What is wearable? Exhibit pushes boundaries on clothing, art

In this Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 photo, a piece entitled "Hermecea" by Jan Kerr is seen as part of The “WOW - World of Wearable Art” show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Art and fashion are colliding in this weekend's U.S. premiere of an unusual exhibition in Massachusetts

SALEM, Mass. — They are outfits you might expect to see in Lady Gaga's closet: a flamingo pink Fiberglas frock and a wooden one-piece replica of Notre Dame Cathedral.

But these wild and whimsical ensembles are part of the "WOW — World of Wearable Art" exhibition opening Saturday at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

The quirky show, a collision of art and the craziest of couture, offers visitors a chance to view 32 award-winning costumes from the New Zealand-based design competition of the same name.

Nearly three decades ago, the contest began when organizers asked an eclectic international mix of boat builders, taxidermists, amateur enthusiasts and others to push the boundaries of clothing and artwork.

"What do all these people have in common? Basically, it's the ability to use the body as a blank canvas," said Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, the exhibition's coordinating curator.

Garment submissions must be made to fit the models who wear the artwork in an elaborate stage show.

"This exhibit asks the question, 'What is wearable?'" Roscoe Hartigan said.

With each ensemble, there are central ideas for viewers to ponder.

One example is a piece called "Inkling," by Gillian Saunders. The horned body armor with a protruding dragon head and red heart on the belt was conceived after Saunders wondered what the human body might look like if it had more tattoo ink than blood running through its veins.

Lynne Christiansen's "Gothic Habit," the wearable Notre Dame Cathedral, was inspired by the spiritual feeling some get when entering a church, temple or mosque. Christiansen wondered if wearing a miniature edifice could capture the same sentiment.

Yet some of the ensembles take on a more solemn tone.

"Beast in the Beauty," created by Alaskan carpenter David Walker, reflects his late wife's battle with breast cancer. Worn with the wooden dress is a blond helmet representing her chemotherapy-induced baldness. Walker's wife was a collaborator on the project and died before it was finished.

"This shows just how much people have invested of themselves in these ensembles," Roscoe Hartigan said.

Carol Boisvert, of Wilmington, Massachusetts, said she was struck by the numerous almost-hidden details contained within each piece.

"It's deceptive because you don't know what you're truly looking at until you're up close," she said.

Tracey Cahalane, of Salem, New Hampshire, was impressed by the wide-ranging color spectrum in the works on display.

"The amount of color the artists used is astonishing," Cahalane said.

"WOW — World of Wearable Art" runs through June 11.

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