Consider the bra in a display case in a section of the WOW® World of Wearable Art exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum called Bizarre Bras. Linked by pretty, jeweled chains, the cups of the bra are taxidermied hedgehogs, complete with furry tails and beady-eyed heads. Yes, it is bizarre, even shocking, but it is carefully designed and made to be worn.
That’s a big part of the fun of the show, which is on view until June 11. Dresses made of wood and fiberglass, an ensemble including boots, hats, gloves, and a sweeping train that turns the wearer into a lobster, a felted wool cape that erupts in long red spines—all are actual garments. One dress hangs like Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame created in laser-cut felt from the body of a model, another leather and horsehair creation turns the wearer into a centaur.
PEM is the only East Coast venue for the show, which originated in New Zealand with a renowned annual design competition. Using a range of unexpected materials, from wood to aluminum to fiberglass and taxidermy, artists from around the world create ensembles that celebrate creativity and push the limits of what we call clothing. The resulting works, which have been called “a glorious rebellion against the mundane,” are unveiled each year at a choreographed award show in Wellington, New Zealand, before an audience of over 50,000 people. WOW is New Zealand’s largest art event; the globally touring exhibition features 32 ensembles and media installations, as well as a hands-on workroom where visitors can create their own wearable art for paper dolls.
While none of these getups are things we might throw on for the PTA, or for an important meeting at work, they do provoke thought about what constitutes art, what separates a costume from an outfit, what statements we are making every time we get dressed. To use the body as a blank canvas can lead to artistic expression as powerful as any medium, maybe more so. When we wear a piece of art, we become part of the show.
While the PEM show comes from the other side of the world, we have a wearable art event much closer to home. Celebrating its tenth year, seARTS Cape Ann will present Wearable Art IV on Sunday, October 1, 2017. Billed as “an art, fashion, fusion experience,” it will present over 50 designs on the runway.