As the name suggests, “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fall exhibition, will aim to demystify fashion and its collecting process, making it more understandable to all.
Culling 60 masterworks from the early 18th century to the present was no simple assignment for assistant curator Jessica Regan. Focusing on acquisitions from the past 10 years for the show, Regan had 1,000-plus objects to choose from in curating the show with guidance from curator-in- charge Andrew Bolton. In search of pieces of “the highest artistic merit, that demonstrate the evolution of dress and iconic works by designers who have changed the way we feel about fashion,” Regan said. “What a masterwork means is something different in different periods.”
To that end, one of the selections is a 1730 Robe Volante, “a loose gown inspired by negligee dress, which at the time was a bit of a shock for the Old Guard as it seemed somewhat indecent as streetwear. But it’s a gown that served as the basis for development for the Robe Volante Francaise, which was ubiquitous throughout the 18th century,” she said.
Always with an eye out for landmark pieces that can stand on their own, objects that relate to the existing collection and pieces that will inspire future designers, the Costume Institute will share that ideology with patrons. To demonstrate how designers have reinterpreted fashions of the past in ways that have contemporary relevance, some recently acquired pieces will be paired with pieces collected years ago. A spring 1994 Azzedine Alaïa gown, for example, will be juxtaposed with a Charles James Siren dress. More contemporary looks will be on view from Philip Treacy, Versace, Tom Ford, Comme des Garçons, Jean Paul Gaultier, Iris Van Herpen and John Galliano for Martin Margiela.
Just as the current exhibition “Manus x machina: Fashion in An Age of Technology” demystifies the process of making clothes, the upcoming one will have features meant to make them more relatable. The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will display ensembles in packing crates and on palettes, to give the effect they have just arrived at the museum. Visitors will find in the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery some of the ensembles designers donated to The Met in honor of Harold Koda to commemorate his retirement as curator in charge. One such gift is a Karl Lagerfeld-designed black dress embroidered with trompe l’oeil jewelry from his first Chanel collection. Koda had “desired” the dress for the Costume Institute’s collection for years, and the designer remade one upon Koda’s retirement.
Koda was unavailable to comment Wednesday. But the outpouring by many of the designers he had worked with over the years left him “really overwhelmed and just so honored to be the beneficiary of such generosity,” Regan said. “I think Harold’s exhibitions had served as inspiration for many designers and he had an incredible ability to relate contemporary fashion to historic fashion and to show the links that continue to inspire living designers.”
The Costume Institute, which has a 35,000-piece collection (and counting), had an acquisitions show in 2007, “blog.mode: addressing fashion.” The upcoming “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” will be on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center from Nov. 8 through Feb. 5. The show’s name plays upon the prominence of “unpacking” in the public vernacular. Regan said, “We wanted it to have an immediate resonance with people. Fashion, generally, is a subject that people find more accessible at times than other forms of art. It is so immediately expressive of its period so we did want a title that would express that.”