The Kansas City Art Institute doesn’t offer degrees in fashion design, but students in the fiber department spend plenty of time thinking about clothing, costumes, performance and the human body as a means of expression, says Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, the chair of the department.
So when she got a call from Kansas City Museum Executive Director Anna Marie Tutera about co-curating a show called Rituals and Celebrations: Exploring Meaning Through Dress, she was up for it.
“Material is primal in our department," says Verbeek-Cowart. "In our education, what we really stress and focus on is the making of the cloth and the understanding of all of the ingredients: the material, the construction -- whether it’s knit or woven -- the application of dyes and pigments, and how color interacts with these materials and fibers. That’s what we look at: What material have you used, how have you made it and why was that integral to your work?”
Verbeek-Cowart kept that in mind when selecting the pieces for Rituals and Celebrations, all of them by Kansas City designers. “I’m not a fashion expert,” says Verbeek-Cowart. “So I’m not looking at whether something will sell or how it will wear. My eye goes to: How is this material functioning? Is this innovative?”
Here's what she said about some of the pieces.
Artist: Hadley Johnson
“Of all of the artists, this wedding dress addressed our theme so much: Ritual and celebration. This is actually a parachute, so it speaks to so much more than the celebration of a wedding. The material is white, so it looks clean and virgin and like a wedding dress you would imagine, but then you think, ‘This is a repurposed parachute – what did it do?’ It hopefully saved somebody’s life. I was struck by the performative quality, the presence this dress has. It’s striking in such a different way than beautiful lacey material.”
Artist: Julie Urano
“The dress feels like linen, and the color and design is stitched rather than applied on the fabric. And because they’re stitches they have a presence, a materiality that die or paint wouldn’t have. I had a visceral response to this piece, it has meat – a lot of body. The piece around the model’s neck is hanging on the wall at the museum. Julie has a knitting machine, and knits strips of material that are four- to five-inches wide, using yards and yards of material that curls naturally. These pieces become sculptural body ornamentation.”
Artist: Tabbetha Evans
“She is using wool as a material to make jewelry – she rolls and manipulates wool to take on these teardrop or conical shapes. Jewelry is often associated with completely different materials. The metal that holds the wool is not a precious metal – it’s not silver or gold. There’s some beading, so it takes on a tribal feel and makes you question what you’re looking at.”
Artist: Maegan Stracy
“Rather than using paint and die, she hand-knotted this using a tool to make knots in a gauzy material – almost like a looped rug. Because she has creative control over where she puts the white and the blue to make this imagery, she left some material un-looped, undone, so there are open patches. That creates a third color or layer, and it reveals the honesty of this material -- these lace-like, untreated areas.”
Artist: Max Belanger
“He’s in his senior year in the fiber department. I was interested in his use of material and sewing to create a sculptural object. He calls it a helmet, so it’s like it’s protecting him from that day. It’s as if he’s trying not to face the day: ‘There is this rite of passage coming, and how do I feel about it?’ Normally during graduation, you move the tassel from one side of the mortarboard to the other side, but here you have tassels coming from the center and multiple areas, so where would you move the tassel? What does it mean to graduate? Does he really want to graduate? What kind of graduation is it, anyway -- from school, from life? It makes you question that celebration, and it does not have answers. It’s not necessarily a garment, but he’s using the body as a way to speak about this moment.”
Rituals and Celebrations: Exploring Meaning Through Dress, available by tours only from Oct. 4-Nov. 30 at the Kansas City Museum, 3218 Gladstone Blvd., Kansas City, Mo., 64123.