As part of the Wellcome Collection’s Sexology season, four dresses by designer Professor Helen Storey have been installed in Manchester Art Gallery which explore the relationship between fashion and sexuality. The attraction of Storey’s dresses is clear, with the most prominent design featured using a mixture of the sexiest materials known to man (lace, sequins and fox fur). But like all pieces of art, a deeper level of insight comes from the context in which it is displayed, and for Sex & Frocks that was pretty much the entirety of the gallery.
Good curatorship has to strike the difficult balance between showing each individual object in its best light, while also presenting a complementary collection which is in line with whatever agenda is most likely to draw in the crowds and spark conversation. Van Gogh’s cheerful sunflowers in an exhibition on his tortured mental state or Picasso’s early realism when public appetite is for later cubism, are examples of contextually-necessary square pegs that have had to be fitted into thematic round holes.
Harder still is the curation of a gallery trail, when paintings or objects are placed alongside a gallery’s permanent collection. There is no dedicated room to root the exhibition in, in many cases not much more than a spare plinth or patch of wall. The entire gallery already has well-established guidelines based around chronology, movement and materials which a curator somehow needs to shoehorn another exhibition around.
Asking a visitor to ‘read between the lines’ of a gallery is a big ask when they are already busy deciphering the regular art on display. However the placement of Helen Storey’s dresses hit the nail on the head perfectly. Rather than trying to compete with the vast array of paintings and sculptures on show, they worked in a complementary way, increasing the viewing pleasure and adding layers of meaning to the art around them, and also themselves.
This was most obvious in the case of the two dresses displayed in the Pre-Raphaelite room. In a movement so centred around sensuality and vibrancy of colour and materials, Storey’s designs fit in perfectly. The Pre-Raphaelites’ work always comes with a backstory of scandal; the heavy drinking, opiate-fuelled, adulterous ways of Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais made them celebrities of the Victorian age.
Despite pre-dating Storey’s work by 150 years, there is a certain shared lasciviousness that bridges the gap; in ‘Front-And-No-Back Dress’ Storey creates an outfit that is only a facade of propriety, from the front elegant and demure, but from behind leaving the model’s derrière completely open to the elements. Across the room, ‘Red Planet Dress’s copper-coloured velvet matches the golden palate of the paintings, and placed next to a nude statue and portrait of a woman getting undressed echoes the shapely female forms.
The most interesting aspect of the Sex & Frocks gallery trail was not Storey’s dresses, but how they brought fresh light to the exhibitions around them. This is not intended to be damning with faint praise; as objects in and of themselves the designs were beautiful and elegant. But I basked in the golden glow of the Pre-Raphaelites more when studying the Red Planet dress, and noticed the fixation on upholstery in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings more than I ever had previously when seen next to Storey’s silk ‘Implantation Dress’.
While only made up of four dresses, Sex & Frocks had a powerful affect beyond the mannequins themselves. Despite my many previous visits to Manchester Art Gallery I felt like I came away with new insight, proving the old adage that ‘a change is as good as a rest’.