Making The Costume Institute Uncrate Again

Have you ever wondered what goes into a curator’s thought process when it comes to deciding which fashion treasures to acquire? The Met’s “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” (today through February 5, 2017) at the Anna Wintour Costume Center will give you an idea of what the pros look for when building and expanding their collections. The exhibition includes 50 masterworks spanning three centuries, acquired over the past 10 years displayed on top of or near wooden crates, to cheekily drive home the message of being FOOTB (Fresh Out of the Box).

Andrew Bolton

“Our mission is to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art,” said Curator in Charge Andrew Bolton who supported Assistant Curator Jessica Regan in this endeavor. Since its founding in 1946 the Institute has been involved in building an encyclopedic or representative collection ranging from the eighteenth century to the present.

Thom Browne spring/summer 2016

This exhibition marks the 70 year turning point or shift to the acquisition of masterworks — examples of the highest aesthetic and technical quality of each respective era. Newly acquired iconic works are shown next to existing pieces already in the vast collection, primarily from other time periods which mimic or have influenced the other. This serves as visual testament to the saying that there are really no new ideas in fashion but rather just newer interpretations of the older ones.

House of Worth Ball Gown 1898 Haute Couture

Each era has its specialty as far as what was considered important in a garment. For example, in the 18th century a garment was a standout more for the quality of its material such as brocade and English silk than for details of cut and construction. In the 19th century, dressmaking, tailoring techniques and distinctive silhouettes such as those by Charles Frederick Worth demonstrate new sartorial standards of excellence. In these early times, one can’t help noticing (and I heard some remarking on the subject) how tiny the French and British people were to fit these garments — there is something incongruous about a heavily brocaded House of Worth ball gown resembling a costume made for a malnourished child!

Paul Poiret Opera Coat 1911 haute couture

Garments designed in the earliest part of the twentieth century show the reaction to World War I with an emphasis on simpler, less restrictive women’s fashion. Examples of these can be seen in the looser, draped styles of Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet, which were made for an uncorseted body.

House of Lanvin “Traviata” Robe De Style 1928, haute couture,
House of Lanvin, Robe De Style, Winter 1926-27, Haute Couture

The modern art movement was reflected in fashion of the ’20s and ’30s, often with a nod to surrealism. Examples include gowns seen here by Charles James (with his Salvador Dali inspired “lobster” construction); an evening jacket by Elsa Schiaparelli who went bold in her embroidered tribute to Jean Cocteau; and Jeanne Lanvin who revived 18th century techniques such as beading in graphic patterns on her classic full-skirted “robes de style.”

Balenciaga Dress 1967, haute couture green silk gazar

The late 20th century saw a continuation of the haute couture in the sculptural garments of Cristobal Balenciaga (in the ’50s and ’60’s); an introduction to luxury ready-to-wear with designers such as Yves Saint Laurent (’60s and ’70’s), as well as deconstructionism and punk embraced by Vivienne Westwood (’70s and beyond).

Maison Margiela Ensemble Spring/Summer 2015 &
French coat, Red Wool Broadcloth 1787-92

The contemporary section features fashion forward designs from Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, making mention of those “who experiment with found or recycled materials instead of luxury ones” as well as those who play with proportions and clothing’s relationship to the body like Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto.  (Yes, it’s official — Rei Kawakubo is coming to this space for the big Costume Institute spring fling known at the Met Gala).

Left: Zandra Rhodes Punk Wedding Dress, SpringSummer 1977 &
Right: Versace safety pin black dress 2016 recreation

Some of my favorite sights included revisiting the spring/summer 1994 black safety pin Versace dress (Oh, how I long for the days when wearing safety pins was considered edgy rather than a symbol of “slacktivism” (See article)) — worn by Elizabeth Hurley, although she is not mentioned here; the plastic bustier from Issey Miyake’s 1980-81 “Bodyworks” collection (reminds me of a molded car part).

Elsa Schiaparelli evening jacket autumn haute couture 1937

And the Chanel spring/summer 2011 “tattered” and “holey” tweed suit which is probably the only Chanel suit that I would actually want to be caught dead in. Also, of note is a side-by-side man’s and  woman’s Thom Browne suit (he was there, to support his husband, Bolton, of course), and a few showstopping accessories such as the Philip Treacy orchid hat (2000) donated by the designer and his late muse, Isabella Blow.

Autumn/Winter 2012-13 Chanel Haute Couture suit, donated by Anna Wintour

The last section of the exhibition features The Harold Koda Gift Room, whose namesake Bolton called the most brilliant Curator-in-Charge of The Costume Institute. “The entire show is a love poem to Harold,” Bolton said in his opening remarks, while Assistant Curator Regan said the show served as a “reminder of Harold’s convictions.”

 Tom Ford Dress Autumn/Winter 2014-15 Gift of Tom Ford,
Geoffrey Beene Evening Dress Autumn/Winter 1967-68

Koda, who retired last January, after 15 years, is paid homage to by designers (30 of whom donated works from their archives which had been admired by him), collectors and industry legends alike. He is credited with many landmark acquisitions, including the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, which was transferred to The Met in 2009.

As far as the theme of the exhibition goes, at times it is successful such as in the juxtaposition of the Charles James “La Sirene” next to an Azzedine Alaia number, at other times it feels too “try-hard.” What I’d like to know — how museum folk come up with their proposed exhibition topics.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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