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June 2, 2020

Strike a Pose: A show at the McNay Art Museum Highlights the 1990s Greatest Fashion Hits

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Ah, the 1990s: a decade of relative peace, abundance and Seinfeld. Pre-9/11 and post-Cold War, when the belly-baring beauty of Courtney Cox and Courtney Love lived in harmony on the World Wide Web.

The 90s feel near perfect right about now: jaunty multiculturalism verses divisive identity politics, a youthful Bill Clinton blowing out a sax solo on Arsenio, and JFK Jr.’s Calvin Klein-imbued Camelot fairytale with Caroline. America was in a great mood until their Cessna came crashing down.

“Fashion Nirvana: Runway to Everyday” at San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum is rewinding back to the 90s with a fashion and video exhibition fit for a VH1 Top 20 Countdown. Featuring the decade’s biggest names in fashion, with over 60 garments on display, the exhibition explores a singular cultural moment which glorified grunge and glam in equal measure. Hence capturing the decade’s iconic, unpretentious beauty.

A lush pink backdrop serves as the entranceway, flanked by various video footage on the outer title walls such as the tap-dancing Bee Girl from Blind Melon’s “No Rain” and Britney Spears as a naughty school girl in “… Baby One More Time.” Kate and Claudia are waiting in the wings as you enter, their black and white photos facing each other in an unbreakable stare. Kate Moss’s portrait, taken by photographer Christoph Martin Schmid on Venice Beach in 1992, exudes a crisp white Calvin Klein mood with the model wearing an unbuttoned button-down, makeup-free in a man’s shirt, while consuming her only meal of the day: a half-smoked cigarette.

On the opposite wall, a sultry Claudia Schiffer looks directly at the camera with her perfectly messy hair partially obstructing her impossibly attractive face, as she spills out of her black lace bodice like cream from a pitcher. The photo, taken by Ellen Von Unwerth in Marrakesh in 1989, is in some ways different from Kate Moss’s portrait, and in some ways the same: buxom versus boyish, blonde rather than brunette, but both too beautiful.

This entranceway sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition, as an exploration of femininity’s many facets in a decade which brought us jagged little pills, advice against chasing waterfalls, and an unapologetic declaration by Madonna to express yourself. Women were on top, blending sexiness and self-empowerment in a way which felt collectively compelling. Everyone wanted in on it—even the men, who started growing out their manes just as the ladies got the chop. Kurt Cobain tucked his greasy hair behind his ear while Brad Pitt pulled it back into a low ponytail, as Winona Ryder, Demi Moore, and Halle Berry went full-on pixie.

Installation view of “Fashion Nirvana: Runway to Everyday” at the McNay Art Museum
Installation view of “Fashion Nirvana: Runway to Everyday” at the McNay Art Museum

“Fashion Nirvana” is reminiscent of the Costume Institute’s annual spring show in the “Basement” of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s equipped with just enough lighting to seduce. The pieces, which range from simple slip dresses to busy-patterned suits, are mostly displayed in sartorial clusters of three to five ensembles. A red leather number by Randolph Duke clumped with Martin Margiela’s graffiti-scrawled white tank top and skirt, reminds us that the 90s were so generous, so economically assured by Clinton balancing the budget that the era could balance both glamour and grit, minimalism and decadence.

One particular holy trinity of designers consists of a black Carolina Herrera gown, worn by Julia Roberts at the 1990 Oscars, Versace’s quintessential little black dress, held together with large safety pins that forever secure Elizabeth Hurley as the top Google image search for the term That Dress, and a blue animal print paired with hot pink stockings by Austin’s very own Tom Ford. (Who knew?)

Gianni Versace, Dress, 1994. Rayon, acetate, silk, metal and rhinestones. Collection Phoenix Art Museum
Gianni Versace; Dress; 1994; rayon, acetate, silk, metal and rhinestones; Collection of Phoenix Art Museum

Many of the mannequins are donned in bright headphones regardless of who they’re wearing, suggesting the decade’s democratized approach when dressing up. Vera Wang wasn’t a requirement when pulling off an unforgettable look back then. Plenty of women embraced their style with a cute crop top or simple slip dress. In fact, a neutral Calvin Klein body-con day dress (strategically placed next to a busy confetti-inspired Todd Oldham coat) perfectly captures the decade’s more understated style.

Each garment includes a small description as well as a quote from its designer (or in a few rare cases, a celebrity admirer of the designer) and it nicely connects whatever style you’re looking at to the impetus behind it. The best quote from is from American designer Geoffrey Beene: “When I don’t have any ideas, I pick up fabric and start working with it and something happens.” It’s a line at once obvious and poignant. And not only does it speak to the designer’s creative process, but to a particular kind of American ingenuity and know-how which is traditionally reserved for our auto-industry and manufacturing plants.

Anthony Discenza, “Suspension,” 1997, 8:40 min. video
Anthony Discenza, “Suspension,” 1997, 8:40 min. video

But for all the glossiness of these 90s fashion pieces, an undercurrent of edge runs through the exhibition. “Fashion Nirvana” also includes nine video art installations, ranging from experimental to subversive, looping along the gallery’s walls. (Don’t hesitate to put on the headphones at each station; the audio is just as important as the video.) These films are the clear pushback to an otherwise exceptionally copacetic era.

Anthony Discenza’s “Suspension” is a jarring cut-and-paste whir of various celebrity faces, addressing the interchangeability and superficiality of cultural beauty standards. And Japanese artist Mariko Mori blends the spiritual with material, in her ethereal 1996 film “Miko No Inori “(“Shaman-Girl’s Prayer”).

A collaboration between Tony Oursler and post-punk band Sonic Youth, challenges the hyper-clavicular waifish-ness of models like Kate Moss with an ode to Karen Carpenter, who died from anorexia and bulimia at the age of 32. “Tunic (Song for Karen)” takes us through the late singer’s life with an obscure music video which chronicles her sad fate. It is a strange acid trip of a sequence which features dolls, skeletons, and a vomiting cartoon character. (Further social commentary occurs when the band randomly spells out the word SONIC, then rearranges the letters to read as SCION.)

Sonic Youth, with Tony Oursler Tunic (Song for Karen) 1990
Sonic Youth, with Tony Oursler, “Tunic (Song for Karen)” 1990

In the video “5 Minute Break” video artist Kim Lucas has created a plucky pig-tailed female avatar exploring the sub-basement of the World Trade Center (specifically, the north tower), a vast concrete expanse which is filled with both detritus and eerie emptiness. At one point she passes a poster of the Twin Towers hanging on a grey wall, a white fist rising up between the two buildings. (A spray-painted sign that reads DANGER also briefly appears.) Lucas’s 4:35 minute video was made in 2001, some months before 9/11.

But the most haunting video in the exhibition is a 10-minute performance by dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, in which he wrestles with memory through movement and space. Sharply spinning, slicing through his own shadow, and falling to the ground, his body breathes itself back up to stand. Jones steps into a spoken word poem: “Do you remember?” he asks throughout the piece.

His performance honors the memory of his late partner, dancer and photographer Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS a year earlier, in 1988. Jones pounds his fist against his chest, slowly walking back into the blackness of the stage, the heartbeat of his hand becoming slower and slower.

It is a chilling reminder that not all was well and good in America in the 1990s, certainly not for an African-American gay man whose friends were falling down all around him. AIDS was the single greatest killer of men ages 25-44 by 1995, a nightmare epidemic which was often viewed as moral rather than viral. The video of Jones’s performance is the exhibition’s greatest triumph in capturing the complexity of an era which largely overlooked the continuing struggles faced by those who did not directly benefit from the pleasant social and political mood of the time.

And though the band Nirvana is only mentioned by name in the exhibition’s title, grunge and other anti-establishment sentiments are certainly accounted for. All things being equal (and they are not), it was a damn good decade.

Style wasn’t defined by some unattainable social media influencer’s account. FOMO didn’t yet exist. Neither did our inescapable culture of low self esteem. We knew we could survive Y2K. After all, nobody knew the ‘K’ stood for Kardashian.

“Fashion Nirvana: Runway to Everyday” is on view until May 17 at the McNay Art Museum, mcnayart.org

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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