It's time that museums stopped cramping our style

Fashion exhibitions don't have to be in stuffy glass cases, says Harriet Walker. Clothes can be living, dynamic creations, too

The phrase "fashion exhibition" holds the near-unique status of being both a tautology and an oxymoron. It's a dichotomy that often relegates such events to the sighing and cooing section, provoking the sorts of reactions you more often see in a show home, or a shop: admiration and aspiration, which – although not deplorable in the least – mean fashion is often not taken seriously or treated with much objectivity by museums.

It's a tautology because fashion is by definition an exhibition, a showing off. The whole point of fashion is to create some kind of spectacle; whether one does this by wearing head-to-toe black or cavorting in neon floral prints complete with go-faster stripes is by the by.

And it's an oxymoron precisely because fashion belongs to real life in a way that other visual art and design does not. Yes, buildings have to cope with acid rain, bird poo and graffiti, but once they're built, they don't alter. Buildings react, whereas clothes act: they can do whatever the bodies inside them can do. Which is why lining them up on contrived, mis en scène mannequins behind panes of glass has never really been a satisfying way of showing them off to their full potential.

It's tricky too because people enjoy fashion for different reasons: whether they imagine themselves wearing it, or they like placing it on a timeline, or they are fascinated by the technical aspects of each piece. And every reason requires a different means of display, begs different methods of interaction.

For some, nothing comes close to trying the pieces on. You'll be lucky if you get anywhere near the vintage Chanel, but places like the Bath Fashion Museum have a dedicated section where visitors can experience the stern caresses of a whalebone corset for themselves, say, or hobble around in a crinoline skirt. If you have a good enough reason, you can often book an individual appointment in the catacombs of many fashion museums, to don a pair of latex gloves and pore over every seam, examining every stitch.

I recently went on such an appointment myself at the museum in Bath, where I found myself literally getting to grips with historical clothes for the first time. It may sound a bit fervent – not to mention obvious – but I was overwhelmed by the difference of experience in examining pieces up-close rather than gazing at them on a mannequin; there is a sense of their wearability and physicality. It's understanding why it was this dress and not that one that changed the way women dressed forever; the sudden realisation of how a jacket, for instance, could ever have had a socially seismic impact; the complexities of haute couture that usually only those who can afford it ever glimpse. It's like the difference between seeing something in an advert and realising it does nothing for you in the changing room.

Which is why fashion curators are searching for a new method of justifying the ways of the fashion gods to man. Photographer Nick Knight is convinced that film is the single media most suited to conveying fashion in its purest sense. He predicts that it will overtake magazine shoots within the decade, because it is the only means by which the spectator has any real feel for the garments. Knight has been videoing his own photo-shoots since 1989, and last year held an exhibition at Somerset House to celebrate ten years of his website, an internet destination that provides live and interactive fashion content: a living museum of fashion, if you will, that streams shoots as they happen, shows vintage footage and allows viewers to add their own comments and interpretations.

There are many fashion exhibitions that get it right, of course: the American Woman show soon to open at the Met promises fashion mixed with portraiture; the annual opening gala is an exhibition in itself, now firmly part of the fashion calendar. Similarly, the Helmut Lang retrospective opening next week in Bath will benefit from a new take on the archetypal line-up of mannequins. "There'll be an army of Helmut Langs," curator Rosemary Harden told me when I visited – and it's a format that suits both the overwhelming impact Lang had on modern fashion, as well as the type of urban warrior he created.

The V&A's Fashion in Motion initiative has seen catwalk shows take place in the museum from some of London's best designers, such as Roksanda Ilincic and Giles Deacon; at the end of the month it is Osman Yousefzada's turn.

A new exhibition taking place at the V&A's art and design archive aims to free up yet more of the received notions of fashion's place in museums, starting with the very captions that define the pieces. "Most exhibitions are never about the impact of an actual dress," says Judith Clark, curator of the V&A's new Concise Dictionary of Dress exhibition, which opens today. "The captions never approximate to the item itself, and we wanted this one to be as evocative as possible; the experience here belongs to the visitor."

A series of installations fuse costume with sculpture, photography and etchings, and are presented as definitions for some of fashion's recurring tropes and themes, from "comfort" to "conformity", and "plain" to "pretentious". These definitions have been meticulously re-worded by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, whose explanations range from the comic ("fashionable – secret knowledge of contemporary intimidations") to the poignant ("armoured – inviting attack by being prepared for it"). The point of these captions is to bypass the usual factoids given to visitors of fashion exhibitions; there are no dates or designer names here.

Rather than being housed on the main museum site at South Kensington, Clark's Dictionary of Dress exhibition is a chance to snoop at what goes on down the road, at the V&A's art and design archive near Kensington Olympia. It feels a bit like the cultural ark that will no doubt be put together when the end of the world comes, comprehensively filled with 14,000 fully catalogued bits of crockery, lest future generations forget what a Sèvres plate looks like, or how a Portmeirion teapot handles. Importantly though, it's primarily a working building with plenty going on, full of crates in transit and artefacts being lovingly restored; it's a fully functional cabinet of curiosities, and it works perfectly as a backdrop to The Dictionary of Dress. Visitors will see an 18th-century fashion illustration brought to life in transparent resin standing guard on the building's roof, and a Comme des Garçons dress lying exposed to the elements in a coal-bunker. (It's made of a specific technofabric designed to withstand moisture, before all the purists start panicking.)

This may sound arbitrary, especially to those who enjoy the traditional glass case arrangement. There is of course something edifying about seeing, with the passage of time, a bodice turn into a tunic turn into a miniskirt turn into a bodysuit and then a boob tube. And delicate pieces need to be protected. The historical rise and fall of hemlines is not something we should ignore – it informs the world we live in, after all – but neither should we forget that these clothes were once on people, that they once walked around in bright light and air in which moisture levels were not strictly monitored.

There is a widespread modern fear of anything labelled "concept", especially when it relates to fashion; it makes people think of three-legged trousers or atonal music in a darkened room. But it's worth remembering that clothes are not necessarily at their best when viewedon dummies or in cases, and that some things benefit from thinking, quite literally, outside the box.

The Concise Dictionary of Dress, Blythe House, London W14 (0871 231 0847; to 27 Jun; Fashion in Motion: Osman Yousefzada, V&A, London SW7 (020 7942 2820; to 21 May

For further reading: Fashion Theory: Fashion Curation by Alistair O'Neill (Berg Publishers)

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