Fashion’s Subversives

This summer, Arizona audiences will have the opportunity to view some of fashion’s most daring and iconic designs in Fashion’s Subversives at Phoenix Art Museum. Spanning the 19th century through today and featuring work by designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Geoffrey Beene, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo (commonly known as Giorgio Sant’Angelo), Balenciaga, Rudi Gernreich and Paco Rabanne, the exhibition showcases nearly 40 examples of garments and accessories—from the humble denim jean to the scandalous bikini—that broke from culturally accepted norms and forever changed popular fashion and the fashion industry.

Fashion’s Subversives will be on view from June 5 through Nov. 28 in the Museum’s Ellman and Harnett galleries and complements the forthcoming exhibition Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich, organized and circulated by the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles. 

“We are excited to present Fashion’s Subversives to our audiences,” says Tim Rodgers, PhD, the Museum’s Sybil Harrington director and CEO. “This exhibition, presented in conversation with Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich, examines the history of garments and their designers who bucked tradition. These stories, of artists who used their craft to challenge societal norms that limited self-expression, will surely resonate with current conversations about what’s beautiful and possible.” 

Much like Gernreich’s own brave and audacious designs, including the topless monokini, the ensembles in Fashion’s Subversives changed contemporary fashion not only on the runway, but in real life. 

Fashion’s Subversives is very much born from the energy of Fearless Fashion: Rudi Gernreich,” says Helen Jean, the Museum’s Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design. “These designers thumbed their noses at the idea of conforming to traditional standards of popular fashion and were uninterested in anticipating the newest trends. Instead, they sought to create something entirely new, something that people had never seen before, and this exhibition celebrates those moments of going against the grain in big and small ways to challenge long-held views of propriety, beauty and taste.” 

Jean organized the exhibition’s ensembles and accessories into sections based on the subversive ideals they embody. Works by designers who prioritized utilitarian function and comfort, including jumpsuits by Gernreich, Diane von Furstenberg and Geoffrey Beene, contrast with garments by those who departed from the use of traditional fabrics and materials to create dresses made of chainmail, plastic discs, and, like Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Lycra. A 1968 dress made of the stretch fabric by di Sant’Angelo hugs the body of its mannequin in, what was then, a scandalous celebration of the human form. 

Additionally, miniskirts and hot pants from the 1960s and 1970s and bathing suits that scandalized the beaches from the 19th century through the birth of the bikini after World War II, including iconic versions by Emilio Pucci and Rudi Gernreich, address the complicated subject of modesty. The exhibition also explores the histories of denim jeans as a symbol of 1950s youth culture; designs such as Chanel’s little black dress and the advent of costume jewelry, which undermined the socioeconomic hierarchy of the industry by making versatile, stylish and expensive-looking clothing and accessories affordable for the masses; and various ensembles that, in their time, transcended accepted gender norms, including Yves Saint Laurent’s 1967 smoking suit—the first tailored tuxedo suit for women. 

Fashion’s Subversives features nearly 40 ensembles and accessories selected entirely from the Museum’s comprehensive fashion design collection, including the Emphatics Archive. Featuring avant-garde fashions by designers including Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, the archive was established in 2015 through an expansive donation to the Museum by James and Karin Legato, who owned and operated Emphatics, the chic, storied Pittsburgh boutique that was the first in the United States to carry clothing by Jean Paul Gaultier. In addition, the exhibition will feature garments from its newly established Geoffrey Beene Archive, made possible through a generous gift from Manhattan-based Patsy Tarr, president of the 2wice Arts Foundation and the founder and publisher of 2wice magazines and books. 

Fashion’s Subversives

Phoenix Art Museum
June 5 – Nov. 28

For more information, visit

About Perrine Adams

Perrine Adams is the Managing Editor of The Red Book and Lifestyle Editor for Frontdoors Magazine.

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