Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — Compared to the restrained and simple elegance of its recent Jacqueline Kennedy blockbuster, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is presenting its audience with a much more challenging lesson in fashion through the ages in its follow-up exhibition that opens on Thursday — the first marking Harold Koda’s return as curator.
Whereas the Jackie show took its guests on a chronological tour of the former first lady’s wardrobe that was easy to follow under even the loosest standards of logic, Koda’s “Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed” is organized by more fluid connections, with no particular regard to time or place.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s conical bras for Madonna are shown alongside an Empire dress of the early 1800s, a Playboy Bunny cocktail ensemble and various white cotton chemisettes of the early 20th century. Dinka corsets and Maasai jewelry cohabit with John Galliano’s contemporary interpretations on Sudanese attire for Christian Dior. Riding habits of the 19th century with voluminous sleeves are displayed next to a look from Viktor and Rolf’s black collection; Padaung brass neck coils, Hussein Chalayan’s neck pillow dress and a 16th-century British underpropper make up another display.
The result is a cacophony of ensembles that is a jarring departure from typical museum fashion fare. With items sourced from four decades and at least as many continents, Koda has assembled examples of fashions that elongate, emphasize, eliminate or exaggerate various parts of the human body, all to great extreme and less comfort.
“Throughout the exhibition, I wanted to show a juxtaposition of ethnographic material with examples of high fashion,” Koda said. “The audience will have to bring their own interpretations. We’re not making it so explicit.”
Some of the most outrageous examples of modern fashion of the past 15 years are included with examples of traditional dress from cultures more commonly found in the pages of National Geographic than any fashion title. Coils worn in African cultures to deform the shoulder blades, thereby extending the appearance of the neck, and Chinese lotus shoes that reshape and bind the feet are common fodder among anthropological and feminist discussion. But more recent appearances of designs that alter the shape of the body through illusory padding, feathers, breast plates and bras are more often left to the fashion community for editorial analysis amid the runway hoopla.
Yet Koda examines the connection from head to toe — literally starting with the neck (coils and collars), then the shoulders (peaked and padded) and onto the chest, waist, hips, rear, et al. Ultimately, there are so many examples of the extreme today that it becomes more difficult for even a tightly bound Victorian corset to stand out as particularly bizarre.
“In our day, we can’t look at any other culture and say, ‘God, they were really out there,’ because in the past 15 years, fashion is more extreme than ever,” Koda said. “These clothes are purely what they are — fabulous moments in someone’s consideration of what clothes could be.”