“Workwear,” at Parsons The New School For Design, 66 Fifth Avenue at 13th Street. Open daily noon to 6 p.m. and Thursdays to 8 p.m., free, through March 5.
When I was a teenager in the mid-1980s, I liked to wear ratty, wrong-size house dresses from the late 1930s and early 40s. I loved scouring the racks of a vintage warehouse for anything that was cheerful, tatty and decidedly not contemporary. I was fond of combining one of these dresses with a pair of black men’s shoes that I’d found at a yard sale, and topping the whole thing off with a genuine gas station attendant’s blue zip jacket with a pointy collar and red quilted lining.
Whatever one may have thought of my fashion sense, there was one person in particular who hated the way I looked: my mother. She would remark, “You’re wearing old dishrag dresses from the Depression and World War II – stuff like I used to wear – and workers’ clothes. Some people then didn’t have any choice but to buy those types of things. Why are you choosing to look like that now?” It seemed simple enough at the time, and it probably was: I wanted to be different, and if that meant dressing as a housewife cum gas station attendant from a bygone time, so be it.
I did see my mother’s point, however, and still do especially now that I’ve found remnants from my own life and times for sale at secondhand shops – and seen work uniforms used as inspiration for fashion or appropriated as art at exhibits such as Workwear, a provocative yet uneven exhibit presented by Parsons The New School for Design in collaboration with London’s University of the Arts.
Perhaps part of my disappointment came from my high expectations for an exhibit about how what we wear to work shapes and shifts our identities. But while the concept is innovative, its execution is disjointed: each installation is intended to tell us something different about work wear, but the statements are ultimately more superficial than substantive. A photograph of striking female garment workers protesting the inhumane working conditions after the infamous Triangle Factory Fire, for example, is posited in the exhibition catalog as a reminder of contemporary threats to workers, while an FBI jacket is said to challenge notions of how clothing can impart or disguise authority. Each idea is individually important, and the photograph is particularly poignant. But the relationships the viewer is prompted to make seem forced. Even though the point may well be that each object is singular, the effect overall is disunified and unproductive.
In one gallery lie objects that form two of the three installations by award-winning designer and Parsons Prof. Shelley Fox: “Office, 2010” and “Undercover, 2010.” In “Office, 2010,” stacks of jackets reading Emergency Service Unit, Traffic Unit and Police from several U.S. cities, along with bright orange traffic vests, are bundled and stacked on a long wooden desk like bulging file folders, while the desk chair is disguised by the police jackets filling the seat and the neon orange traffic jackets layered beneath it. Both desk and chair have been “dressed” in the work clothes, a transformation that Fox argues ally the blue and white collar worker – an alignment that seems ambiguous, if not unconvincing.
More interesting is “Undercover, 2010,” which exposes the way in which “plainclothes” policemen are actually wearing a uniform of their own that maintains authority and reveals identity rather than subverting both. Yet even this insight seems less illuminating than it is self-evident.
Two of the more captivating pieces are exhibited in the hallway outside the main gallery: one is director Paul Fejos’ 1928 silent film Lonesome, a portrait of two young New York City workers and their bittersweet romance in an increasingly mechanized and dehumanized culture. In contrast to the film’s delicacy, a Hershey’s Kiss mascot stands just a few feet away – one of seven brightly colored, Pop Art-infused product mascots arranged in a receiving line of sorts. Their creators, the UK creative partnership of Rebecca and Mike, describe them as “extreme” forms of work wear that replace the worker’s identity with a fictional and performative one, creating “fleeting moments of street theatre.” Their intent is “to give [the viewer] something to smile about” – and indeed they do, though I couldn’t help but think the person “performing street theater” while ensconced in the hot, awkward costume of a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup is not smiling.
If mascots allow – or force – the worker to become both costume and brand, other work wear reflects the wearer’s identity. Saville Row tailors Norton & Sons and artist Jeremy Deller collaborated to create a modern “utility suit” modeled on Winston Churchill’s “siren suit” (designed for air raids). Here, the utilitarian object becomes a personal record: according to the catalog, this suit “ages and changes and collects mementos as it makes its own journey…a man’s clothes unwittingly tell the story of his life.” At the same time, their utility suit – a pair of khaki coveralls adorned with colorful patches including a rainbow, an American flag, Air Force wings, and a star wearing sunglasses – reflects the increasingly common commodification of work wear into both art object and high fashion statement.
“Workwear” inaugurates Parsons’ new MFA program in Fashion Design and Society, initiated by Parsons alumna Donna Karan. “A System of Dressing,” (1986) the elegant and engaging short video by Denis Piel that launched Karan’s first collection, is a provocative complement, exploring how gender and professional identity inform everything from one’s choice of outfit to one’s worldview.
The show strives, and sometimes succeeds, at probing how what we wear to work increasingly complicates definitions of labor and leisure, fashion and art, uniformity and individuality. Yet its most potent inclusion is not a work of art or fashion, but, superimposed upon the main gallery window, a photograph of the striking female workers who protested the infamous Triangle Factory Fire that killed 146 young immigrant workers in 1911, only blocks away from where Parsons stands today. Their image is a jarring reminder not only of working conditions, but of the need to include a broad spectrum of actual workers’ perspectives and work wear in a potentially fascinating exhibition like this one.