Fashion and Fabric at the ROM

A beautifully eclectic array of fabrics has taken over the ROM’s Patricia Harris Gallery, taking visitors from the rise of Islam to today’s diverse incarnations of fashion. The sharply angled walls of the Michael Lee Chin crystal are lined with glass display cases of fragile early Islamic textiles, encircling an army of mannequins that dominate the gallery’s centre. Cairo Under Wraps: Early Islamic Textiles and Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting each tell a different story about our relationship to fabric, and each allows a strong sense of history come through in the telling. The Islamic textiles, a type of cloth called tiraz bearing sacred inscriptions, are on display in honour of the opening of Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum this year, while Fashion Follows Form chronicles Canadian designer Izzy Camilleri’s mission of creating clothing for clients seated in wheelchairs.

Fragment of a shawl or turban ROM
Fragment of a shawl or turban

Cairo Under Wraps curators Anu Liivandi, Dr. Karin Ruehrdanz, and Dr. Lisa Golombek have assembled a selection of around 80 precious textiles dating from the 8th to 12th centuries that offer a unique window into the early history of Islam. The gorgeous Arabic lettering inscribed on the artifacts served not only as a means of communication, but as a symbol of the faith itself as it began to gain prominence in the east. An almost impossible amount of detail and beauty is contained on a very small scale in an exhibition dominated by small shreds of fabric and shards of pottery. Small is shrewdly balanced with big, however. Coptic tunics and larger samples of modern fabrics allow visitors to take a break from squinting at intricate, tiny script, and a slideshow of blown-up images showing the cloth’s texture gives an impactful view of the craftsmanship that went into each piece.

Some of the exhibitions highlights include a fragment of linen turban cloth bearing silk and gold tapestry bands, coins belonging to the Fatimid Caliph al-Mansur, and a ceramic bowl showing tiraz textiles in the form of a garment worn by a court musician.

Izzy Camilleri’s IZ Adaptive line for wearers in wheelchairs adorns mannequins both standing and seated as part of the Fashion Follows Form exhibition. IZ Adaptive was inspired by Camilleri’s encounter with journalist Barbara Turnbull, when Turnbull asked her to design a winter cape for her. Quadriplegic since the age of 18, when she was shot during a robbery while working as a convenience store clerk, Turnbull’s form posed a brand new challenge for Camilleri as a designer. After this first foray into design for the seated, L-shaped form, Camilleri asked Turnbull to help her assemble a focus group to pinpoint the clothing needs of disabled people, and subsequently launched IZ Adaptive in 2009.

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In collaborating with Camilleri on the exhibit, curator Dr. Alexandra Palmer aimed to guide people away from conventional ideas about fashion. She points out that while we think of most clothing as looking “correct” standing up, Camilleri’s designs are the inverse; they look correct sitting down.

One of the most fascinating features of the exhibit is the homage it paid to the past. The pieces are interspersed with several historical outfits from the ROM’s collection, such as a crinoline bustle, a man’s 18th century breeches and coat, and a woman’s side-saddle riding habit, which included an original 18th century skirt acquired from the Lillian Williams collection. This juxtaposition helps drive home the concept for which the exhibit was named – the idea of designing clothing to accommodate the form of the human body – and these pieces show how the process of creating clothes for both the seated and standing form is nothing new. In fact, many of the IZ Adaptive pieces were modeled after designs from yesteryear. For instance, Camilleri’s men’s trouser design represents a return to stitching patterns that prevailed before the rise of today’s ubiquitous ultra-slim fit; namely, patterns that left room for the bum when seated.

The pieces are also skillfully placed in the context of widespread fashion trends, in addition to that of the exhibit’s theme of following the human form, rather than isolating them as fashion for people with disabilities. The denim maxi skirt was presented not only as an ingeniously designed piece for a seated person, but simply as a maxi skirt, just like the ones that have come and gone throughout fashion history and are now back in force.

Separating Leather Jacket, ROM
Separating Leather Jacket

Seeing the pieces, whether a bridal gown and a three-piece suit or a leather biker jacket, displayed on both sitting and standing mannequins helps visitors leave behind their preconceived notions of how fashion should look. The mechanics of each piece are also beautifully presented, with diagrams of the stitching patterns and explanations of how the clothing would react to the movement of a seated person. Palmer notes that one of the biggest challenges of displaying an exhibit like this one, which derives so much of its impact from subtle mechanical details, is that the average visitor today would have very little understanding of sewing and clothing construction. The displays handled our collective handicap with ease, however. The amount of thought put into every detail of the clothing’s construction to maximize its accessibility, such as the increased size of the zipper pulls, is abundantly clear, and it’s staggering.

Camilleri’s other designs are also on display, including her line for female baby boomers and images of the fur coat she designed for Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.

Cairo Under Wraps and Fashion Follows Form are both on display from June 21, 2014 – January 25, 2015 in the Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume.

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