Documenting Fashion Visits NYC, Dec 2016: Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center

The current exhibition on show at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the MET has been given the title Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion. Rather than exploring a theme, as Judith Clark has so brilliantly done with Vulgar at the Barbican Centre, the MET’s assistant curator Jessica Regan presents viewers with a mix of fashion with no unifying theme or trend or feature other that the 50 pieces were acquired over the last decade, and that each may be termed a ‘masterwork’.

HOUSE OF WORTH (French, 1858-1956) Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926) BALL GOWN, 1898, haute couture | Light blue silk satin brocaded à la disposition with yellow and ivory silk; embroidered with silver sequins, clear rhinestones, and clear and silver seed beads; trimmed with ivory cotton lace, black silk velvet, and light blue silk mousseline | Brooklyn, Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1965 (2009.306. 1324a, b)

A decade since the MET’s last acquisitions show, blog.mode: addressing fashion, in 2007, Masterworks marks a shift in the collecting strategy of the museum when it comes to fashion. The phrase ‘Unpacking Fashion’ speaks to this. The set of the exhibition is formed from crates, suggestive of the archives in which the garments are stored to best preserve them, from which they are then unpacked for display. But the term also refers to the academic practice of unpacking an idea, a point, a proposition in order to understand its significance. Why is a sculptural, slashed tulle gown by Viktor and Rolf worthy of being exhibited in a museum? What makes it seminal, important, a masterwork?

The dress in question is not part of everyday dress trends seen on women walking down the street; it was not mass produced, indeed it was worn by only a handful of people. It may not warrant a significant space in an encyclopaedia of Western fashion, but the challenging design and painstaking skill of its construction make it worthy of celebration. No one else, quite simply, has made anything like it.

VIKTOR & ROLF (Dutch, founded 1993) Viktor Hosting (Dutch, born 1969) Rolf Snoren (Dutch, born 1969) BALL GOWN, spring/summer 2010 | Blue polyester tulle, and black silk-synthetic moiré embroidered with white plastic sequins | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2011 (2011.8)

The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery is organised chronologically, with each garment accompanied by an in-depth explanation, or rationalisation, of its presence in the exhibition. Designers represented range from Paul Poiret to Yves Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood. The design advances of new names – Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga – and less widely known – Noritaka Tatehana, maker of the extraordinary heel-less shoes favoured by Daphne Guinness – are acknowledged.

Left: MADELEINE VIONNET (French, 1876-1975) EVENING DRESS, 1929, haute couture | Dress: pink silk tulle, embroidered with pink rayon floss; slip: pink silk gauze and crepe de chine | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2009 (2009.248a, b)  Right: JOHN GALLIANO (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) EVENING DRESS, spring/summer 1999 | Peach nylon lace | Gift of John Galliano, 2000 (2000.168)

HOUSE OF BALENCIAGA (French, founded 1937) Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895-1972) DRESS, 1967, haute couture | Green silk gazar | Gift of Judith Straeten, 2015 (2015.711)

The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery at the end of the exhibition features ensembles donated by designers on the occasion of the retirement of long-serving curator Harold Koda in January this year. These represent specific masterworks long and especially admired by Koda and include a design, re-made for the occasion, from Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel. This stands alongside an intricately embroidered frock coat by Raf Simons for Dior, across from a screen featuring tributes from the great and good of today’s industry.

Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) DRESS, 2015; original design: spring/summer 1983, haute couture | Black silk crepe embroidered with pearls, clear rhinestones, and red, green, gold and orange beads | Gift of CHANEL, in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.632)

HOUSE OF CHANEL (French, founded 1913) Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938) SUIT, spring/summer 2011 Jacket and skirt: navy and cream cotton-acrylic nylon-polyester tweed with ivory nylon net; blouse: ivory rayon twill | Gift of CHANEL, 2013 (2013.157.1a-e, h)

Left: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Raf Simons (Belgian, born 1968) ENSEMBLE, autumn/winter 2014-15, haute couture | Coat and waistcoat: black silk faille embroidered with polychrome silk and metal thread, silver plastic sequins, and clear and iridescent glass beads; blouse: black brushed-wool twill; trousers: black wool flannel | Gift of Christian Dior Couture in honour of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.256a-d)  Right: HOUSE OF DIOR (French, founded 1947) Christian Dior (French,1905-1957) “MYSTÈRE” COAT, autumn/winter 1947-48 | Black wool melton and dark green silk taffeta | Gift of Irene Stone, in memory of her daughter Mrs. Ethel S. Greene, 1959 (C.I.59.26.2)

The lingering question posited by Masterworks is that age old debate: is fashion art? It is clear what the MET believes. The first work you see as you come down the stairs into the exhibition is an expertly crafted Viktor and Rolf dress which resembles a painting smashed over the head of a mannequin – an attempt, surely, to reinforce the point that each garment should be viewed with the same attitude as that afforded by a Van Gogh upstairs. Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge, has commented on the Costume Institute’s renewed mission ‘to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.’ It is a vow restated by this thoughtful exhibition, with extraordinary skill and innovation displayed and emphasised by curious pairings and dramatic exchanges – no more so than in the vivid red of a John Galliano for Martin Margiela coat in conversation with its 18th century inspiration.

Left: MAISON MARGIELA (French, founded 1988) John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar, 1960) ENSEMBLE, spring/summer 2015, artisanal | Coat: red brushed wool needle-felted with red silk chiffon trimmed with red rayon velvet; bra top: black nylon net embroidered with gold metallic thread and gold plastic sequins; briefs: black polyester rib-knit embroidered with gold metallic thread, gold plastic sequins, and gold glass bugle beads; shorts: black cotton denim | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Insititute Gifts, 2015 (2015.541a-f)  Right: French COAT, 1787-92 Red wool broadcloth Purchase | Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1992 (1992.65)

ISSEY MIYAKE (Japanese, born 1938) BUSTIER, autumn/winter 1980-81 | Red moulded polyester resin and cellulose nitrate  | Purchase, Friends of the Costume Institute Gifts, 2015 (2015.61)

Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 5 February, 2017.

The Met Gala – A Forgotten History

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching The First Monday in May after at last finding it online (this took an unhealthy amount of time searching the depths of the internet as its UK debut is not until September, I suppose patience is a virtue that I lack). Ever since watching the trailer earlier this year I have anxiously awaited its release. The film marks the first time the Met gala has been the subject of a full-length documentary, and closely scrutinized by a relative fashion and art industry outsider. Critically acclaimed director Andrew Rossi has previously focused the attentions of his documentaries on industries such as journalism and education including, Page One: Inside the New York Times and Ivory Tower, but never the opaque fashion or art worlds.

The trailer promises to follow the creative process–with unprecedented access–behind the curation of “China: Through The Looking Glass,” the museum’s 2015 spring exhibition curated by Andrew Bolton exploring Chinese-inspired Western fashions, and an exclusive look at what it takes to organize the logistical Everest that is Met Gala. Co-Chaired by Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, the Gala has recently become known as the “super bowl of social fashion events”. It not only marks the grand opening of the spring exhibition, in this case “China”, but also functions to fundraise the Costume Institute’s operating budget for the entire year. #NoPressure

Overall, I immensely enjoyed the film, and do highly recommend watching it now that its on iTunes. However, I found that although it lived up to what it promised to deliver, and beyond in many senses (interviews with Harold Koda, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gautier in particular provided unique perspectives on the “Is Fashion Art?” debate), it missed an important opportunity to examine the Met Gala’s cultural significance within the fashion industry beyond its connections to celebrity culture. The film only briefly paid homage to former Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, whose contributions as a “special consultant” to Met in the 1970s (she joined in ’73) are largely credited with reinvigorating public interest in the Institute. And furthermore, it entirely overlooked the Costume Institute and the Gala’s deep connections with the development of the American fashion industry; especially the key role both played in establishing American designer sportswear as a legitimate alternative to Parisian haute couture in the post WWII era.

Indeed, since its founding in 1940 the Costume Institute has been an advocate for American sportswear. Not only did it function as a historical resource for New York-based fashion and theatre designers, it also served to establish the intellectual community and rhetoric needed to exalt the virtues of American fashion to the world, including words now commonly used: democratic, functional, rational and/or versatile.  For example, when the Museum of Costume became The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in 1945, it presented an exhibition called “American Fashions and Fabrics” in collaboration with sportswear designers such as Clarepotter and Claire McCardall to showcase the skills of American sportswear designers, or as former Costume Institute curator Richard Martin said, “represent the unceasing creativity of American fashion”.

Lastly, and perhaps most sadly, the documentary overlooked the critical roles Eleanor Lambert, the renowned fashion publicist behind the creation of Fashion Week, the International Best Dressed List and “Battle of Versailles”; and Dorothy Shaver – the groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor – played in the gala’s creation. Both collaborated in establishing the COTY American Fashion Critics’ Awards (the precursor to today’s CFDA awards), whose first ceremonies interestingly took place on January 22, 1943, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps they knew they were on to something because in 1948, almost 70 years ago, Lambert and Shaver went on to establish the Party of the Year, an annual fundraiser now known as… the Met Gala.

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition's subtitle, "Through the Looking Glass," which translates into Chinese as "Moon in the Water," suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator's created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer - a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. "When 'Moon in the Water,' is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy." Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

The dresses in this gallery, including the one featured in this image were by John Galliano for Christian Dior and Maison Margiela. Galliano was inspired by Beijing opera, an art formed governed by the overriding principle of beauty. The dresses were placed in a gallery that explored the exhibition’s subtitle, “Through the Looking Glass,” which translates into Chinese as “Moon in the Water,” suggesting something that cannot be grasped and has both positive and negative connotations. Using a projector and the sounds of water dripping, the curator’s created the impression of the moon rippling in water, reflected on the black laquer – a Chinese plastic used as an artistic medium for centuries. “When ‘Moon in the Water,’ is used to described a beautiful object, it can refer to a quality of perfection that is either so elusive and mysterious that the item becomes transcendent or so illusory and deceptive that it becomes untrustworthy.” Quoted Text: Metropolitan Museum of Art Image: Carolina Reyes

A porcelain- inspired couture gown included in "China Through the Looking Glass". Image: Carolina Reyes

A blue-and-white porcelain- inspired couture gown included in “China Through the Looking Glass”. The exhibition pointed out that the story of blue-and-white porcelain encapsulates centuries of cultural exchannge between the East and the West. It was originally developed in Jingdezhen during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and was exported to Europe as early as the sixteenth century. However, because of its popularity potters in the Netherlands, Germany and England began to produce their own imitations with a particular willow pattern, causing Chinese craftsmen to begin producing their own hand-painted versions of the willow pattern. Image: Carolina Reyes

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache.

A Chinese Calligraphy inspired dress by Dior. As the wall text pointed out, Dior was likely unaware of the semantic value of the words on his dresses, which in this case resulted in a humorous juxtaposition. The dress is adorned with characters from an eighth-century letter by Zhang Xu in which the author complains about a painful stomachache. Image: Carolina Reyes

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the "Party of the Year" now known as the Met Gala.

On the left: Eleanor Lambert On the right: Dorothy Shaver. Founders of the “Party of the Year” now known as the Met Gala.

Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham's latest 'On the Street' article in the NY Times, about the trend for braving the snowy streets in no socks.

Bill Cunningham’s latest ‘On the Street’ article in the NY Times, about the trend for braving the snowy streets in no socks.

When studying the History of Dress, there seems to be a tendency to focus on the clothes featured by designers in fashion shows and magazines and worn by the most famous and wealthiest members of society. There is, of course, good reason for this; however, to do so exclusively is to ignore the largest platform for showcasing new trends- the street.

Bill Cunningham, who, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, I only recently learned about, has devoted much of his life to documenting the fashions worn by the everyday person. Bill is a devoted fashionista: he attends the major fashion shows, photographing his favourite styles as modeled on the catwalk. He then takes to the streets of New York, capturing these styles in the everyday world. His images, published in the fashion section of the New York Times, are candid shots, taken when people are unaware, and thus showing clothes and the body at their most natural and least glamorous. His latest series, entitled ‘Fashion’s Deep Freeze,’ captures people battling the snowy conditions on a typical New York January day. Bill explains, in article ‘Bill on Bill,’published in the Times in 2002, that, when he began photographing the people of New York in the 1970s, magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were doing a similar thing, however they only focused on famous or well-known people at society events. Bill is different. He claims not to care at all who the person inside the clothing is, he is only interested in the best dressed people on the street, famous or not. He says ‘I never bothered with celebrities unless they were wearing something interesting.’

Interestingly, despite the fact that he had no fashion or photography training, Bill is extremely highly regarded by even the most prominent in the industry. Anna Wintour has notoriously said that ‘we all get dressed for Bill. However, even being Anna Wintour does not guarantee her a shot: she describes how the worst feeling is having him cast a glance over her outfit and not taking a photograph.

This mini personal discovery came at quite a pertinent time in relation to what we are studying on the MA, for this week we focused on representations of everyday clothing, captured by early photography and film in the 1920s and ‘30s. The sources we looked at were often taken by amateur photographers, simply capturing their friends and family, with no real regard for the clothing. Only now, these images are useful as illustrations of everyday clothing worn by real people. The articles of clothing that exist in archives and museums tend to be less everyday wear and more garments that were bought or made for a specific event, such as wedding dresses and ball gowns, which were generally much more expensive and less often worn. Subsequently, dress historians must rely on what film and photography remains to gauge the everyday dress of a period.

In this respect, Bill’s images are an invaluable resource, both for the fashion conscious now, and those in the future wishing to look back on fashions of the early 21st century. He refuses to accept any payment for his images, claiming that this allows him the freedom to photograph whatever he wants without being restricted by the demands of the newspaper. He travels through New York by bicycle with his camera, ready to take a snap at a moment’s notice. The vast majority of his images remain unpublished, and are stored in his tiny apartment in rows of filing cabinets. He takes these images for himself, to satisfy his love of clothing and his appreciation of aesthetics.

Sources:

Bill Cunningham, ‘Bill on Bill,’ New York Times, October 27, 2002

Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, Zeitgeist Films, 2010 https://zeitgeistfilms.com/billcunninghamnewyork/