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
View of the Met Museum's Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, which opens on this Viktor & Rolf tulle ball gown from 2010
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.
Ball gown by Viktor & Rolf, Spring/Summer 2010 (Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, both Dutch, both born 1969). Made from blue polyester tulle and black silk-synthetic moiré embroidered with white plastic sequins. Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2011
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.
Dress (1967) in green silk gazar by Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895-1972) for his Haute Couture collection for House of Balenciaga (French, founded 1937). Gift of Judith Straeten, 2015
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.
Left: “Punk” Wedding Dress by Zandra Rhodes (British, born 1940), Spring/Summer 1977. Made from white silk-rayon jersey and white nylon-rayon satin, embroidered with nickel ball chain, brass beaded safety pins and clear crystals. Gift of Zandra Rhodes, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 Right: Dress by Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946-1997) remade in 2016 from an original design by Versace (Italian, founded 1978), Spring/Summer 1994. Made from black silk-synthetic crinkle-crepe, with gold-tone metal safety pins embellished with crystals. Gift of Donatella and Allegra Versace, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016
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.
Paphiopedilum Philippinense Orchid Hat by Philip Treacy (British, born Ireland, 1967), Spring/Summer Haute Couture 2000. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Philip Treacy and Isabella Blow, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016
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.
Dress by Iris Van Herpen (Dutch, born 1984), Autumn/Winter 2012-2013 Haute Couture collection. Made from black cotton tulle and silk satin, embroidered with strips of black PVC. Gift of Iris Van Herpen, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016
“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.
Ensemble by Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese, born 1943), Autumn/Winter 1991-1992, made from natural wood laminate, black wool flannel, and black cotton plain weave, hinged with silver metal hardware. Purchase, friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2010
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.
Left: Ensemble for Spring/Summer 2015 by John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) for Maison Margiela Artisanal (French, founded 1988). Coat made from red brushed wool needle-felted with red silk chiffon trimmed with red rayon velvet; worn over a top of black nylon net, embroidered with gold metallic thread and gold plastic sequins; worn with briefs in black polyester rib-knit embroidered with gold metallic thread, gold plastic sequins, and gold glass bugle beads and shorts in black cotton denim. Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2015
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.
Bustier by Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938), Autumn/Winter 1980-81, made from red moulded polyester resin and cellulose nitrate. Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2015
Cage bustier by Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese, born 1943), Autumn/Winter 2006-2007. Made from black silk crepe over plastic boning, with black cashmere-wool jersey. Purchase, Various Donors, by exchange 2015
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.”
Left: Dress (Spring/Summer 1994) in white acetate knit and black acetate-nylon chenille knit, by Azzedine Alaïa (French, born Tunisia, 1940). Purchase, various donors, by exchange, 2015 Right: “La Sirene” evening dress (1951-52) in ivory silk crepe by Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978). Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Emmet Whitlock, 1983
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)
Suzy with the 2010 Viktor & Rolf ball gown (see above) that is the signature image for the exhibition.
Ensemble by Raf Simons (Belgian, born 1968) for House of Dior (French, founded 1947), for the Autumn/Winter 2014-15 Haute Couture collection.
Dress, Spring/Summer 2011, by Sarah Burton (British, born 1974) for Alexander McQueen (British, founded 1992)
Ball gown (1898) by Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926) for House of Worth (French, 1858-1956).
Gentleman's suit, probably British, 1770-80.
"Robe volante", French, circa 1730.
Ensemble by John Galianno (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) for Maison Margiela (French, founded 1988), Spring/Summer 2015.
Left: Gentleman's robe in blue diamond-quilted silk satin by Banyan (British tailor), circa 1760-70
Dress (1999) in white Tyvek printed with red and blue diagonal stripes, by Hussein Chalayan (British, born Cyprus, 1970).
View of the Harold Koda Gift Gallery
View of the 19th-Century Gallery
View of the Late 20th-Century Gallery, which opens with Zandra Rhodes (left) and Gianni Versace
View of the Early 20th-Century Gallery, which includes these gowns by Azzedine Alaïa (left) and Charles James
Evening dress (1956) in light purple nylon tulle, by Antonio del Castillo (Spanish, 1908-1984) for Lanvin-Castillo (French, active 1950-62).
Opera coat (1911) by Paul Poiret (French, 1879-1944) for his Haute Couture collection, made from ivory silk damask with black silk crepe-back satin and ivory silk corded passementerie. Alfred Z. Solomon-Janet A. Sloane Endowment Fund 2008
Left: Ensemble by Hedi Slimane (French, born 1968) for Yves Saint Laurent (French, founded 1966), Spring/Summer 2014. Blouse made from white silk crepe, embroidered with lip motifs in white iridescent and red plastic sequins and black glass beads; trousers made from black wool gabardine. Gift of Maison Yves Saint Laurent, 2015. Centre: Dress (1971) by Yves Saint Laurent (French, 1936-2008) in black and red printed rayon crepe with red vinyl flower. Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2010
Left: Evening Dress (1929) by Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876-1975) for her Haute Couture collection. Made from pink silk tulle, embroidered with pink rayon floss; worn over a pink silk gauze and crepe de chine slip. Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute gifts, 2009
View from the stairwell into the Gallery of the Costume Institute, which is housed in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, a dedicated wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York