A new exhibition in Antwerp explores the fascinating relationship between clothing and memory, with work by Simone Rocha, Louise Bourgeois, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and more on display
As anyone who has ever cleared out their closet knows, clothes have the power to trigger strong memories. Rifling through old garments, we are reminded of our past selves; a time when we were younger, smaller, larger, had good taste – or questionable taste – and most importantly, what was going on in our lives. Clothes don’t only tell a story about who we are, but also who we once were; as items that live so close to our bodies, they act as an intimate archive of life’s various chapters.
At MoMu in Antwerp, a fascinating new exhibition delves into this relationship between clothing and memory. Echo, curated by Elisa De Wyngaert, focuses primarily on three women – giants in their respective fields – Irish fashion designer Simone Rocha, French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, and Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Each connects to the theme of the show in entirely different ways – although Rocha and Bourgeois overlap with their frequent exploration of motherhood – but all prove the eerie, potent power of memory, and how it can be distilled into clothing, art and dance to startling, emotional effect. “You can retell your life and remember your life by the shape, the weight, the colour, the smell of the clothes in your closet,” Bourgeois once said. “Fashion is like the weather, the ocean – it changes all the time.”
This being MoMu – a Belgian fashion museum founded in 2002, where clothes are put into exciting, challenging dialogues with art, photography, and other disciplines – Echo also features the work of many others, including Harley Weir, Laila Gohar, Martin Margiela, Raf Simons, Helmut Lang, Marianne Berenhaut, Billie Zangewa, Liz Magor and Cassi Namoda, alongside historical pieces of fashion from the museum’s vast collection of more than 38,000 objects. “I think it’s the right time for an exhibition on memory and garments,” says De Wyngaert. “This is a sustainability story, but I didn’t want it to be too heavy for people. It’s very much linked to the fashion industry, but it’s more of a personal story.”
Split up into three sections – ‘The Cradle’, ‘Follow The Child Within’ and ‘The Archive’ – the exhibition’s first rooms feature giant, cushy white wall panelling that echoes the texture of a cot bumper and the simultaneous feeling of being trapped in the house as a young mother. Thorny themes of childbirth and motherhood are explored by Bourgeois, with her unnerving pink soft sculptures and visceral red gouaches of pregnant bodies, and Rocha, whose collections have explored the physical pain and angst of being a new mother (specifically her Spring/Summer 2022 Baby Teeth collection, which she said honed in on the “very physical experience of mothering and nursing and breastfeeding”). Elsewhere, a special commission by artist and chef Gohar (aka @lailacooks) called Baby Bread Bed – a quilt made out of flatbread stitched together – is a delicate, emotional “symbol of my primal urge to keep my newborn baby warm and fed.” Function, a series of photos by Harley Weir, throws into question the eroticisation of women’s biological body parts – like the breast, which is both an erogenous zone and a feeding station for babies. Motherhood, the exhibition implies, is not an easy ride – instead, it is full of blood, sweat and tears, a full-bodied act of devotion. While curating the show, De Wyngaert was raising a young baby of her own, an experience she says added another layer to the research. “I hardly slept for the first year, so I could empathise on another level with the work these artists produced,” she says.
Rocha is a lifelong fan of Bourgeois, and has paid homage to her many times over the years. After first encountering her work when she was 16 years old – something she calls an “overwhelming experience” – Rocha collaborated with Bourgeois’s foundation, The Easton Foundation, for her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection, pieces of which are displayed in the show. “The fact she used so many of her garments in the work – that’s a real personal sacrifice,” says Rocha, “because it’s exposing telling your story, physically putting yourself into your work.” Clothes are equally important in the work of De Keersmaeker, who made a series of striking video commissions especially for the exhibition exploring how clothes can trigger memories – particularly, the kind of muscle memory inherent to dance.
The unfettered creativity of youth is explored in a vitrine of childhood drawings by Rocha (of a pink Bourgeois soft sculpture), De Keersmaeker, Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester’s son, while a pair of underwear next door, repaired and stitched obsessively by a woman with dementia from the 90s, is a startling reminder of how our mental state can manifest through clothes. Traces of the human touch can also be found in Jean Paul Gaultier’s old teddy bear, battered by overuse, wearing a cone bra that would become iconic later in his career.
Today, it’s common practice to keep garments pristine, but pieces from Prada (a purposefully creased pink shirt), Margiela (a wool sweater with mounds implying a pair of breasts and distressed elbows), and Bourgeois (Blue Days, a melancholic sculpture of the artist’s own blue clothes hanging off of silver hooks), point to the potential for clothes to carry our humanity, flaws and all. Vanitas, a remarkable 2019 sculpture by Margiela, is a moving portrait of how the passage of time affects our appearance, with five wigs showing one woman’s hair turning from a pure blonde in early life to a dusty grey later on.
Does De Wyngaert hope that the exhibition will help people to rethink their relationship with clothes? “I mean, if they do that will be lovely,” she says. “I hope people just reflect on how time passes and value the things they have. And I hope they have a think about the relationship between memory and garments, which is something we tend to forget.” And with so many pieces reflecting on childbirth, motherhood, memory, and the passage of time, Echo makes it clear that clothing is not just about ‘fashion’, but about humanity and emotion – if one looks closely enough, clothes can show us who people really are, how they lived, and what they felt.
Echo: Wrapped in Memory is on show at MoMu in Antwerp until 25 February 2023.