At Antwerp’s ‘Mirror Mirror’ Exhibit, Fashion and the Psyche Intertwine to Probe Notions of Beauty

If fashion’s last several years have been about challenging outdated beauty ideals — whether pertaining to racial, size or gender diversity — the “Mirror Mirror” exhibit may be the artful answer to continuing that challenge, and investigating how we feel about it all.

A joint exhibition between Antwerp’s MoMu fashion museum and the Dr. Guislain Museum in Ghent, which holds exhibits on the history of psychiatry in what was formerly Belgium’s first mental asylum, “Mirror Mirror,” which opened earlier this month, looks at how fashion, psychology, self-image and identity intertwine.

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It’s an unexpected melding designed to surface dialogue about something fairly commonplace: people’s personal experience of their bodies and the impact of adorning them.

“For me, it was a great opportunity to look at the way psychology is linked to the body and the experience of our own body and self-image,” says Elisa De Wyngaert, one of MoMu’s curators who worked on the exhibit. “We usually have the body as a placeholder in the exhibition, it’s like a manikin or a dummy but it’s not really there, it’s just a carrier, a support for the garments. And for me, it was quite special to focus on the body for the first time, in three different ways throughout the exhibition, and to really consider the impact garments have on our society but also different bodies that we encounter as humans, surrogates of the body such as manikins and dolls, but also virtual bodies these days, avatars, so the bodies from different sides.”

The first of the exhibit’s three parts is about self-reflection where, as De Wyngaert explains, “the visitor’s own body becomes part of the experience.”

There, mirrors and glass walls place visitors among avant-garde garments from labels like Comme des Garçons and Molly Goddard that, with their unexpected shapes, proportions and volume, “really challenge the contours of the body and make a new body almost,” De Wyngaert says.

“As a visitor, you see yourself reflected in these creations and you become part of it,” she adds. “And for that part, we also have these wigs by Cyndia Harvey to make these tailored dummies on which we display the garments come to life in an unexpected way.”

It’s also about considering the ways clothes protect people mentally and can lend power and protection in one way or another.

“We do need them, one, to play a certain role in society, it helps us,” De Wyngaert says. “But also, if you like to experiment creatively with your garments, it can also protect you and give you strength as sort of a layer in between you and the real world.”

The second part of “Mirror Mirror” takes visitors into the world of the doll.

It’s “a sort of ginormous doll house in which the visitor becomes kind of a doll, a miniature [themselves],” De Wyngaert says. Within the oversize dollhouse, manikins and dolls from the worlds of art and fashion — from the elegant Théâtre de la Mode fashion dolls that saved French haute couture to macabre Hans Bellmer ones — meet and mingle, but also send a message.

“We look at the layered meanings connected to these dolls and manikins but also the psychological effect they have on us, because we encounter them everywhere but they are not always very representative of how people look. Or they have a certain specific image that is very much outdated,” she says. “It’s also self-reflection for me as a curator – how do you use such bodies, how do you present them in an exhibition space and what messages do you send to your visitors when these dolls look a certain way?”

Dolls by Théatre de la Mode are incased in glass and wearing couture dresses.
Dolls by Théatre de la Mode

In the book accompanying the exhibit, “Mirror, Mirror: Fashion & the Psyche,” published by Hannibal and already available for purchase in Belgium (and for preorder in the U.S.), for which De Wyngaert is coauthor, a line reads: “The tall, thin, white mannequin, with Caucasian facial features, has become a standard in museums. This feels increasingly outdated, not least because of its negation of race.”

Many museums, De Wyngaert admits, have long been guilty of leaning on their existing stock of “standard” manikins (read: nearly always lacking in diversity, particularly when it comes to body shapes and sizes), partly because of cost and partly because that’s what’s been commercially available.

“It’s a standardized body that’s questionable in itself,” De Wyngaert says.

And she tries to tackle that in two ways through the exhibit.

One, with a manikin in the likeness of Michelle Elie, fashion icon, Trouble Mag editor and fierce Comme des Garçons collector, who loaned some of her pieces to “Mirror Mirror.”

“When she displayed her archive in Frankfurt [for the 2020 exhibit, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me: Michelle Elie Wears Comme des Garçons’ at the Angewandte Kunst Museum], together with the curator there, they decided to do it on manikins that look like her. So she had manikins 3D scanned, they look like her more or less exact skin color, facial features, they have a really nice bun in their hair that’s the same. So the garments fit exactly as she looks,” De Wyngaert says. “It was an important political message because these bodies, bodies of color, Black bodies, they felt — and it’s true — they were often excluded in these big, white institutions. And this way, she brought them into the exhibition space, not just as object but as active subject in a story. She’s there as a Black woman telling her narrative so she’s not objectified, she’s really leading the narrative and telling her own story.

“It was a beautiful way of doing it and a very relevant way of doing it and I wish all museums always had budgets to do things like this,” she says. “But this should be the future.”

Within the 'Mirror Mirror' exhibit, an Ed Tsuwaki manikin with a swan-like long stands at the left beside a black manikin of Michelle Elie at the right.
Within the “Mirror Mirror” exhibit, an Ed Tsuwaki manikin stands at the left beside a manikin of Michelle Elie at the right.

The other example of diversity in the exhibit is a manikin with alt proportions created by Japanese artist and illustrator Ed Tsuwaki, who favored drawing women with exaggerated swan-like necks and who, at one point, created a matching manikin for his now-defunct fashion brand nakEd bunch.

“I thought it was great to play with these unrealistic proportions to make it more of an art object and to see how it lingers a bit in between being an art object and a commercial object,” De Wyngaert says. “I think if you can create this spark, this tension, this energy then [the manikins] become not just placeholders for the body but also something that is more interesting. I really hope, in my next curations, to always question the body we use and always have an idea behind why we use a certain body and not just use the manikins we have here.”

The third and final section of “Mirror Mirror” deals with the virtual world we are now entering.

“We leave the physical body behind and there we explore avatars and cyborgs both within an art context, because the art world has been experimenting with CGI technologies for much longer, but fashion is also exploring this territory very much and it’s increasingly doing so with the metaverse and NFTs and avatars that you can dress. Prada and Balenciaga [are] doing it,” she says.

Video artist Ed Atkins ends the exhibit with an installation bound to provoke as much feeling as fodder for discussions about the future.

“It’s a video piece of a lonely male avatar who sits at a bar and it’s kind of a message of melancholy and loneliness of this avatar in this virtual world that is just drinking and singing songs,” De Wyngaert says. “We leave it a bit open of what the future will be for the virtual body and how we’ll relate to those bodies.”

More and more, fashion is becoming less about selling fantasies excluded to the few and increasingly about selling something real, something responsible, something that considers any being with a body to dress.

Some fashion designers are challenging old ideals better than others.

Issey Miyake was an early exemplifier of using garments, some of which are part of the “Mirror Mirror” exhibit, to create new shapes around the body. Molly Goddard’s voluminous pieces are also part of the curation for their ability to “explore a kind of space beyond the body through their garments,” according to De Wyngaert.

“By this she also has a feminist angle, she hopes that women will claim space in society through their garments,” she says.

Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo is famed for bringing new shapes to runways and the streets, and Simone Rocha has done so since her 2010 debut, too.

“Simone Rocha has a beautiful dress in the show with one unexpected bump on one hip. It’s far removed from what you’d expect from classical symmetry or the hourglass silhouette. Or Comme des Garçons, [Kawakubo’s 2017] ‘The Future of Silhouette’ collection that is really a conceptual, a plaster case almost around the body that shows how the body is contained by classical beauty ideals,” De Wyngaert says. “We show not, per se, a solution [to challenging beauty ideals], but the way they question it and the way they propose new bodies, almost as like a harness that protects the wearer and a sort of body neutrality, like creating a new body.”

“Mirror Mirror” intends to bring play and provocation together as it tampers with the way visitors think about things they may not often think about.

“We show a new way of putting art and fashion together. And they are not illustrations of one another, but they come together to tell a new story and account of the same issues. I hope people leave the exhibition allowing these worlds to come together, these disciplines to merge,” De Wyngaert says. “I also hope that they look at the body and its different shapes in a different way.

“I’m aware that we didn’t tell a complete story about fashion and psychology, but I do hope people ask new questions after the exhibition or that it opens a conversation between people about what clothing can mean for you mentally, but also what effect dolls might have on you personally. And I hope this can become a new conversation between visitors and that it doesn’t just leave them hanging. I think it will move them.”

The “Mirror Mirror” exhibit is open now and runs through Feb. 26.

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