Revealing fashion's masterpieces
A display of historic works in New York
The latest exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 'Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion', opens this week in New York. The collection’s first acquisitions show since 2007, it plots a course through some of the greatest moments in Western fashion since the 18th century. K talked to the curators.
How does one decide what constitutes a masterwork in fashion? It’s a question that the Costume Institute, in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, seeks to address with its latest exhibition Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion.
The show is intelligently named, in that it is still fairly novel for fashion to be included in museums at large, or to be considered equal to other art forms that are more likely to use the term masterworks.
The subtitle, meanwhile, is explained by the exhibition being based on the unearthing of 60 choice items from the archives, all acquired in the last decade.
Dating back to the 18th century, the pieces on show are displayed in chronological order, with some shown in packing crates or on palettes, as if they have just landed at the museum. The main focus is women’s wear, but the exhibition includes men’s wear and accessories. Some items were recently donated by designers upon the retirement of Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute from 2000 to January 2016.
Saint Laurent recognised the importance of street style – in this collection, using haute couture materials.
“Since The Costume Institute is part of an art museum [The Met], our primary criterion for a potential acquisition is its artistic merit,” says assistant curator Jessica Reagan, who curated the show with the support of Andrew Bolton, the current Institute’s curator in charge.
“We generally seek out pieces that represent the highest level of aesthetic and technical quality, that are exhibition-worthy, and that embody a moment in fashion,” she adds.
What defines a masterwork also depends on the period. “An 18th century masterwork, for instance, should be a prime example of its era, and may represent especially refined tailoring or mastery of the textile weaver’s art,” she says. “A 20th century masterwork might be exemplary for its technique, or it may be conceptually innovative, but we seek out the works of designers who have advanced the possibilities of fashion.”
Our mission is to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art.
Yves Saint Laurent, for example, is present for his ground-breaking work and for “maintaining the traditions of the haute couture, but also for introducing the inspiration of street style and setting a standard for ready-to-wear,” she says.
To help highlight their significance – and impact on one another – the museum has paired some designers together. A 1980s Halston evening dress is teamed with a 1930s Vionnet. Both were renowned for the use of the bias cut. “Together, the two gowns demonstrate not only Vionnet’s lasting influence and prescient modernity, but Halston’s ability to create styles that feel both timeless and contemporary,” she explains.
An ensemble from Hedi Slimane’s spring/summer 2014 collection for Saint Laurent (a pair of ultra-slim trousers and a bodice embroidered with red sequins in a lip motif), is shown with an Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche dress from 1971, with a similar print of red lips.
“Saint Laurent’s ‘71 couture collection, Libération, was controversial for its appropriation of 1940s styles, a time of war and occupation, and was provocative for its presentation of a seductive femininity. But he was responding to trends already seen in the street, and foreshadowing the ongoing importance of reinterpretations of street style, and ironic references to historic fashions,” Reagan says. “Slimane makes a clear reference to Yves Saint Laurent’s 1971 collection with similar motifs.”
Cristobal Balenciaga and some of the subsequent designers for the house, have featured large in The Met’s recent acquisitions. The exhibition will show a 1967 dress of green silk gazar, paired with a Nicolas Ghesquière spring/summer 2006 creation.
“Balenciaga was an absolute master of his materials, and achieved his voluminous shapes by taking advantage of the inherent properties of the textile – in this case the stiffness and pliability of silk gazar. During his time at Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquière was innovative in his experimentations with fabrics and silhouettes.”
A collection highlight is a dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2011. “It is embellished with hundreds of feathers meticulously cut, dyed and painted to resemble the wings of monarch butterflies. It exemplifies Burton’s ability to uphold the tradition of extraordinary craftsmanship and creativity that has defined the house since its founding.”
Another historic gem is an Yves Saint Laurent Chicago jacket from his last collection for Dior in 1960. “In a period when the relevance of haute couture was being questioned and challenged by the rise of youth-driven fashion, Saint Laurent [again] recognised the importance of street style – in this collection, using haute couture materials.”
Indeed. “His Chicago ensemble referenced motorcycle jackets, but was made of crocodile trimmed with mink. The collection was too avant-garde for a conservative couture clientele, but he rightly saw these transformations of street styles as the future direction of fashion.”
As for lesser known masterminds of fashion, consider a pair of ‘heel-less’ shoes created by Noritaka Tatehana in red leather, brushed with gold. Tatehana spent over a year on the design inspired by the geta (a Japanese wooden sandal with a thong).
“Elevated footwear has had a long presence across cultures, serving as an indicator of status and identity, from the high geta of elite courtesans, to the chopines [high clogs] of renaissance Italy, which could indicate a woman’s status as either noblewoman or courtesan,” Reagan says.
Is acquiring and displaying masterpieces the way to go? “Our mission is to present fashion as a living art that interprets history, becomes part of the historical process, and inspires subsequent art,” says Bolton. “Over the seven decades since the Costume Institute became part of Met in 1946, our collecting strategy has shifted from creating a collection of Western high fashion that is encyclopaedic in breadth to one focused on acquiring a body of masterworks.”
Until 5 February 2017.