A clothing exhibit focuses on AIDS while avoiding labels.
In the 1980s, a virus swept through the fashion community. “Window dressers, merchandisers, designers, pattern cutters, photographers, models: People started to get sick. There was a mass panic,” says a bereft Virginia Heaven, the manager and curator of Columbia College’s Fashion Study Collection. Her smoky voice has an English lilt that thickens when she becomes emphatic. “It touched everyone.” Heaven was working in the design and museum business when AIDS was discovered, and recalls a time marked by death and, in equal amounts, by fear and ignorance.
Twenty years later, Columbia College is holding a yearlong symposium called Critical Encounters: HIV/AIDS. It’s a reminder that the disease hasn’t gone away, but has in fact strengthened its grip on the world. As part of the symposium, Heaven, with help from three fashion students, curated an exhibition called “Fashion Victims: AIDS in the ’80s.” It features garments by four fashion designers whose lives were cut short by the disease: Patrick Kelly, Perry Ellis, Willi Smith and Roy Halston.
Four glass cases in Columbia’s student center (1104 S Wabash Ave) stand in homage to each late designer. In the first are Kelly’s flattering cocktail dresses; one, marked by his signature humor, has glossy red lip buttons sewn across the chest. Next to it are three ensembles by Ellis: a plaid wool coat, white suit and ruffled plaid dress—all-American classics. Around the corner, a case contains Smith’s canonical ’80s, loose-fitting cotton clothes: a man’s T-shirt and linen pants, and a women’s blouse and skirt. The last case contains a slightly unusual orange Halston dress that still maintains his classic design: a softly draped silhouette.
Columbia’s costume collection was started in 1989 as a tool for teaching technique to the school’s fashion students. Originally stored in a closet, it has now amassed 6,000 pieces of women’s, men’s and children’s clothing and accessories. Highlights include French, Japanese and American designs as well as an ethnic collection of traditional dress from around the world.
“I hate the words costume collection,” Heaven says. “That makes it sound like people are dressed up in [a costume].” Instead, Heaven calls it a “dress collection” because it’s loaded with garments people wore at the time of their creation. This is an important distinction to Heaven, who was hired by Columbia a year ago to bring the collection to a wider audience. She believes that the clothing should lend meaning beyond the fashion department and into history, ethnic studies and other areas. “To teach, it’s easier to use a tool that people readily recognize—and dress is that tool,” she says.
On average, Heaven plans to hold three exhibitions in the cases throughout the year, and one larger exhibit that includes interdisciplinary programming. The exhibits will break the mold of what people think of fashion in a society full of what-not-to-wear columns and TV shows. “People tend to think designers and artists are not intellectual,” Heaven says, “and that’s not true. It’s a very intellectual process to think through how to make something from an idea to a two-dimensional representation and into a three-dimensional object.”
Turning back to the concept of the current exhibit, Heaven says: “American design is remarkable,” a blanket comment on the four designers in “Fashion Victims.” “American dress is about working, living, being well put together, but always having that comfort level. In some sense American fashion is about having a life—a well put-together life.”
Still, the designers’ backgrounds differ: Halston, a ’70s icon known for his celebrity connections, was a blond Midwesterner; Kelly, who outfitted multiethnic glamazons in curvy dresses adorned with black baby-doll pins, was an African-American Southerner working in Paris. These variant backgrounds seem to serve as a statement to Columbia’s diverse student body. “AIDS has no preference. It’s a disease that would go wherever it could establish itself. It comes out of sex, and sex is a natural human condition,” says Heaven, who really wants her exhibit to make one point: “Sit up and pay attention to this terrible illness. Look at Patrick Kelly: He would still have been pretty remarkable, no doubt. Life can be very long and very productive. Do everything you can to preserve that possibility.”
“Fashion Victims” runs through August 24.