The Fashion-Plate State 

New museum exhibition questions California's rep as a fashion backwater.

It's been more than three decades since the Oakland Museum mounted a major exhibition of costumes in its great hall. The last one, "Dress for Greater Freedom," looked closely at what women chose to wear, or not, for the occasion of their long-overdue social movement. Closets have cluttered since then, and now seems like a good time for airing the linens. Not that there's anything mothballed about the museum's new show, "Iconic to Ironic: Fashioning California Identity," which opens this Saturday. Actually, it tackles some apparently pressing topical questions, like one on the cover of a recent SF Chronicle Magazine: "Do We Deserve Our Anti-Fashion Rep?"

"California, being on the wrong coast as it is, has not been properly recognized," says the museum's curator of costume and textiles, Inez Brooks-Myers. "When you look around the world at how people dress in their everyday lives, you see the influence of California."

A more absorbing theme, though, is what's implied by the exhibit's subtitle: the way we've made ourselves from clothing. Who would dispute that one significant California contribution to fashion is its use as a reflexive verb? For that matter, in what other American place has fashion victimhood so often and so glibly been turned into a kind of fashion perpetration? After the Beats and hippies bestowed the loaded icons of turtlenecks and tie-dyes, it was California that dropped such bombs as the outerwear T-shirt and the Casual Friday.

And yes, there is always the matter of blue jeans, which may yet prove to be California's most influential contribution to the history of apparel. Whatever the denim legacy, we wear it well -- casually, you might say -- and it goes to show how fashion is enmeshed, as Brooks-Myers suggests, in "social customs that influence the way we carry ourselves." Californians may make their fashion statements off-the-cuff, in other words, but they dress to redress.

"Iconic to Ironic," with roughly a hundred garments on display, evokes the pioneer spirit of sloughing things off and trying other things on. It takes fashion seriously enough to survey those major contributions made by taking fashion less seriously. And it puts on a good show. To browse among Esther Williams' swimsuit, Bing Crosby's denim tuxedo, and the "Bird Coat" by Jean Cacicedo, Berkeley's premier wearable artist, is to understand the real versatility of Golden State glamour.

Of course, California knows pageantry -- as is routinely demonstrated by sources ranging from Hollywood to Halloween in the Castro to How Berkeley Can You Be? -- but that's not where our fashion's real subversive power lies.

"I think in part it's making up your own rules," Brooks-Myers says. "It really is about individuals and how they can make a look or clothes their own." What's more, think of how Silicon Valley technology has already furthered the Casual Friday ethos, liberating more and more people from the need to put in an appearance at all. Being seen may have its charms, but so does working from home in your pajamas. "Iconic to Ironic: Fashioning California Identity" is on view at the Oakland Museum of California from March 15 through September 21. 510-238-2200 or visit www.museumca.org for more information.

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