Enterance to the Nordic Fashion Biennial. Photo by Brenna Barks.
A few weeks ago, I heard about the Nordic Fashion Biennale taking place in Seattle at the Nordic Heritage Museum. Geography often times inhibits my ability to see every single museum exhibition on my visiting wish list. This year alone I missed both the Balenciaga and McQueen retrospectives. Now, with winter knocking at my window, I am going to miss an exhibit on Nordic fashions? Le sigh . . .
Thank goodness that Brenna Barks came to the rescue. Brenna is a former linguistics and Japanese language and culture scholar who completed her MSc at the University of Edinburgh in 2010. Her dissertation examined the influence of Indian garments and fabrics on British dress and society during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Brenna is fashion and textile historian, as well as a contributing writer for Worn Through. She was recently in Seattle, and much to my delight, she agreed to visit the Nordic Fashion Biennale and write a guest post about her experience. What a treat! Enjoy her review, and be sure to follow her on Twitter.
Looking Back to Find Our Future. Photo by Brenna Barks.
The Nordic Fashion Biennale (NFB)was established in 2009 by the Nordic House, Reykjavik, to showcase “more than 60 designers, artists, musicians and speakers”. The 2011 NFB is the first to be held in America, and was co-sponsored by and displayed at Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum. According to the Nordic Heritage Museum it is “the only museum in the United States that represents the cultural heritage of all five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden”, which makes it the perfect venue for an American-hosted Nordic Fashion Biennale. The highlight of NFB 2011 is the exhibition, ‘Looking Back to Find Our Future’, curated by the New York-based Icelandic artist, Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, aka Shoplifter.
Installation view of Half Beast Half Rainbow by Shoplifter aka Hrafnhildur Arnardottir. Site specific installation for Bowery Lane group show at the Charles Bank Gallery. December 9, 2010- February 6, 2011. Image courtesy of shoplifter.us
The Nordic Heritage Museum has three floors and the NFB 2011 pieces were scattered throughout it. On the ground floor was the museum’s own exhibition, ‘The Dream of America’, an educational, experiential exhibit analyzing and illustrating what life had been like in the Old Countries, why people emigrated, how, and what their lives were like after they arrived, with various NFB 2011 pieces either hidden amongst the museum’s own, or openly displayed.
The Dream of America Exhibit. Photo by Brenna Barks
The second floor continued this theme with a special room dedicated to the fishing traditions of Seattle’s Nordic émigrés, and was the location of both the museum’s library and its gift shop. But the better part of this floor was occupied by the ‘Looking Back to Find our Future’ installations. The third floor of the museum contained country-by-country exhibits explaining the heritage and traditions of each featured country (each in its own room) and again with Nordic Fashion Biennale pieces mixed in with the permanent displays. In some ways the entire museum was like a “Where’s Waldo” game, trying to find the NFB garments and textiles.
Photo by Brenna Barks
While a bit jarring initially, I found the interspersing of the modern pieces amongst the historic displays – particularly in ‘The Dream of America’ exhibit – to be an absolutely brilliant way of showcasing this year’s Biennale’s theme of looking back. The exhibit opened with a recreation of a dragon-headed longship, and next to it was a beautiful cloaked piece with garments by Kron by KRONKRON and Hildur Yeoman, both of Iceland, which was almost a modern interpretation of Viking women’s costume. Beyond this in a recreation farmer’s hut stood a mannequin wearing a bright green and magenta version of traditional dress by Faroese designer, Vevstovan. Placed as it was in a recreated residence, it truly highlighted the fact that these modern, somewhat avant-garde designers were looking back, looking at their countries’ dress history and heritage to create their new designs.
Traditional Nordic Dress by Faroese designer, Vevstovan. Photo by Brenna Barks.
The coat in a later display (on the “boat out”) by Jet Korine of Iceland and styled with a traditional tam from the museum’s own collection, was made of the sort of uniform travel blanket the steam liners handed out, which brought some whimsy and creativity to the educational part of the exhibit. Having these pieces, and many others, placed within a historical context allowed the visitor to see elements in a garment which in a “normal” gallery could have been completely lost and resulted in simply being seen as artistic and creative, rather than as a continuation of a historical tradition.
On the "Boat Out", travelers mixed travel blankets with traditional garments like tams, to keep warm. Photo by Brenna Barks.
This was not the case for every piece, unfortunately. Many of the NFB 2011 garments could have been better showcased, and quite a few felt awkward, random, and haphazardly placed. This was particularly true in the third floor, room-by-room displays. In the second floor room on fishing, a blanket-cum-bodysuit knit in traditional patterns caused me to look twice to assure myself it was indeed a modern Icelandic piece by Vík Prjónsdóttir, it was so seamlessly included with the other fishing paraphernalia.
Bodysuit by Vík Prjónsdóttirt. Photo by Brenna Barks.
Within the same exhibit room, raincoats from Rain Dear of Iceland were mixed in with the museum’s own collection of Macintoshes so that you could only find them if you looked for them, despite their being bright pink and green. But upstairs, and sometimes within ‘The Dream of America’, it felt as though they had had more pieces than they’d known what to do with, and so began placing them at random which was extremely incongruous and actually interrupted the flow of the exhibit.
Raincoats. Photo by Brenna Barks.
I found the “4D” presentations within ‘The Dream of America’ exhibit absolutely wonderful. If you were walking across a front garden of mostly dirt up to a “residence” to see how the Nordic people lived in the Old Country, it was actual dirt, and there were wooden slats to the door to keep your feet out of the mud. The “docks” were worn, wooden planks with wide enough space between them for a high heel to slip right through and surprise the wearer, I discovered. When you boarded or disembarked from the ship that “took you to New York” you actually went up or down gangplanks.
Realistic exhibition design is so exact it recreates the types of walking surfaces in each part of the gallery. Photo courtesy of NFB - Nordic Fashion Biennale.
The set design for each aspect of the immigrant experience was nothing short of perfect, and I call it 4D because they had a soundtrack which changed depending on where you were: the sounds of cattle and the countryside at the beginning, voices and carts clattering over cobblestones in towns, voices and bustling on the docks or in the immigration offices. It was a wonderful, extremely educational exhibit. It was also a fantastic precursor to the second floor ‘Looking Back to Find Our Future’ main installation. This part was done in the “traditional” gallery way, with plain white walls on which videos could be projected and truly creative re-interpretations of clothing traditions, particularly those of knitting and knitwear, by the featured designers.
Knitwear by Aftur. Photo by Brenna Barks.
Having just spent a good amount of time seeing photographs and garments from the Nordic Heritage Museum’s own collection of original pieces made it easier to interpret these more extreme versions than if I had simply seen them on their own. However, there could have been far more information panels throughout. With my own knowledge of Nordic narrative and knitting traditions, I was able to see the videos being broadcast on the walls as a celebration of the various artists’ home landscapes and a reinterpretation of the old ballad tradition. The knitwear was obviously an artistic expansion on knitting traditions that are still extensively copied, recorded, researched, and written about. But more information would have been extremely valuable to my fellow patrons, many of whom I overheard commenting on their confusion and failure to understand what the point of any of this was.
Knitwear. Photo by Brenna Barks
There was no catalogue, and the pamphlets were more promotional materials than explanations of either what the Nordic Fashion Biennale was, or its history or purpose. The pamphlets exclaimed that it had been a wonderful experience for both the NFB and the Nordic Heritage Museum, that they had learned from each other, that each had changed. But how? A single computer station with an informative slideshow of past Biennales, and interviews with officials from each organization about the project and working together would have answered many questions. If budget was a constraint, a simple binder with printouts of all of the above would have worked just as well. But neither existed. The public was informed that it had been a wonderful collaboration and that was all.
KronbyKronKron. Photo courtesy of Nordic Fashion Biennale.
The museum’s docents could also have been better informed. I was sold my ticket and told about ‘The Dream of America’ exhibit, but when I asked about the Nordic Fashion Biennale they offered very limited information. The pieces were “throughout ‘The Dream of America’ exhibit”, and there was something on the second floor. That “something” being the NFB 2011’s flagship installation. They also thought that one or two of the Icelandic designers had designed dresses for Lady Gaga and Björk, but they didn’t know who or where their pieces might be. And nothing was mentioned within the exhibit about having such prestigious clients. There is a competition going on for the various designers featured, so I can understand why you might not want the famous clientele of one designer to overshadow a lesser-known one who could possibly have more talent. But museums thrive on attendance. It wouldn’t have hurt to better inform the docents and the public in the hopes of drawing in fashionistas or fangirls and –boys.
Despite all this my overall impression was extremely positive. I came away better informed of the history of Nordic immigrants to the United States, and discovered a huge bevy of Scandinavian designers, their work and its influences. And most importantly, I left wanting more.
For more information on the Nordic Fashion Biennale, please visit: http://www.nordicfashionbiennale.com
 Nordic Fashion Biennale website, accessed 16 October 2011.
 Nordic Heritage Museum information pamphlet.