It’s often said that fashion is art you wear. In that sense, some people find it more accessible than paintings or sculpture.
So it’s no wonder local museums, looking to draw a wider audience, are staging fashion exhibitions with increasing regularity and heightened expectations. Galleries become sets as elaborate as any Broadway production, and designers are enjoying the creative challenge.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the latest to join the fashion fray. The Gardner is poised to unveil its first-ever fashion exhibition, “Carla Fernández. The Barefoot Designer: A Passion for Radical Design and Community,” on April 17.
“An exhibition of this kind unites a bunch of different threads,” said Pieranna Cavalchini, the Tom and Lisa Blumenthal curator of contemporary art at the Gardner. “There is this kind of growing interest here in fashion in Boston. There’s this bubbling thing going on. [“The Barefoot Designer”] is very much about another place, but with a petri-dish look at something that’s very alive and changing shape.”
Cavalchini hopes the Fernández show — the artist’s first solo show in the United States — will draw fashion fans as well as tourists and locals with Latin American ties. Engaging new audiences is a priority for museums today, and the philosophy is the more the merrier, said Malcolm Rogers, director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Rogers said fashion exhibitions have been good for business. He pointed to last summer’s “Hippie Chic,” which brought more than 122,000 museumgoers to the street-meets-high-fashion show during its 17-week run, as one of several examples.
“That’s a lot in a small gallery. I think it was a record,” he said, noting that many mothers and daughters bonded over the 1960s styles. “I think fashion is a kind of generationally unifying thing.”
Rogers credits the Herb Ritts fashion photography show, which debuted at the MFA in 1996 and drew more than a quarter of a million people, for opening up new possibilities.
“It set a new tone for the MFA to say we’re looking at fashion,” he said. “It’s in our own blood now.”
Upcoming exhibitions at the MFA include a fashion and jewelry show from Hollywood’s Golden Age set for this September, and a yet-to-be-titled exhibition of work by Isabel and Ruben Toledo opening in February 2015.
“The installation with the Toledos will be absolutely compelling,” Rogers said of the dynamic husband-and-wife team. “We’re giving them carte blanche to do something as exciting as possible.”
Rogers expects the installation to be as exciting as the artwork, recognizing that in recent years the set has become almost as important as the subject.
“Savage Beauty,” the 2011 retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s work shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was as theatrical in presentation as the dramatic runway shows McQueen staged during his career. A record-breaking 661,000 people saw “Savage Beauty,” and the Metropolitan increased its membership by 23,000.
“It was a true watershed exhibition,” said Lynda Hartigan, chief curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. “It’s inevitably because of the talent represented, but part was the extraordinary imagination of the installation design without competing with the imagination of Alexander McQueen.”
Valerie Steele, fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, said the spectacular staging of the McQueen show, and, similarly, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” (2011) set the stage for other museums to get creative.
“There’s more and more of an emphasis on exhibition design,” Steele said. “It’s one of the interesting challenges for putting a show together, and it can be quite expensive. It’s what the audience expects.”
Extravagant gallery staging is a far cry from museums’ early presentation of textiles, which were generally historical in basis.
“It was really only in the ’70s you started to have more than antiquated shows. Victoria and Albert, and the Met started doing dazzling fashion exhibitions from modern era, not just the distant past,” she said.
But time periods matter less to Hartigan than a subject with substance. For the Peabody Essex, the most significant moment in fashion came in 2009 when it staged “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel.” Some 65,000 people came to see the show despite the fact that the now 92-year-old Apfel is a collector, not a designer.
“The fantastic thing about that project was how much it awakened in a wide range of people across a spectrum of ages and backgrounds,” said Hartigan. “For the interactives we had, we thought it’d be primarily for younger girls, but adults were vying to sit at the computer. It really opened up a lot of channels in people.”
In 2012, PEM opened “Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones,” which brought 82,000 visitors. Its most recent fashion show, “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion,” which ended in January, drew 55,000.
“I get up in the morning to try new things,” said Hartigan, who is planning a Native American show for 2015 and is partnering with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for a shoe show the following year.
Steele said shoe exhibitions tend to draw visitors, but called the Gardner’s choice of Carla Fernández a curious one given that she is not well known in the United States.
“It’s a little bit puzzling. I’ve been to the Gardner, but I don’t remember there being any type of connection to Mexico, so it seems slightly odd,” she said. “I think though they may feel more comfortable bringing in someone who is an artist-slash-designer. You do see that sometimes. They pull away from the blockbuster.”
Indeed, Cavalchini plans to showcase Fernández’s work with photography, film, and live modern dancers from the disbanded Merce Cunningham Dance Company who will return to perform monthly.
For Fernández, this multimedia setting, displayed in the Gardner’s high-ceiling Hostetter Gallery, “is quite an adventure,” one she hopes museumgoers will want to take part in.
“We do fashion in quite a different way. Usually a fashion exhibition is looking at the clothing on a mannequin,” she said. “This is like a rural exhibition.”
Jill Radsken can be reached at email@example.com.