Fossils are fashion-forward in Timothy Westbrook’s new show
Westbrook, late of Project Runway and the Pfister artist-in-residence program, will hold "Paleontology of a Woman," a sustainability-focused show, Saturday at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Timothy Westbrook is a designer and maker of clothing, but not the kind that limits himself to such a narrow definition. Proof: His upcoming fashion show, Paleontology of a Woman: Fossils are the New Black, to be held this Saturday at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The dinosaur-themed evening will also feature Victorian-inspired gowns by Laura Meyer of Twilight Attire as well as a number of jewelry designers.
The exhibition’s philosophy – dinosaurs are cool, not just fossil fuel – has roots that stretch back years in Westbrook’s life, but many thousands of millennia in the historical timeline. Westbrook says it all started with a thought that came to him his junior year of college: “I said, ‘What would a dinosaur wear, and wouldn’t it be really funny if there was a quirky dinosaur standing behind a curator while they were talking, and making funny faces?’ That was fall of 2009. Over time I kept working on it and wanted it to be a performance piece where a woman with a dinosaur mask would walk around in the city and people could take their picture with her, very much like the Naked Cowboy.”
Westbrook developed this idea into a street performance piece in New York City, complete with backdrop and a roving band of performers. Since his arrival in Milwaukee, beginning with his year as Artist-In-Residence at the Pfister Hotel, the idea has developed further.
“I had the opportunity at the Pfister Hotel to weave plastic bags and do a full garment for the first time,” Westbrook said. “That really got my wheels turing on how I would approach this project on a larger scale. Paleontology of a Woman is a tongue-in-cheek conversation about bringing sustainability into your everyday. The themes of the show go in and out of having anything to do with sustainability but the production of the show and the process is where sustainability is infused in every step.”
About the concept of fossils, he describes them as ‘the new black.’ “Plastic bags,” he explains, “are petroleum based and petroleum is a derivative fossil fuel so it is very, very, very old dinosaurs basically. The triceratops is theorized to be the youngest dinosaur so she makes a bookend with the fossil fuel. That idea is that plastic bags now are usually very white whereas fossil fuels — coal, oil– are very black. So fossils are the new black.”
The event features new pieces by Westbrook, made from materials including grocery bags, old curtains, bedsheets, tablecloths, vintage clothing, woven cassette tapes and (of course) fabric remnants from Project Runway. The reuse of materials is central to his philosophy, and he notes that he finds it especially important to consider sustainable practices in the areas of luxury and entertainment, so that indulgences are not only pleasurable but positive.
While these ideas motivate his ways and materials of working, the historical impetus is important as well. The triceratops, a leitmotif of his current project, was discovered in 1887; the designs shown by Laura Meyer are inspired by Victorian fashions circa the 1880s. While researching the time period, Westbrook found that Helen Keller began her education that year. It was a serendipitous discovery that led him to consider further attitudes about education, understanding others, and modes of working. For Westbrook, it also resonated with his use of cassette tapes, inspired by the books on tape his legally blind grandfather listened to.
The collection of clothing presents a combination of textures, a play between hard and soft as gossamer, flowing fabrics contrast with more firmly contoured structures. This joining-together, particularly with the generally light-toned nature of the pieces, garnered the description as a dinosaur-inspired bridal collection. Some pieces can be considered as garments either for male or female, which Westbrook says also suggests a gender-non-specific fluidity, a resonant issue in the public debate over gay marriage.
Paleontology of a Woman joins the underpinnings of sustainable practices, natural history, social rights and responsibility, with the beauty and aesthetic pleasures of fashion. Westbrook also considers the reasons why it is worthwhile for an audience to see his collection. He notes, “You pay to get in the door and that is an investment in an environmental perspective. In all of the sustainable practices that have gone from point A to B to make this, there are ripples because you’re investing in this. You also have the emotional feelings that come from art.”
Paleontology of a Woman: Fossils are the New Black takes place at the Milwaukee Public Museum (800 W. Wells Street) Saturday, September 21. Doors open at 6:30 with the fashion show at 7:15 p.m. A reception will follow until 11 p.m. Tickets are available online.