Intricate Ingenuity: Folk Couture at the American Folk Art Museum
March 23, 2014

For full disclosure, I am a fan of NotEqual, the brainy, drapy, androgynous brand conceptualized by Fabio Costa and Rebecca Diele.  The pair creates garments that may appear a bit too conceptual on first glance, and yet, in real life, elegantly fit a variety of body shapes and sizes.  Simultaneously methodological and innovative, NotEqual has developed ruler-like tools based on the golden mean--a formula historically used to create art, architecture and objects of aesthetically pleasing proportions--that serve as a mathematical basis for fundamental shapes that in turn become NotEqual's wearable pieces of art.

NotEqual is one of 13 designers featured in Folk Couture: Fashion and Art at the American Folk Art Museum.  Each of the selected designers in the exhibition picked objects from the museum's collection to serve as inspirational source material for a new garment.  While the displayed garments appeared to be mixed in quality, the relationships between the newly created work and the source material are all visually and thematically strong.  

John Bartlett (b. 1963)'s whimsical creation is the result of one of the more interesting relationships between new garment and source material.  Very sculptural--and perhaps because of this, entirely unpractical as a garment--Bartlett created a two-dimensional shirt-and-trouser ensemble for a disembodied, elongated figure.  Known for his masculine, tight-fitting and often sexually charged designs for men, Bartlett apparently let his inner whimsy take over, playing with scale and proportion for his creation.  A skinny male figurine, dressed in a green shirt, white suspenders and black trousers (ca. 19th century~20th century), served as Bartlett's inspiration.

The buttons on the figurine turn into Bartlett's all-over dot pattern

The most successful pieces in the exhibition, however, are the garments that stand out on their own, show technical mastery and creative ingenuity, and also posit an interesting dialogue between themselves and their source material.  Focusing on repetitive motifs and interpreting patterns, the garments by ThreeASFOUR and NotEqual appear to have succeeded in achieving these goals.

ThreeASFOUR's garment takes a Quaker friendship quilt created in the 19th century that features a repetition of six-pointed stars as its source material.  While the Quaker quilt clearly did not associate the six-pointed star with Judaism, ThreeASFOUR has played with the iconography of stars and their religious connotations.  In their garment, perhaps aptly titled Amity Dress, ThreeASFOUR has used patent leather in a multi-colored flower pattern.  By piercing the leather in four-pointed, five-pointed, and six-pointed star configurations, and overlaying these stars, ThreeASFOUR newly creates an abstract, filigreed pattern that is used to shape the garment.  In doing so, ThreeASFOUR has succeeded in harmonizing Christian, Islamic and Jewish stars into a singular whole.

ThreeASFOUR's source material, a Quaker quilt

ThreeASFOUR constantly invokes cross-cultural hybridity.  Recently, the collective showed MER KA BA at the Jewish Museum, an installation that featured some of their 2014 spring/summer collection (many of which resonated with the garment shown at the American Folk Art Museum).  The title of the installation comes from various spiritual and religious origins, all invoking the ability of the soul to achieve transcendence.  ThreeASFOUR's laser-cut sculptural garments were installed in an installation space that featured two conjoined pyramids covered in mirrors.  From the outside, the reflection of the pyramids created a six-pointed star.  Within the cavernous mirrored space, reflections multiplied onto themselves in explosive star bursts.  

The reflection creates a six-pointed star

NotEqual's garment also succeeds in being a combination of artistry, labor-intensive craftsmanship, reflection on source material, and originality.  Taking as their source material, Tree of Life Whitework Quilt,  a cotton and linen quilt (1796), and Sacred Heart of Jesus, a painted wood sculpture (ca. 1900), NotEqual created a garment titled Agnus Dame.  Similar to the quilt, NotEqual has utilized the highly sculptural technique of stuffwork, where a coarsely woven fabric is first basted onto a surface layer, and motifs are then stitched through both layers, creating pillows which are finally stuffed through the back with small bits of cotton.  The religious wood sculpture provides inspiration for NotEqual to add clerical elements to the androgynous garment: a capelet, a monastic tunic-like skirt, and a wide-brim head covering.  

NotEqual's Agnus Dame garment

Folk Couture is a small exhibition with a narrowly focused thesis, perfect for those who are interested in the artistry of fashion, and hopefully, it will also help to expand the museum's audience.  The exhibition is on until April 23, 2014.