Untying the Bow

Gallery FITMarch 1, 2024 - March 24, 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), presented 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 invited viewers to delve into the captivating world of bows and explored the impact of bows as they transcended their humble utilitarian origins to become a sophisticated and influential component of personal style.

Untying the Bow was presented in three thematic sections: Form and Functions began by tracing the bow’s utilitarian origins. The next section, Status and Gender, explored the “bow’s” symbolism as a marker and subverter of status and gender. Finally, in Abstraction, the exhibition examined 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 was 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 offered 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 moved 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 challenged pre-existing beliefs about the bow’s importance in the world of fashion. For example, a 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 explored 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 were 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

baby pink short sleeved dress with two large bows on the bust and hip

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 pucharse, 2009.12.1
Related Events
Past Event

Parts of Fashion: Curating in Focus

This panel discussion brought 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, in conversation with FIT faculty member Sarah Byrd and graduate student Claire Calvert, discussed the issues and processes of exhibitions that are focused on one part of a garment, such as sleeves, pockets, or bows. The panel was moderated by Hilary Davidson, chair of Fashion and Textile Studies.

Bows on Bloomberg Connects

Further untie the bow as four graduate students offer additional insights into their favorite bow objects from the exhibition. Listen on our digital guide on Bloomberg Connects or on our Audio Feature page.

Image: (L to R) Evening dress, c. 1934, USA, gift of Mrs. Steward McDonald, 79.10.9; Victor Edelstein, evening dress, 1987, USDA, gift of Anna Wintour, 88.70.1
Listen to Audio Feature