Lifesaving and Poisonous: Women’s History Museum

Lifesaving and Poisonous: Women’s History Museum

PP: The origins of the term “museum” can be traced back to the Greek for “site of the Muses.” The modern museum not only defeminizes this original function but also desacralizes it. Women’s History Museum, by contrast, seems interested in re-sacralizing the museum.

MB: It’s both re-sacralizing and taking away from institutional power, which I guess is a way of re-sacralizing something.

AM: It’s this faux pretentiousness where it’s a joke at the same time that we’re like, “No, but we’re serious.”

MB: We also think about fashion as being your own museum, your own body, or your own vessel as a way to talk about culture and present yourself in culture

AM: —Which is not commonly respected. Even at the Met, the Costume Institute is in the basement. I’m sure it’s one of the least funded areas of the museum. In the museum world, clothing is not held in the highest esteem compared to painting, sculptures, artifacts.

MB: The reason that contemporary fashion history is not respected is because it’s the domain of women. We’re trying to insist on the medium’s importance through art and fashion, but we’re also trying to redefine what fashion can be because it is deservedly critiqued for being super exploitative.

PP: You don’t comfortably inhabit either worlds. Do you feel like art and fashion have caught up more to the way that you approach things since you first began, though?

AM: I feel like fashion has caught up more with the art element. When we first started, the art world was more appreciative of what we were doing, whereas now fashion fans are more interested in what we’re doing.

MB: There was an interest in what we were doing from the fashion world, too, when we started, but the way that the industry functioned was not something that we could do or sustain. We couldn’t supply the demand. People would invite us to do buying meetings, including Opening Ceremony, which we used to love of course. But when we went to this meeting, the people who were looking at our clothes didn’t understand what they were looking at. We both also had other jobs and couldn’t figure out an economic model that didn’t require us to take out huge loans, which wasn’t something we could do.

There is definitely truth to what Amanda said because we made stuff by hand, and there were intentional imperfections in our clothing. People didn’t like that at the time, whereas now that is in style.

AM: The handmade style was popular in the 90s, and then was gone until four or five years ago. Now everyone wants custom, DIY, or to make their own things.

Post-COVID is a whole new reality. Everyone got a makeover; all the kids are interested in having unique outfits. It’s a different landscape. This store also probably wouldn’t have been able to exist then.

PP: Your most recent NYFW runway show “Enfer” (French for “hell”) was an ode to New York City. Do you ever see New York as heaven for fashion?

MB: I don’t see anywhere as heaven for fashion. I do see New York as this space where you can self-actualize in terms of your own fashion. I don’t think it’s heaven in terms of receiving support as a designer, or seeing other designers that I’m obsessed with because the demands are so commercial to survive here. Walking down the street is like your own runway, which sounds really corny, but it’s this opportunity to see and be seen and to also still be anonymous and experiment with how you want to exist and present yourself.

I feel like the show title was in earnest. We were feeling dark about the world, about the things that we see in the city, the conditions of life deteriorating in this moment for pretty much everyone involved. The show was a love letter to New York, but not through rose-colored glasses.

AM: I’m from New York City, and it’s so much grimmer, structurally and in terms of extreme poverty. We’re also having a mental health crisis in the world, but especially in New York City. It feels like Gotham City. We’re aware of this and lean into it but, at the same time, we’re both interested in fantasy. Not everything’s dark and bleak and terrible, which I do feel is popular style now in fashion. We can also provide beauty in this abject reality.

The hellish parts of New York are the finances, the infrastructure, the terrible conditions a lot of people are in. The heavenly part is the people, which is highlighted in the show. Most of the models are friends of ours or New York figures that inspire us.

MB: In the dualism of heaven and hell, there’s this struggle that’s imposed by the surroundings, but in this collection there’s also this narrative of triumph and fighting—

AM: —In a literal way! That was why we were interested in athletic wear and boxing motifs. We always reference “God Warrior” [Marguerite Perrin] from Trading Spouses. She says something about feeing like you have to put on armor to leave the house.

MB: In “Enfer,” there’s also the dereliction of New York juxtaposed with the highfalutin, Greco-Roman, art deco elements of buildings you see when you look up. Cornices, for instance, played into some of the more sculptural metal pieces in the show. These elements of the city are so extremely in conflict with the reality of it sometimes. The mental identity of New York, too, is the “Excelsior” state. It’s “ever upward.”

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