Dressing Up: Costume in the Collection

Nan Goldin, James King Backstage at the Karl Lagerfeld Show, Paris, 1995

About the Exhibition

Various artists pursuing diverse aesthetic inquiries made the photographs in this exhibition. What the pictures share is an emphasis on costume in the construction of meaning. Whether a formal studio portrait, such as James van der Zee’s A Member of Marcus Garvey’s Legion with His Family, 1924 or a work of social satire, such as Elliot Erwitt’s Pennsylvania Dutch and Adidas, Santa Cruz, USA, 1975, it is the social coding of costume that makes each of these photographs intelligible to us.

Photography invites display. The medium’s capacity to describe appearances animates even the least narcissistic among us. We all want to look our best for the camera. In this context, clothing plays an obvious part in how we choose to present ourselves and how we wish to be identified. Instinctively photographers of the social scene, such as Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Peter Bacon Hales, Mary Ellen Mark and Garry Winogrand have responded by seeking out the most demonstrative of subjects, those who through their expressions, gestures or costume willingly collaborate with the artist in the making of a good picture.

Fashion photography’s principal function is to feature clothing for the commercial marketplace. We understand that in fashion pictures the costume is the commodity. Nevertheless, fashion photographers, Victor Skrebneski and Louise Dahl-Wolfe among them, frequently seek to contextualize clothing, placing it within an environment or narrative that invites the viewer to read more into the picture, the models and the clothes. This non-verbal discourse, in which we both acknowledge and embrace the conceit, provides the conceptual framework for Cindy Sherman’s photographs, most of which depict her in ever-changing personae created through extensive costuming.

In his extended essay The Bikeriders, 1965-66, Danny Lyon focused not only on the material trappings and emblems that unite the bikers, but on the individual variations expressed within their order of dress. The codification of the biker’s apparel is so fixed, that it can be likened to the professional uniforms seen in Neal Slavin’s portrait series Groups in America, 1979, or the stock clown costume featured in the photographs of Duane Michels, Nic Nicosia, and Bruce Davidson.