With access to a collection of 28,000 photographs, Natalie Zelt said she's spent nearly five years selecting images for Public Dress — a small-but-intriguing exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston that explores the relationship between photography and everyday attire.
"I've had the idea for the show for a long time, so I've been keeping a ongoing list of images where people are very expressively dressed," she told CultureMap on a recent tour of the exhibition, which will be on view through October at the Caroline Wiess Law building. "When the space became available, I started examining what the pictures had in common and what they had to say."
In the end, her collection seemed to fall into four basic groups: Uniforms, dressing, special occasions and rebellion.
"These aren't controlled portraits like Ladybird Johnson posing on a couch," Zelt said, " but rather images of people who have dressed themselves."
"The show is designed to uncover the way photographers create social narratives with their work by offering clues through the clothing their subjects wear," explained Zelt, who serves as an assistant to renowned MFAH photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker. "These aren't controlled portraits like Ladybird Johnson posing on a couch, but rather images of people who have dressed themselves."
Photographers like Robert Frank and Joel Sternfeld create stories from candid street shots while other artists like Janice Rubin reveal a sort of interactive playfulness and interconnectivity with their subjects.
"This is one of my favorites," Zelt laughed, pointing to a picture of two androgynous club-goers by Houston-born photographer John McBride. "It was taken in the summer of 1985 in front of Numbers. The artist was 19 and spend the whole summer documenting the nightclub scene throughout Houston. This image is such a perfect example of people dressing to look good by their own definition or by that of their peers."
Above McBride's New Wavers, an image by Carl Clark expresses a similar theme, showing a women donning what appears to be a large white church hat. Towards the far end of the show, a grouping of images by Maripol — who conceived the Madonna's iconic Like a Virgin look — returns to the 1980s club scene with polaroid portraits of New York downtown legends like Debbie Harry and James Chance.
Public Dress is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through Oct. 8 just outside the Brown Auditorium.