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Curating Counter-Couture

In 2017, the Museum brought forward the craft and folk sensibility underpinning the DIY design aesthetic of the sixties and seventies in the exhibition Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American CountercultureCurated by Michael Cepress, the exhibition was the culmination of the artist and designer's 15 years of research, which included reaching out to dozens of makers to assemble the works on view.  In an interview conducted by associate curator Barbara Paris Gifford, Cepress discusses the exhibition's impact and how clothing became a powerful means of self-expression during the era's upheaval.

What are you trying to communicate with this exhibition?

Counter-Couture is specifically an exhibition of fashion and style from the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s, but I have always been the most interested in how, exactly, clothing can come to tell the bigger story of a culture, place, and time. The clothing in this show presents a remarkable opportunity to see the triumphs of design, craft, and art-making from young people at that time—and the mastery of materials and artistry helps all of these other, bigger stories come forward.

So for this exhibition in particular, these clothes are the storytellers that speak of personal expression, sexual politics, civil rights struggles, rock and roll, and countless other narratives that are the true power of this era. To me, each garment in the show says, “This is who I am in my truest, most authentic and pure way.”

Now that the show has been up at the Museum for a few months and you are able to step back a bit, what have you learned about how it affects people?

The outstanding response from visitors and the press is a clear testament to the joy that this exhibition brings out in people. And as I have had a chance to pull back from it all a bit, I see more clearly now than ever before the amazing ability of fashion to remind people that there’s a lot of room in life for color, joy, fun, dancing, freedom, liberation, wildness, and “doing your own thing” in whatever way feels right to you. I think many people feel that we live in a time where those things are almost impossible, but this show spins that belief on its head.

Are the themes and aesthetics of Counter-Couture a kind of time capsule?

I would consider the aesthetics of the show to be a time capsule, in that the handmade clothing perfectly captures the spirit of the times. Each stitch in the exhibition is a direct reflection of the zeitgeist that was the cornerstone of the counterculture movement. The bigger themes those aesthetics represent, however, are entirely timeless. In my mind, Counter-Couture perfectly illustrates the way a particular aesthetic can help carry certain themes, ideas, values, and philosophies across the span of time, so generations of people can continue to feel and understand what those ideas are all about.

Thinking about what comes next, how might this show spark other ideas in the future? 

I think this is one small facet of a much bigger jewel that is worth looking at: How does the way we dress tell the bigger story of human culture? Counter-Couture seems to already be feeding into a bigger cultural moment taking place right now, where we are looking at ways to simplify our lives, live through political upheaval and terror, and use art and personal expression to make our lives more meaningful. I hope the show sparks this impulse inside of people, so that they can carry it into their own lives in a way that suits them and their dreams. And for me as an artist and curator, I am already in the midst of creating new projects that do the same thing, and that continue to put the spotlight on this period that I find so important and inspiring.

How has the show changed you? 

My greatest takeaway from giving so many years to such a powerful and revolutionary time in our country’s history has been this: Life is short and we may only get one chance at it all, so we must do everything in our power to create the world we want to live in, honor our truest and most authentic selves, and live a life that celebrates our passions in the most joyful way. That applies to clothes, art, food, our homes, our relationships … everything!     

What have you incorporated into your life as a result of doing this show?

A more gentle hand, and an effort to live lighter on the land. 

More time for personal reflection through my own practice as an artist.

A new awareness that how I dress and present myself to the world is a wonderful language all its own—and it can be as fun, complex, symbolic, or dynamic as I want it to be.

Michael Cepress is an artist, curator, and educator. A deep passion for the cultural impact clothing and fashion can make has led him to focus on the design of his own fashion label and costumes for theater and stage performance. Cepress has exhibited his works and lectured nationally and internationally as an authority on the historical importance of fashion as an art form.

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