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Now in fashion: art museums

As public fascination with fashion deepens, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts displays Paris's latest haute couture.

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In truth, the reason the mannequins are turned sideways is not to better convey the sense of a march down the runway, but because the designer loves the back of clothes, says Carla Wachtveitl, a Yamamoto representative on hand for the press preview. He likes to reveal the back first, then the front. So "you don't give it all away right away."

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It's a detail most museumgoers will never hear. There's little by way of explanation or history at "Fashion Show" – setting it apart from other exhibitions held in fine art settings.

Meant to capture and convey a brief moment in contemporary fashion, the MFA show elevates clothes over context. "It's a snapshot of what's going on today," says Ms. Parmal, the show's curator.

Viktor & Rolf – the latest designers to create a line for H&M – are known for over-the-top displays that verge on performance art, the brief curator's note tells us. Their exhibit here is nothing of the sort. Though '50s-inspired full-skirted dresses plated in real silver are beautiful, with the mannequins' faces covered by netting, just as models' faces were during the show at the Jardin des Tuileries.

Museums have collected and exhibited fashion for a century. "The real interest," however, says Valerie Steele, chief curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology's museum in New York, "came with Mrs. Vreeland's blockbuster shows at the Metropolitan in the 1970s." Diana Vreeland, after editing Vogue magazine, worked with the Met's Costume Institute.

To some purists, who see fashion as ephemeral and therefore the antithesis of enduring art, these exhibits are purely commercial – and questionable. But as museums have continued to expand the definition of fine art – last year the MFA hosted Ralph Lauren's car collection; a few years before that, guitars – fashion has remained a regular feature. (In 2000, the whole of the Guggenheim was overtaken by Armani.)

Yet most shows have offered either retrospectives, tracing one designer through time, or thematic looks at a particular fashion element (a military theme now at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology) using multiple designers.

What makes the MFA show unique may also be a weakness. Ms. Sutton, the fashion critic, says the snapshot comes at the expense of the "complete picture."

"Truthfully," she says, "if we lived in New York, you could go to Barney's [department store] and see all these clothes on the rack."

Perhaps, although two of the more successful displays work wonderfully in a museum setting.

Feathery coats (one made of black goat fur, another of white Mongolian lamb) by Azzedine Alaïa are shown on headless, bodiless mannequins, rendering them even more sculptural.

Maison Martin Margiela's work, displayed from within a white box with cutouts, is constructed of found objects: a dress of artificial red flowers, vests made from bottlecaps and playing cards.

In the end, this exhibition is for the public, those people whose closest contact with designer fashion may come through television or Style.com. And they will enjoy it most – both the immediacy and the simple fact of being close enough to touch a Chanel dress that took a thousand hours to sew.

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