by Julia Petrov. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, February 2019. 248 p. ill. ISBN 9781350048997 (h/c), $114.00.
Reviewed November 2019
Alyssa Vincent, Digital Scholarship Librarian, Northeastern Illinois University, email@example.com
Fashion, History, Museums: Inventing the Display of Dress, Julia Petrov’s heavily researched work, illustrates the complex relationship between fashion and museums over the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Petrov, curator of western Canadian History at the Royal Alberta Museum in Canada, accomplishes this by focusing on a number of exhibitions at six key institutions: the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Fashion Museum in Bath, the Brooklyn Museum, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the McCord Museum. She acknowledges that though these six museums represent a stunning body of work, a study on museums in non-English-speaking countries would be highly valuable.
Petrov writes as practicing curator and dress historian, but the book’s purpose as commentary rather than a manual of curatorial best practices is clear. Her historical perspective is woven throughout each thematic chapter, while not following a strict chronological timeline of fashion and display history. Rather, the book is organized by concepts beginning with how fashion came to be exhibited in Britain and North America, moving through commercial influences in exhibitions; the role theater plays in exhibitions; how bodies figure into the display of dress; and ending with current trends in contemporary fashion exhibitions. Without suggesting a “Platonic ideal of a fashion history exhibition,” Petrov clearly leads curators and historians through a history of fashion exhibitions and demonstrate how display choices – using headless mannequins, historically grounding fashion pieces with period-specific props, etc. – should encourage what Petrov terms “curatorial self-reflexivity.”
In developing this history, Petrov draws on an impressive number of references and the tone is highly academic. It will come as no surprise to readers that this book is based on Petrov’s PhD research. Images are used throughout each chapter to illustrate key exhibition moments, but these images are the book’s primary weakness. Most of the images are printed in black and white, with only eight color plates in the book. However, the images are deployed well by the author and are generously sized where possible.
Petrov is not the first to write about the evolution of fashion exhibitions in museums and cites Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971 (Yale, 2014) and Fashion Curating: Critical Practice in the Museum and Beyond (Bloomsbury, 2018) as proof of this point. However, the book serves as a valuable entry into the continually evolving field of fashion curation and would make a worthwhile purchase for any library with programs in art history, museum studies, fashion studies, or design history.