critique”, Art Forum, 44.1 (2005): 278

[14] Francesco Bonami, “A world of Fleas and Elephants, Collective Space and the Crisis of the Museum as Industry”, in Total Living, edited by Maria Luisa Firsa, Mario Lupano, Stefano Tonchi, Edizioni Charta: Milan. 2002, 391.


Temporary Fashion Museum
Guus Beumer
Maureen Mooren

This project is part of the programme track Things and Materials and the folder Material innovation.

Fashion has quietly renewed the very idea of renewal by constantly selling the past as a future, thereby framing current reality. This contrasts sharply with the idea that renewal always stems from technological innovation.