The current show at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Fashioning Cascadia, takes two provisional, speculative spaces as its object. The first is fashion, and the second is the region known as Cascadia.
Cascadia can be a different place, depending on whom you ask. The term was originally deployed by sociology professor David McCloskey to refer to the Pacific Northwest—from northern California to British Columbia—as a distinct “bioregion” in 1970. Since then, the exact boundaries of Cascadia and its purpose have been drawn differently for every person making a map. Activists use the name and dreams of eventual autonomy from the United States and Canadian government as a platform to talk about environmentalism, indigenous rights, and various criticisms of the federal government. Local and regional government, on the other hand, makes use of the term to discuss development plans, referring to the urban corridor of Interstate 5 as a transportation and economic region with its own characteristics. Businesses use the regional pride inherent in the term to market products. Everything from local beer to Portland’s Major League Soccer team have adopted the “Doug Fir” Cascadian flag for branding.
The show at the Museum of Contemporary Craft uses the term to create a spatial imaginary: a place where visitors can observe spatial proposals made by fashion designers, and think about clothing in a new way. By invoking the idea of Cascadia, the show thinks about fashion as a separate spatial dimension to our daily life. Clothing surrounds everything we do, but outside of this utilitarian reality, where does fashion reside? It is a potential idea, a possibility of existing in space differently. Neither fashion or the secession fiction Cascadia can fully change reality, but they can change the way we think about reality.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo, in her curatorial statement, talks about Portland as an “un-fashionable” city. This is not, she writes, to say that Portland doesn’t have style. But it separates itself from trends in a way that gives its clothing a stronger vitality, a connection to the more material ends of land and labor. The show certainly emphasizes the space of process. Anna Cohen’s work for Imperial Stock Ranch and Michelle Lesniak’s Decay Collection speak to both creation and destruction, the former emphasizing the rich wool textures emanating from Oregon sheep farming, and the latter the leafy, forest loam coating the backs of the mountains and valleys in the Pacific Northwest. In one sense, these designs simply celebrate a particular aesthetic. We are familiar with clothing that looks rugged, warm, and worker-like, just as we are with outfits that look a bit punk and distressed. But the clothing speaks to the interaction with place, not the look of the place.
The presentation of the garments in the show make fashion a spatial, sculptural art. Rather than portrayed flat, via photographs of models wearing the garments, they are fitted onto headless and legless dress forms, shown in the middle of the gallery space, in some cases hanging from the ceiling. Liza Rietz’ Assymetrical Tiered Dress and Crescent Dress are not only puffed out, three-dimensional forms in and of themselves, but they show a potential, experiential space within them. What other sculpture is presented with the intention that viewers should imagine themselves crawling inside the work, and then venturing out into the world, conducting their daily life wearing the sculpture as a second skin? Clothing, presented as spatial augmentation, invites us to imagine a world in which we look different. The world suggested by Fashioning Cascadia is one in which the daily utilitarian coverings we don have changed shape and texture. As the viewer walks through the exhibit, feeling fabric swatches and looking at the displayed process of design from sketching, to fabric cuts, to pattern making, to stitching, one doesn’t imagine a fashion lifestyle that one might be invited to buy into, but a specific practice of clothing oneself, a means of altering one’s personal space we might all adapt, regardless of what we wear.
The political reality of Cascadia may be untenable. And one feels the abstract character of claims that fashion could “change the world”. Otto von Busch’s more literal sculpture, Fashion Safehouse, is a political performance, a simple wooden structure that claims to “displace” the power of fashion, “a hypothetical platform for alternative fashion production and strategic overview of how to escape from the dominant logic”. But in the sense that all politics is speculative, idealistic, and performance, this reminds us that fashion and politics are very similar. As in architecture, facades may differ, but the walls remain. The default clothing and regional character we assume will always have an effect on shaping our space. So why not think speculatively? Imagining one is climbing inside a different reality, even if only for the time that one is wandering through the show, can only be a healthy experiment.