Fashion & Textile History Gallery
May 28, 2019 – November 16, 2019
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Sir Issac Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal
and opposite reaction. Similarly, every fashion movement is a response to what came before it, perpetuating a design
cycle that alternates between exuberant and restrained. Sartorial expression ranges
from minimalist to maximalist, with some designers identifying almost exclusively
with one aesthetic over the other. Calvin Klein, for instance, was known for fashion
minimalism, while Christian Lacroix was famous for his elaborate maximalist fashions.
Narciso Rodriguez, evening dress, spring 2011, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Mr.
Narciso Rodriguez. 2010.92.2.
Comme des Garçons, bodysuit, Multidimensional Graffiti collection, Spring 2018, Japan. The Museum at FIT, Museum Purchase. 2018.2.1
Minimalism/Maximalism is the first exhibition devoted to the historical interplay of minimalist and maximalist aesthetics as expressed
through high fashion. The exhibition begins with the eighteenth century and proceeds
through the history of fashion, examining relationships between the two aesthetics
that have moved fashion forward.
Minimalist and maximalist fashions represent extremes on a design continuum. Both,
however, seek to challenge perception and, as mediums
of cultural expression, are linked to the times in which they occur. Minimalism and
maximalism differ in their design approaches, but connect to broader movements of
sociocultural, economic, and technological change. As they adapt to new eras, each stimulates and defines the other.
Man’s suit, circa 1785, France. The Museum at FIT, Museum Purchase, P83.19.10
Yves Saint Laurent, evening dress, fall/winter 1965-66, France. The Museum at FIT, Museum Purchase,
Minimalism — the aesthetic of “less is more” — celebrates purity and restraint, promoting qualities
such as truth, order, and harmony. Calvin Klein explained minimalism as “a philosophy
that involves an overall sense of balance, knowing when to take away, subtract.” Minimalist
fashions prioritize reduction and function, using clean lines and silhouettes to accentuate the relationship between body and garment. As Donald Judd aptly described
it, minimalism is the “simple expression of a complex thought.” Minimalist designs
do not eschew ornamentation outright, but often employ it to enhance structure and
construction. Gilbert Adrian, known for broad-shouldered suits based on the austere
lines of menswear, manipulated pattern to render garments that stimulate the viewer’s
Calvin Klein, evening dress, 1996, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Calvin Klein, 97.36.3
Adrian suit, circa 1945, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Jeannette Swift, 66.110.1
Maximalism revels in spectacle. Its beauty lies in excess and eclecticism. “I believe in Maximalism,”
proclaimed Lacroix. “Minimalism has never had a place for couture clients.” Throughout history, maximalist
fashion has been associated with extravagance, artifice, and non-functional style. Eighteenth-century Rococo fashion, for example, projected
an ethos of “more is best.” As a journalistic term, “maximalism” is often used in
reference to audacious, intricate aesthetics or exaggerated silhouettes. However, maximalist fashions may
also embrace varied visual references to synthesize new meaning. Composer David Jaffe explained maximalism as “embrac[ing] heterogeneity and allow[ing] for complex systems
of juxtaposition and collusion.” While it is not associated with a definitive art movement, “maximalism” was used by art critic Robert Pincus-Witten to characterize a reaction to minimalist and post- minimalist art.
Thierry Mugler, evening dress, 1979, France. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Clarins Fragrance
Group/Thierry Mugler Perfume, 2004.49.4
Versace, ensemble, Fall 1991, Italy. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Hans, Kazuko & Siv
Examining the history of fashion, we discern alternating periods of excess and restraint.
During the early twentieth century, the minimalist
aesthetic of streamlined wartime fashions and Coco Chanel’s modernist jersey knitwear
were reactions to the extreme silhouettes and ornamentation of Belle Époque fashion. Similarly,
the ostentatious glamour and self-confidence that took hold in the 1980s — realized in a variety of extravagant looks by designers such
as Thierry Mugler and Gianni Versace — was countered during the 1990s by the austerity of designs by Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela, and by the “invisible luxury”
The line between fashions we consider minimal or those we think of as maximal can
be quite fine. Inspired by the grandeur of the couture, Raf Simons’s spring 2011 collection for Jil Sander explored the boundaries
between minimalism and maximalism. “It almost challenged me to the opposite, to do
the idea of maximalism,” he admitted to Women’s Wear Daily.
Hardy Amies, evening dress, circa 1948, England. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Dolores
Jil Sander (Raf Simons), spring/summer 2011, Germany. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Jil
As the exhibition progresses into the second half of the 20th century, it turns to
the emergence of minimalism as an art movement across media. Designer Michael Mott
echoed the reductive approach of Minimalist art with a 1960s black-and-white mini-dress
created for the boutique Paraphernalia. Andre Courrèges’s white Space Age dress alludes
to youth culture and optimism for the future; it is characterized by a streamlined
silhouette and monochromatic palate typically associated with minimalist fashion.
By the end of the decade, the psychedelic movement was promoting a maximalist sensory
experience — often through the use of mind-altering drugs — that found expression
in fashion, as seen in a maxi-dress by Thea Porter.
Michael Mott, minidress, circa 1968, USA. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Beauregard Houston
Balenciaga, Triple S sneaker, 2018, France. The Museum at FIT, museum purchase. 2018.48.1
Céline, ensemble, fall 2015, France. The Museum at FIT, Gift of Céline. 2018.42.1
Today, fashion is in the midst of a maximalist revival, after years of a decidedly
minimalist movement championed by the likes of Phoebe Philo, formerly of Céline.
Modern designers such as Richard Quinn are experimenting with pattern, volume, and
proportion. The popularity of Balenciaga’s supersize “Triple S” sneaker is a sign
that fashion is having a maximalist, “bigger equals better” moment. Yet even now,
fashion trendsetters predict the imminent resurgence of minimalism.
Minimalist and maximalist aesthetics appeal to fashion designers throughout the globe.
Fashion cycles are accelerating as trends are driven
by a multitude of sources, from social media platforms to celebrity “influencers,” fashion editors, and bloggers. Irrespective of design aesthetic, recent collections have shown
that this is not a time for quiet clothes. In 2018, journalist Alexander Fury described
the spring collections as “hysterical, scatterbrained, and lunging toward extreme
opposites . . . just as global political parties have become more polarized themselves.
The collections telegraph post- national, post-history, and post-internet ideas.”
As designers continue to redefine minimalist and maximalist fashion, this exhibition invites visitors to explore the history of
these shifting aesthetics, so that the past may illuminate the present.
Minimalism/Maximalism was organized by Melissa Marra-Alvarez, curator of education and research at The
Museum at FIT.
Minimalism/Maximalism has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Couture Council of The Museum