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.

MA Study Trip to New York City: The Fashion Institute of Technology Archive

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The MA class admiring a beaded dress from the 1920s.

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Muslin copy of a 1920s Chanel dress.

On one of our museum visits in New York, we were lucky enough to be shown a selection of objects from the Fashion Institute of Technology Archives. On arrival, we were greeted by an alumnus of our course, Emma McClendon, now an assistant curator at the museum at FIT, with whom we discussed our similar academic and Courtauld experiences, and then our not so academic love of Percy Pigs that we had brought over as a souvenir from the UK.

Her colleague, Liz Wei, then brought us to a study room in which we came face-to-face with the garments, fashions and trends that have graced our books, seminars and imaginations. On a packed, non-descript clothing rail were some of the most beautiful and well-preserved examples of dress from America and Europe ranging from the 1920s to the late 60s. We were shown couture, eveningwear, daywear, sportswear, and everything-in-between-wear from European designers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet, and Paul Poiret. We were also shown examples of ready-to-wear and couture by American designers such as Adrian, Charles James, Phil Macdonald and Claire McCardell.

We were able to get familiar with the objects (without actually touching them) and see the minute details of stitching, beading and construction, and really gain an understanding of the craftsmanship of these beautiful garments. Having discussed these objects in an abstract manner in seminars and readings, we were able to finally see the objects themselves and fully appreciate the properties and themes that encapsulated fashion in the interwar period in a tangible way.

Unlike other fashion archives, FIT also functions as an educational institute, and so has a unique set of muslin copies of select objects. This allows design students to physically interact with garments that would otherwise be too delicate to handle. This allowed us, as dress historians, to grasp an understanding of dressmaking techniques, and see the innovative and diverse methods of construction employed by couture designers, tailors and home dressmakers in these historical garments.

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Fortuny tea dress curled up in its storage box.

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Detail of pleats on the Fortuny dress.

Despite the feeling of deep reverence for all of the objects introduced to us, for me, there was one standout object. Unlike the other garments hanging on the clothing rail, this garment was curled up inside a square white box. Furled up in a whirl of finely pleated silk, was a stunning, peach-coloured, Mariano Fortuny dress and belt from the 1930s. When the dress was unravelled, the intricate tight pleats sprung forth to reveal the long, elegant sheath and the Venetian glass beads that decorated the seams. The pleating, loose-fit and columnar style of the dress reflected its original intent as a Tea Gown, to be worn without a corset, and on more relaxed social occasions, entertaining at home. This garment encompassed concepts of modernity, machinery and the changing activities of women in the 1930s, despite its classical inspirations. Remarkably, this notion of modernity still survives within the garment today, with the endurance of its tight pleating that would rival Issey Miyake’s authority of the technique. Indeed, the gown is as fresh as a Pleats Please garment available for purchase today. Much like Miyake’s technological textile research, Fortuny experimented with machinery and techniques to create his unique pleating system, a process that is still a mystery to this day. Only a few pieces of archival information on his pleating process remain. This method used a pulley system and included heated ceramic rollers through which the silk was passed to create the tight folds. Though this is still speculative, as Fortuny kept the process a well-guarded secret and it seems never recorded it. Women would have to resend their dresses to Fortuny to be re-pleated, if they had been flattened from sitting, or been dampened.

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Detail of the top of the Fortuny dress.

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Detail of the bottom of the Fortuny dress.

The technological innovation of Fortuny’s pleating, the modernity of the garment, its classical sources and its relatively intact condition, seem almost anachronistic and belie its era. It was this clash of temporalities, the captivating mystery surrounding Fortuny, and its resonances in contemporary fashion that provoked a visceral response in me.