As the field of fashion curation rapidly expands past the walls of the museum and gallery and into corporate headquarters and shopfronts, it has now conquered a new frontier; the Islington Business Design Centre in London. A space more commonly known for trade shows and recruitment events, for three steamy weeks this summer the location played host to the exhibition SpiceUp. Subtitled “An Exhibition About The Spice Girls” (lest there be any confusion about the subject of the show), this exhibit was an exercise in curatorial agony and visitor ecstasy.
The Spice Girls were a group of five British women, who auditioned to become a pop group in 1994, and ended up becoming a cultural zeitgeist. SpiceUp has been curated without any affiliation with the group or their management, and is a testament to their lasting legacy. Spread over two floors in a side wing of the former Royal Agricultural Hall, there is no context provided for the location, other than the assumption that there are surely few venues in London built to accommodate such a massive assemblage of clothing, ephemera and merchandise, that would also avail themselves for hire to a member of the public. And so SpiceUp curator Alan Smith-Allison is – albeit one who is responsible for collecting the bulk of the objects on display, and owner of the largest collection of Spice Girls memorabilia on earth. A former charity worker turned exhibition maker, Smith-Allison has collected anything and everything Spice Girls-related since 2007, and in curating and staging this exhibit himself, also brought in loaned objects from fellow fans.
The result is almost overwhelming. With over 7000 pieces of ephemera on display, the exhibition reveals how deeply the public travelled into the mercantile heart of darkness in the Spice era. For the purposes of this review, however, my focus is on the dress and its display
The s-shaped series of hallways in the Design Centre were stark white and the walls of the exhibit were sparsely decorated, save for a few posters tacked up at random. The lighting was the standard blinding halogen that the Business Design Centre has permanently installed, while the fixed positioning meant many pieces were left in shadow. In this clinical setting, the visitor entered into a riot of colour, with more than 300 pieces of the Spice Girls’ original costumes laid out on low platforms, or dressed on glossy black retail mannequins. The objects were loosely arranged by chronology of the band, then moved into their solo careers post-Spice Girls. Tombstone-style labels were posted intermittently throughout the exhibit with (occasionally misspelt) information about where the object was worn, the maker, and the odd eyebrow-raising mention of provenance (“purchased from the former bodyguard of…”). Most objects were left unlabeled, which at first was a frustration, but soon became a kind of interactive trivia game for the visitor: “can you guess where Victoria Beckham wore this catsuit?”
Which leads to the most meaningful aspect of the exhibition; the atmosphere. Rarely has a display of historical dress in a respected national institution brought forth such unbridled cries of glee and shared nostalgia as in SpiceUp. Every visitor observed was involved emotionally in the viewing of the objects. These pieces of costume (including those worn in almost every Spice Girls music video, one of the most accessible and unifying ways for fans to see the group) make up the iconography of what was arguably a warm and safe introduction to feminism and self-acceptance for many of those who came of age in the mid-1990s. Viewing a red sequin bustier emblazoned with GIRL POWER (worn by Geri Halliwell in Istanbul, 1997) up close was bringing visitors to tears, both of joy and remembrance, the object acting as a powerful trigger of memory.
Gaynor Kavanagh said in Dream Spaces, her essential writing on curation, “the history museum becomes a place where the products and processes of memory meet”. It could be argued that for people who have rarely seen themselves represented in museum exhibitions, that a traditional method of curation isn’t necessary for this intersection between memory and object. The meaning lay exclusively with the object, and the personal associations each visitor has with it, and the design or context of the exhibit is unimportant – all the curator need do is amass the objects and set the visitor upon them.
That said, SpiceUp is a missed opportunity to find the middle ground between a well-researched, academically rigorous exhibition of fashionable dress and a visceral installation of objects that evoke raw emotion in the visitor. Smith-Allison is undeniably an expert in his field, and would do well to honour his knowledge with an in-depth analysis of the Spice Girls phenomena through their clothing. His connection to the subject matter as a fan would ensure that his curation doesn’t exclude an audience less concerned with critical theory than they are with finally seeing a pair of plastic platform boots in the flesh.
For example, label information highlighted how a group of women from working-class Britain performed around the world making a great many corporations a lot of money, yet were also often purchasing their own costumes from the high street, and altering garments themselves. Further, Smith-Allison could have explored the performed identities that made up the group, and how these narrow definitions of femininity could stand side by side with a message of empowerment. This is a reading of objects that can still engage with the mythology of the group, and involve the wow factor of seeing so many objects in one place.
As exhibitions of dress continue to proliferate, particularly outside of the institutional setting, curators need to strike a balance between creating a space that asks questions of fashion, while also understanding that clothing holds deep emotional value. One of those emotions is pleasure. Sometimes giving the people what they want can hold just as much value as the curatorial drive to give them what they need. Or as five women from England once said, “Too much of something is bad enough…too much of nothing is just as tough.”
SpiceUp will next be on display at Manchester Central Convention Complex from 24th August – 4th September, 2018.
Cyana Madsen is a student on the MA Fashion Curation course at LCF.