Back to its curatorial roots, New York’s “Met” Museum swaps red-carpet parties and dramatic displays for an intriguing look at fashion, then - and now.
The ball gown was classic: a strapless silken bodice and a full skirt below. Except that the tulle was sliced into two halves, leaving a ballerina tutu with a gap above the crinoline. Embracing stitch and wit, it was a seminal piece from 2010 by the Dutch design duo Viktor Horsting & Rolf Snoeren.
Having become known for its dramatic exhibitions, accompanied by a fanfare of a party and A-list guests, the Metropolitan Museum’s current show, “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” (until 5th February 2017), is about reflection, focusing on seminal pieces and why they are important.
The 60 significant acquisitions, from the 18th century to today, include a 1967 green silk gazar dress by Balenciaga, its swooping hemline and sculptural shape holding its place as if by magic. Jessica Regan, Assistant Curator at the Met’s Costume Institute, described it as a perfect example of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s work, and proof of the Spanish couturier’s mastery of materials.
Other displays stand-off against one another, for example a Zandra Rhodes deliberately “torn” dress of 1977, giving a polish to the chains and safety pins of London’s Punk aesthetic. Beside it in the same mode is the “safety-pin” dress designed by Gianni Versace in 1994 and re-made for the museum show.
With support from Andrew Bolton, Head Curator, the Costume Institute has also put together a tribute to Harold Koda, the former Curator-in-Chief, who retired from the Met after 15 years in January 2016. In this display, outfits such as the Versace dress have been donated by the designers in his honour. Donations include a classic Chanel suit, given by Anna Wintour of American Vogue, whose name is above the door of the Costume Institute. The most dramatic gift for the Koda tribute is a hat by British milliner Philip Treacy, whose curving orchid shape has the sexual charge of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.
What makes a fashion masterwork? Regan chooses to show some dramatic single pieces, such as the Balenciaga creation or Iris Van Herpen’s moulded satin and tulle dress embroidered with black PVC, from 2012-13.
“While fashion is often derided for its ephemerality, its quick response to change ensures that it is an immediate expression of the spirit of its time - a vivid refection of social, cultural and political circumstances, and of shifting ideals of beauty,” Regan explains.
Among the deliberate contrasts are recent designs that slip in beside 18th-century outfits, as in John Galliano’s re-interpretation of his “Les Incroyables” graduate collection for Maison Margiela Artisanal for Autumn/Winter 2016. The aim is to meld one century’s dress with another and to show the roots from which Galliano’s style grew.
Or there are dramatic exchanges, as in Issey Miyake’s strawberry-red 1980-81 plastic bustier, moulded on a female torso, while fellow Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto puts the “body” into “bodice”, displaying a rib cage of plastic boning to create a black silk crepe top in 2006-7.
I myself was fooled by some of the pieces. When I first spotted a Balenciaga padded-hip suit, I thought at first that it was a vintage piece from the 1950s - but it was actually created in this millennium by Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, now Creative Director of Cristobal Balenciaga’s famous house.
My gaff would probably be well-taken by the museum, for as Andrew Bolton says, “Our mission is to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.”
This is a far more scholarly exhibition than the purely visual displays that pop up in the many so-called fashion historical exhibitions shown across the world. Some visitors may find this approach dull compared to these more dramatic collections – not least at the Met itself. Yet the purpose of a museum is to learn from the past. And in Regan’s curatorship there is a good deal of excellent information, lightly handled.
[i]“Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” is at The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum until 5th February 2017 (www.metmuseum.org).