The Blue Wrap Project features about 25 dresses, numerous accessories and photographs from a March 2011 runway show in support of the Scarborough-based Partners for World Health. The installation at the Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery makes for a very strong and interesting exhibition.

The premise was to challenge local designers, art students and artists to create dresses out of discarded blue wrap, the material used by all American hospitals to sterilize surgical instruments. The point was to create awareness about how discarded American medical supplies can provide much needed aid in developing countries.

The worthy cause aside, the designers rose to the material challenge and created a fantastic set of outfits. The consistency of the material in terms of recognizable texture and color gives the show an unusual uniformity that makes for a level playing field against which even amateur eyes can enjoy comparing, contrasting and, yes, even judging the garments.

The exhibition was installed with a professional touch that flows from window installation to haute couture showroom to art exhibition. The clothes are mounted on mannequins or hangers and surrounded by photographs of them from the runway show.

Many of the designers modeled the dresses themselves, but others were worn by friends, relatives and even a few professional models. The labels each provide a paragraph about the work by the designer and, along with the photos, present a fun and easily digestible entry into fashion design.

My favorite label belongs to Mardie Weldon’s dress of blue surgical gloves interlaced with blue wrap and featuring a long-tailed skirt with a very short front and blue surgical masks for breast cups. Weldon describes this “ridiculous dress” as “a small-breasted woman’s moment of glory.” While it’s hilarious, it’s also a terrific piece of design.

One of my favorite things about this show is how it makes the case that haute couture — high fashion — is an art. Of all the major arts such as music, theater, literature, visual art, poetry, architecture and so on, “fashion” is probably the most elusive, because the average viewer gets little chance to see the art, with so much of the public emphasis on the flamboyance of a few leading designers.

The Blue Wrap Project, however, makes fashion accessible to the general public. It will hold your attention as well as let you in on the content of the designs: humor, detail, sculptural form, historical references and so on.

Susan Picinich’s ode to Florence Nightingale, for example, is hilarious because it’s almost too spot on. Barbara Kelly’s men’s pirate outfit is all about costume fun. Kris Hall’s blue wrap play on Yves Saint Laurent’s famous Mondrian day dress is particularly funny in this context, because Mondrian’s primary colors are trumped by solid blue — a subtle joke about Yves Klein, who was famous for his blue monochrome paintings.

My personal favorites included a couple of throwbacks to evening gowns of the 1940s, especially Judy Gailen’s sophisticated gown accessorized with a hemostat clasp in the small of the back and matching necklace. Andrea Reynders’ gown uses a great bustle next to safety pins in a way that shows off sculptural qualities in a context of improvised lightness; the effect is jazzy rather than weighty.

Erika Lynn Smith’s very short, 1950s-style silhouette with a flirtatiously-flared petticoat might be a favorite because of its frugal hem length and gorgeous model (Miss Maine U.S. Aleksandra Derikonja). But it’s also a great design for how it both celebrates details, such as seams, and uses them to hold the outfit together. There are rosettes from the wedge heels to the hairpiece, and Smith’s seams on the bodice and edge of the skirt draw you in with their exquisite detail.

A couple of dresses for girls also stand out. Fashion Institute of Technology-educated Stephanie Harmon’s sparky number with a short bubble skirt is a sort of updated riding hood — only in blue and perkier than ever. The picture of this dress on the sixth-grade model is the best photo in the show.

Marieta Atienza’s flower girl dress as modeled by her young niece is adorable, and her own gown with a single, braided shoulder strap and ties across the back of the bodice is one of the most creative pieces in the show — and Atienza is a nurse who retired after 35 years of service.

Just as I was surprised by the overall quality of the designs, I was also struck that there was nothing weak or bad in the entire show. It’s a good exhibition about fashion, and it’s a great awareness-raising tool for Partners for World Health.

If you are interested in fashion design or curious to learn about it, or if you are interested in the premise of the show, there is a lot to see at the Blue Wrap Project.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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