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.