One famous phrase from another time was that "clothes make the man." And despite our belief in not being able to tell the book by its cover, we don’t want our bankers wearing tie-dye and our trash haulers in dark blue suits.
My barbecue outfit has caused otherwise strong women to faint, and I regularly dine in restaurants whose servers dress far better than I ever have, save for interviews and marriage. And if things break just a little lucky, I’ll have that same suit for burial.
Still, better people than I can — and do — have deep emotions about fashion, style and clothing that makes a statement. Some 13 such garments are currently on exhibition in Art in City Hall. As if to prove its independence, the venue on the second and fourth floors of City Hall often comes up with shows rather more daring than the city’s museums.
"Fantastic Garments" is simply a showcase of art to be worn on the human body as clothing, costume or caprice. Some of the works, such as "Techno Warrior" by Chanthaphone Rajavong, made up of discarded parts from computers, typewriters and other mechanical parts, and woven together with copper wire, are probably not really meant to be worn. That is, of course, unless your idea of a lounging outfit for television includes a hair shirt.
The exhibition contained in 13 glass cases in the hallways of the northeastern part of City Hall was curated by well-known art figures Warren Angle, Leah Douglas, Greta Greenberger and Doris Nogueira-Rogers. According to their statement, "From time immemorial, people have chosen to wear garments for practical purposes like protection and comfort. Garments can also be worn to display social status and accentuate beauty. The clothing that drapes the human body carries numerous meanings but, ultimately, garments are an expression of one’s personality, creativity, and individuality." The show has been more popular than expected, expanding its run to Sept. 12.
Cleverness runs rampant in this show, with a heavy emphasis on the bridal gowns that have become beloved icons in our culture. Alyse Bernstein, a lithography instructor at the Fleisher Art Memorial, has put together a wedding dress she calls "Bridal Survival Kit." It’s made up of all types of medications — a few of them likely mood alterers — applied to the surface of the dress. Bernstein is a 1974 graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and also studied at the Art Students League in New York and the Tamarind Institute of Lithography.
Karen Stone, a South Philly artist who once used hundreds of worn shoe soles to make her point, here presents "Second Skin," also a comment on the state of marriage. She provides two distinct wedding gowns, one a frilly lacy dress, "the best the bride had," embellished by shingerleens — small bits of finery and other adornments — that represents one side of the idealized modern woman. The other gown is of rough cloth and coarse hair, which "serves as a metaphor for the dynamic tension between the image of the perfect wife … and today’s modern woman, strong and professional with an inherent sense of sexuality and domesticity." Stone has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Kansas City Art Institute and her master’s from the University of Colorado.
Other artists in the show include Risa Benson, Henri David, Cindy Friedman, Martina Johnson-Allen, Richard Metz, Ernest Royster, Elizabeth Plepis, Paul Strunk, Jane Steinsnyder and Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun. Many of the exhibitors are art instructors at local colleges.
Art in City Hall has been around since 1993 and has given space to 733 professional artists in more than 30 exhibitions. An advisory council, along with city government, operates the venue. This particular show is whimsical, witty, wondrous — and free during city government working hours. The final word by the curators: "From fantasy costumes to be worn for celebration or rituals, to embellished everyday clothing and hats, to the finely crafted one-of-a-kind works of art by clothing designers and fiber artists, ‘Fantastic Garments’ helps to bridge the gap between art and everyday life."
It’s almost enough for me to give up catalog shopping.
Art in City Hall
1515 Arch St.
Through Sept. 12
Open to the public during business hours