Women's History Museum
MORT de la MODE....Everything must go!
How do you give meaning to an object? You might stage it in an institution or gallery; better yet, you create a space of your own that infringes on the very idea. That’s the operating principle of Women’s History Museum, a project helmed by Mattie Rivkah Barringer and Amanda McGowan. Speaking with the duo as they installed their first show, “MORT de la MODE…Everything must go!” at Company Gallery, their modus operandi became clear, “It could have been anything ‘history museum’ but we’re women and it was the thing that stuck. It’s a descriptor that would have been assigned to us and our project independent of how we felt or identify. So why not claim it?”
So often the language we use to describe fashion is canonical and self-limiting in terms of what’s actually taking place: on the runway, in images, and through clothes. There’s much more to be made of who’s buying what and how it’s draped on the body. Women’s History Museum as a project deals with archiving, concepts of theory, the inability to just exist—the stuff that permeates when you pull over to the side of the proverbial road and think about where you want to go—if you’re moving in the right direction, or wearing the right thing.
The types of silhouettes and camp! that Women’s History Museum is interested in showcasing live in the 1980s, through icons like Vivienne Westwood, Thierry Mugler, and Christian Lacroix. McGowan mentions when she first left the Bronx to head downtown for New York University she wishfully thought she would culturally encounter the 1980s (its innovation) in the midst of the great financial recession in 2008, but instead was met with the height of the mid-aughts fashion mavens American Apparel and Urban Outfitters. “No one had style, everyone was only wearing t-shirts and hoodies, or Alexander Wang. It was depressing,” she says of the scene at the time. “We didn’t have friends, we just had each other, and then moved in together, we took photos of each other and would write about the different themes that inspired our outfits and would post about it on BlogSpot.” The two met at the transfer orientation event for NYU. "Instagram didn’t exist or anything and it was hard to connect and find like-minded people who were into the same things as us.”
If exhibition making is any indicator of current preoccupations, “MORT de la MODE…Everything must go!” intimates a straight apocalypse. It’s a staging of a video game that takes place in an abandoned mall. The exhibition features partially dressed mannequins, such as Experience (2021) [pictured], assemblage wall works, sculptures, and appropriated wheat paste advertisements and magazine covers some of which cover the room’s sole window acting as a shade. It even features a series of Magazine Mort(s) (2021) situated in a freestanding rack—rather than traditional magazines—they are plaster sculptures affixed with graphic decals.
Both Barringer and McGowan continuously emphasize the word abandon while speaking about the show, specifically alluding to the pandemic and the closure of brick-and-mortar stores that have gone out of business. “Fashion has shifted from IRL to URL,” McGowan says, which amplifies the financial strain. Strangely the malls remained open despite COVID cases spiking—we live for and through the economy. The duo doesn’t seem concerned with trying to save anyone but are more interested in gesturing towards the failures of major fashion houses and retailers. Designers aren’t selling art, they’re just selling clothes—things to buy, not pieces to live in. At the fore Barringer and McGowen say, “We are witnessing the death of fashion, and everything must go!” —Emmanuel K. Olunkwa
Women's History Museum, Experience, 2021. Airbrushed leopard mannequins, WHM clothing, and raffia, 72 x 18 x 16 inches. Image insert: Mattie Rivkah Barringer and Amanda McGowan, 2021. Courtesy Company Gallery, New York.