Collection stories unveiled



A missing jacket button, a brightly coloured fitted dress, a hidden pocket in a waistcoat, a dress with full leg-of-mutton sleeves, and a custom wool suit: what stories do these garments tell? The dresses, hats, jewellery, and shoes at the Fashion Museum Hasselt were carefully chosen, worn, and cherished by their owners and are intimately linked to memories, emotions, and adventures. They form a tangible testament to individual histories and lives lived.

For DRESS.CODE., the Fashion Museum Hasselt delved deep into its extensive archives in search of these hidden narratives.

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© Modemuseum Hasselt
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© Modemuseum Hasselt


The exihbition

We use clothing as an expression of who we are and what we stand for: from the latest fashions to bold prints, bolder haircuts, and favourite designers. Hidden beneath this conspicuously constructed reality are subconscious stories told through the clothes we wear. Knee marks on our trousers, worn soles on our shoes, a jam stain on our favourite shirt – all are tangible reminders of our intangible reality.

DRESS.CODE. applies the principles of object-oriented research. By reading and analysing form, fabric, folds, stains, and labels, we can bring inanimate objects to life and reconstruct a biography for both object and owner.

The exhibition explores the research process through various themes that serve as codes to crack the language spoken by clothing: form, fabric, vanitas, identity, and stories. Visitors are taken on a journey of discovery in search of personal and cultural stories about beauty, identity, conviction, hope, gender, and more.

CODE I - Form

The shape of a trouser leg, the curve of a sleeve, the length of a skirt, and the height of a waist all hint at changing fashion trends and help to date an item. Fashion helps us shape who we want to be and how we want others to perceive us. ‘Body management’ plays an important role in this. Various tools were used in the past – and are still being used today – to control and curate the body. The corsets, cushions, panniers, crinolines, and bustles of yore have made way for diet and exercise in our pursuit of the ideal body as an indicator of wealth and status.

Fashion designers use their visual language to express their own beauty ideals. Consider, for example, the space a body can occupy in designs by Chanel and Rei Kawakubo versus the quasi-perfect, sylphlike silhouettes preferred by Christian Dior and Gianni Versace. Juxtaposed with these idealised shapes are the 'real bodies’ that emerge through custom-made and lovingly worn garments.

The past is a source of inspiration that designers analyse, compose, and reinterpret to create new silhouettes. Identifying these individual fragments in contemporary pieces is a complex game. Sometimes we are misled, and an object appears older than it is or comes from a different culture than we thought. A careful analysis with close attention to the use of material, technique, and form will often reveal that these pieces were inspired by romantic nostalgia.

CODE II - Fabric

Fabric, colour, decoration, cost, and availability of materials help to shed light on the period in which an item was made or worn. They also hint at the tastes, personality, and background of the wearer.

Before the widespread use of synthetic materials, such as rayon in the 1930s, most clothing was made from natural fibres like wool, silk, linen, and cotton. The way these textiles were dyed, printed, embroidered, and woven also helps to accurately date them.

Over time, materials and decorations may acquire a different status and evoke different connotations. Leopard print – now found in virtually all fashion items, from prints and embroidery to (faux) fur and leather – has been part of the fashion scene since ancient Egypt, where it was associated with feminine divinity. Once considered the height of sophistication, the print now evokes connotations ranging from sexy and elegant to trashy, classy, innovative, and mainstream. Fur was considered a status symbol for centuries but lost some of its appeal in the twentieth century when ethics started to trump fashion.

Some designers have a special preference for certain materials, designs, and fabric treatments. In this theme we reveal the story behind the artistic drawing of a 1920s Zimmerman ensemble, we explore Paco Rabanne's unconventional use of materials, and we examine the whimsical print of a Norine silhouette from the late 1930s.

Colours are ascribed various symbolic meanings. In Western (Christian) culture, white is associated with innocence, purity, and eternity, as well as concepts such as peace and faith. Due to these positive connotations, white plays a prominent role in momentous and joyous occasions, such as baptisms and weddings. Groups who historically fought for justice, such as the suffragettes in the early twentieth century, also incorporated white into their outfits. Fashion uses this well-known symbolism of innocence, honesty, and purity, but ascribes new meanings and sentimental value to it as well.

Sometimes unconventional materials are used. In times of scarcity, such as wartime, alternatives were often sought and garments were made from unexpected materials. In addition, the act of recycling can be a statement against wasteful consumerism. A good example of this is Maison Martin Margiela's Artisanal collection, which offers an idiosyncratic take on haute couture.

CODE III - Vanitas

While in use, garments and accessories engage in an intimate relationship with the body of the wearer. A body moves, grows, shrinks, perspires, gets hurt, and leaves traces. Rips, tears, alterations, and discolourations are a tangible translation of the memories of a life lived. Wear and tear, damage, and decomposition due to light, moisture, pollution, or vermin tell us more about the biography of an object.

The beauty of imperfection has served as an important source of inspiration for fashion designers throughout history. In the early 1980s, Japanese designers made waves with their monochrome, asymmetrical silhouettes featuring unfinished seams and frayed hems. Rei Kawakuno, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto introduced Paris to a design aesthetic whereby transience and imperfection were regarded as the hallmarks of life, a concept known in Japanese culture as wabi-sabi. The deconstructed creations of Belgian designer Martin Margiela were met with similar admiration in the late 1980s. Young designers such as Jurgi Persoons and Raf Simons incorporated delicate grunge elements into their designs.


CODE IIII - Identity

Clothing and fashion are our visual language. We create an image for ourselves and for the unknown Other, who will consequently perceive us as friendly, edgy, bold, accessible, creative, sophisticated, political, engaged, compliant, etc. Through informed decisions we present ourselves as the person we want to be, in the hope that we're understood and accepted by people who speak the same language. Identity is part dream and part reality. It aims to make us both unique and part of the group. Within this theme we explore the notion of identity (dress code) based on concepts like tradition, conspicuous consumption, normcore, and homeless-chic.

Until a few decades ago, fashion was bound by the rules of tradition and etiquette. It was a vocabulary that was read, understood, and applied by everyone. Since the twentieth century, these rules have been gradually broken and more ‘codes’ and identities now exist simultaneously.

The way people present themselves to the outside world is unstable and subject to changing perspectives on status, beauty, gender, and sexuality. The emphasis used to be on displaying an air of luxury and wealth (conspicuous consumption) in order to reveal one's social standing and rank. These days the emphasis is on personality and ideology. Different codes exist side by side and we can swing effortlessly between different personalities. This makes the codes much harder to crack; they are understood by insiders but are unclear to those who don't speak the language.

When reading and interpreting the modern fashion landscape, identities and styles are often described (by the media) in negative and stigmatising terms, such as ‘homeless-chic’ and ‘normcore’. Designers experiment and search for new and interesting forms of beauty that go against the current canon. They see beauty in deconstructed, disintegrating and stained clothing and in the ordinary and the everyday. Based on several contemporary designs we explore how these dress codes come to life.


CODE IIIII - Stories

The last theme in this show focuses on the anecdotes associated with a garment. Unlike the objects themselves, which we can preserve for as long as possible if they are taken care of properly, a fascinating provenance, a fleeting memory, or a daring adventure is in danger of being lost if we do not record them.
An object's provenance gives researchers valuable information about the environment and lifestyle of the original wearer. Studying garments from a single wardrobe gives us invaluable insights into the style, colour, and fabric preferences of that individual.

Garments are objects imbued with meaning; they are connected to people, events, experiences, and feelings. The shoes, skirts, and shirts that we've saved for years in wardrobes, drawers, and boxes, never to be worn again are cherished as nostalgic relics of a magical summer, a long-lost love, the person we once were. Clothes makes us visible, both to others and to ourselves, by giving us confidence, by serving as a uniform, and by helping us become the person we want to be.

This final room presents a collection of testimonials and stories from people who save and cherish their clothing and share a reflective love of fashion. These stories are both personal and universal.