A new exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is a stunning testament to the cyclical nature of fashion. In “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” the museum shows off 60 of its most impressive pieces from the last three centuries, often juxtaposing newer outfits with the iconic silhouettes they echo.
For instance, a sweeping scarlet coat with oversized lapels and exaggerated coattails from John Galliano’s spring/summer 2015 collection for Maison Margiela is paired with a circa 1780 red wool broadcloth French style that inspired Galliano. A 1994 Azzedine Alaia dress shares space with a 1950s-era Charles James evening dress. “The pairs show the way fashion is inspired and influenced by the past,” Assistant Curator Jessica Regan said at a press preview of the exhibit, which runs until Feb. 5. “The artistry of the past can be enlivened by the fashion of today.”
The exhibit also serves as a stylish history lesson. “Our mission is to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process and inspires subsequent art,” according to Andrew Bolton, curator in charge. As Regan put it, “Each [piece] stands as a visual expression of its time.” In the 18th century, fine textiles and surface embellishment were paramount for the well-heeled, Regan added. A perfect example of the era is a circa 1747 British robe à l’anglaise made of ivory silk, brocaded with three different types of silver thread. “Each reflects the light differently,” Regan said. “The dress was meant to glitter in the candlelight.”
A blue silk satin ball gown with a wasp waist and embroidered butterflies by Jean-Phillipe Worth demonstrates the 19th century emphasis on impeccable tailoring. And the masterworks chosen from the 20th and 21st centuries push the envelope conceptually or in their construction technique. An autumn/winter 2015-16 Victor & Rolf creation, for example, raises the question of whether fashion is art, the dress a gilt-framed “canvas” featuring appliquéd “paint splatters” and jacquard-woven images of famous paintings. Also on display is the punk-era “Venus” T-shirt covered in patches, chains and studs, created and worn by British designer Vivienne Westwood. “With new pieces, we must be especially mindful of passing fads,” Regan said, adding that the Costume Institute focuses on “designs that move fashion forward.”