Untying the Bow

Gallery FITMarch 1, 2024 - March 29, 2024
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The School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), in collaboration with The Museum at FIT (MFIT), presents Untying the Bow , a new exhibition conceived of and organized by graduate students in the college’s Fashion and Textiles Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice program. The exhibition invites viewers to delve into the captivating world of bows and explores the impact of bows as they transcended their humble utilitarian origins to become a sophisticated and influential component of personal style.

Untying the Bow is presented in three thematic sections: Form and Functions begins by tracing the bow’s utilitarian origins. The next section, Status and Gender, explores the “bow’s” symbolism as a marker and subverter of status and gender. Finally, in Abstraction, the exhibition examines how the symbolism of bows has evolved into abstract forms and patterns. Experiments with scale and technique have allowed bows to transcend their original form to become captivating motifs. Untying the Bow is a transformative journey, unraveling the hidden narratives and cultural expressions that have elevated the bow from a mere structural element to a timeless icon in fashion.

Form and Function offers insights into how the simple yet versatile bow knot influenced the structure and use of the bow, highlighting its role in the stays and corsets that shaped women's torsos throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. A circa 1937 hat by Lilly Daché borrows the silhouette of the turban, which provided a practical method of keeping hair back and was often worn by factory workers. Despite this practical purpose, the hat’s fashionable appearance was also a concern; the tensions between bows as a feminine fashion element and their omnipresence in menswear on neckties and hats are also explored.

Status and Gender moves beyond the bow’s utilitarian purpose to explore symbolism, focusing on how the bow can reinforce and subvert traditional expectations through shifting material costs, placements on the body, and abundance. The bow has evolved into a potent symbol with a number of styles and iterations. This section of the exhibition challenges pre-existing beliefs about the bow’s importance in the world of fashion. For example, pair of whimsical Carel women’s ankle boots humorously reinterpret the formality of a tuxedo and bow-tie ensemble by bringing these design elements to the feet.

back view of a dress with a black velvet corset bodice and a pink satin stylized peg skirt with bustle bow
Victor Edelstein, evening dress, black velvet and pink satin, 1987, USA, gift of Anna Wintour, 88.70.1
ankle boots with a tuxedo illusion red leather with pointed inset of white leather styled as a man's white collar with black patent leather bowtie
Carel, ankle boots, leather and patent leather, spring 1984, France, gift of Tony Carel, 84.190.1

Bows can also be used with sophistication. This is exemplified by a 1987 Victor Edelstein gown gifted to the museum by Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief at Vogue since 1988, which features a large satin bow at the center back. Contrasted with matte black velvet, the shining, structural pink bow stands out as the focal point of the gown. Prominent bows on cocktail dresses and evening gowns are a hallmark of 1980s fashion excess and, like the bow, the color pink has a long and varied history with similar shifting cultural perceptions. By the time this gown was made, pink was relegated primarily to women’s wear. The combination of these two overtly feminine elements creates a striking and powerful image, fittingly worn by one of the most influential women in fashion today.

The third section, Abstraction, further explores the bow’s symbolism. As the bow transcended its original functional form, its physical presentations became more abstract. Manipulation of scale, dimensionality, and repetition breathed new life into this age-old fashion icon, especially during the 20 and 21st centuries. In different scales and iconography, bows emphasize dressing as an act of decorating and presenting oneself. A playful polka-dotted evening dress by designer Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada from 2014 features a huge, maximalist bow at the center of the strapless bust. Enlarging its dimensions transforms the bow into the garment’s focal point. A different form of abstraction is the bow as a motif. A 1934 evening dress exemplifies the physical reduction of bows into a flat design, by playing with both dimensionality and the printed motif: The applique bows decorating the neckline are cut from the red bows printed onto the dress’s ivory linen fabric.

Accompanying the clothing and accessories in the exhibition are historical and contemporary images of the myriad unique and artistic ways that the bow—born from function—has morphed into stylistic inspiration. In addition, a video documents how the bow has dominated contemporary fashion.

Press, Related Events, and Student Bios

Related Events

Parts of Fashion: Curating in Focus

Join us for a panel discussion that brings together two MFIT exhibitions: Statement Sleeves curated by MFIT Curator of Costume and Accessories Colleen Hill, and Untying the Bow, organized by students in FIT’s Fashion and Textile Studies master’s degree program. Hill will be in conversation with FIT faculty member Sarah Byrd and graduate student Claire Calvert as they discuss the issues and processes of exhibitions that are focused on one part of a garment, such as sleeves, pockets, or bows. The panel will be moderated by Hilary Davidson, chair of Fashion and Textile Studies.

Dive Deeper into Bows

Read Student Bios | View Press Images on Flickr

Image: Commes des Garçons, dress with padded bows, pink nylon, fall 2007, Japan, museum purchase, 2009.12.1