Antwerp is the capital of Europe's fashion avant-garde. In the midst of the ModeNatie building, the Modemuseum features a show on the social impact of knitwear: "Unravel".
A political show
"Unravel - Knitwear In Fashion" may be a misleading title for the exhibition at MoMu, the fashion museum run by the Province of Antwerp. Accompanied by a photo motive showing actress Tilda Swinton in a sculptural dress by Stockholm designer Sandra Backlund, the impression could likely arise that "Unravel" takes a bath in aestheticism. Quite the contrary is the fact. After the round with Emannuelle Dirix through the exhibition is completed, she has made her point in tying profound social changes with the evolution of knitted silhouettes.
Elitist to democratic material
"Dresses like these were worn by the absolute elite", Mrs. dirix explains by passing the eldest piece in the exhibition. The dress is knitted out of multicoloured silk garments. Only the golden top part makes a difference: it is made out of pure gold. "The whole history of knitwear tells a story of rise-and-fall", Emannuelle Dirix explains. "When the knitting machines were invented in the 16th century, knitted fabrics were the most modern of textiles. They were worn to show one's status." There are two movements that knitwear takes from there. It is the strength of "Unravel" to show both developments in a delicate clarity, and it is yet another strength of the show to exhibit these historical processes in their intertwined ways. One is the movement of knitwear from an elitist to a highly democratic material, the other is its way from beneath the surface to the upper side of the surface: from underwear to leisure wear.
Dr. Jaeger takes a step
For example, the stepwise decline of the corset is unthinkable without knitted underwear. Towards the end of the 19th century, life reform ideas rise in the european societies. German professor of zoology and physiology Dr Gustav Jaeger plays a major role in the life reform movement. In the 1880s, he promotes wearing knitted wool next to the body. Highly regarded in the scientific community as Dr Jaeger is, his advocating of wool underwear out of hygienic reasons becomes so popular that a London company licenses his name as a fashion label.
"Unravel" shows some of the label's body-fit designs. When the next historical stage is climbed, the knitted garment has already found its way onto the surface of the body. Dr Jaeger and his fellow advocates of a "rational" dress reform played their part in abolishing the corset as a social standard of the upper-class lady. Yet, with the epoch of the antebellum, the thinking of fashion in functional categories is closely linked with women gaining equality. "Within ten years we go from bathing to swimming", Mrs. Dirix comments on the swimming wear that is displayed at the MoMu. She explains that women were allowed to take part in swimming contests at the Olympic Games in 1912 for the first time, while two years later, it was a woman that beat the old - male - world record of swimming the English Channel by two hours.
The fast curator
"Unravel" even demonstrates how silhouettes that have a "classic" status by now became so adored at their time because they were highly functional. The "small black" dress by Coco Chanel may be the most prominent example. So, the exhibition manages to show the social impact of knitwear without neglecting the sculptural facets that are enabled by the method of knitting.