All Photos: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” opened Friday at the Costume Institute, offers an inside look at how the Met’s curators are expanding and illuminating the museum’s holdings. Spoiler alert: It’s nothing like wardrobe building. While there might be room for a fashion flub, or three, in your closet, there is none in a museum collection, especially not one of this caliber.
“Masterworks” is an uplifting display of virtuoso talent and connoisseurship that showcases some of the museum’s new acquisitions, from the jut-hipped suit that wowed at Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga debut to hard-to-find pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries, including a particularly charming Empire dinner dress with holly embroidered above its poufed hem—very Jane Austen. In contrast, there is nothing at all sweet about a studded Let It Rock T-shirt designed by Vivienne Westwood, which shares space with safety-pinned looks by Zandra Rhodes and Gianni Versace from 1977 and 1994, respectively. These, of course, evoke the current use of this humble utilitarian closure on the runway and as a political statement, thus demonstrating that a careful curatorial approach makes such “conversations” possible.
With its Ethafoam and raw-wood crate-style vitrines, “Masterworks” is designed to look like the treasures on display have just been unpacked, a visual metaphor for the figurative one. The show “unpack[s] the meaning of all of these objects and where they sit within the history of fashion and why they’re important in the context of our collection,” explains assistant curator Jessica Regan, who organized the exhibit with support from curator in charge Andrew Bolton.
The exhibition does more than reveal the Costume Institute’s newer holdings, though; it contextualizes them and offers an inside peek at the museum’s collection strategy, which has evolved since its merger with the Met in 1946 from one that was encyclopedic to something more focused on objects that are without parallel, be that in terms of conception, artistry, or technical innovation. And while Regan and her colleagues are always looking for pieces that are “superb expressions of their time,” the criteria, she explains, “shifts and changes as fashion evolves; so materials might be the “selling point” of an 18th-century piece, and the silhouette that of one from the 19th. On top of all this, whatever is collected must work within the context of the archive as a whole. This is what makes the juxtaposition of a voluminous, valentine red Comme des Garçons ensemble from 2015 with a hinged, cane pannier trimmed with magenta silk velvet ribbon circa 1760–70 so illuminating.
A whole room of the exhibit is dedicated to pieces from the Harold Koda Gift, which was solicited in honor of the curator, who retired early this year after leading the Costume Institute for 15 years. Among the donations made in Koda’s name is an ensemble inspired by 18th-century menswear designed by Raf Simons for Christian Dior’s Fall 2014 Couture collection, and Tom Ford’s sequined, Jay Z–referencing “football jersey” mini dress; both scores for the museum’s ever evolving and growing collection.
“Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” is on view at the Met from November 18, 2016 to February 5, 2017. Follow the show on social media using #FashionMasterworks.