With The Met Gala officially back on the calendar and eight leading Hollywood film directors pitching in with its spring exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is striving to create its own blockbuster season.
Put more simply, Martin Scorsese is coming to The Met. But the Oscar-winning director and multiple Oscar nominee won’t be hosting a screening. He will be contributing one of the cinematic vignettes that are being planned in the Upper East Side museum’s American Wing. His will be set in a 20th-century living room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Museumgoers will find settings that are meant to be reminiscent of single-frame shots not short films.
As the second part of what is the museum’s first yearlong presentation dedicated to fashion, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” will examine the foundations of American fashion in relation to the complex history of the American Wing’s period rooms, according to Wendy Yu curator in charge of The Met Andrew Bolton. When the exhibition opens to the public on May 7, the second part will reveal “unfamiliar sartorial narratives” as envisioned through the imaginations of American film directors.
The ever-tightening film-fashion connection is evident on a variety of levels far beyond just dressing celebrities for the red-carpet or paying them to attend runway shows or serve as brand ambassadors. Designers have become more inclined to feature video content for all of their digital and social media channels, or to forge into gaming or VR. Fittingly, this year’s Costume Institute’s exhibition and The Met Gala are being made possible by Instagram (with additional support from Condé Nast). The influx of film directors will inevitably help to bolster interest in the museum, and attract more of the Hollywood set (who generally have been skipping it in recent years) to The Met Gala on the first Monday in May. Never mind that the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s chairman Tom Ford is an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. Ford is one of the eight directors who will be redecorating a period room, so to speak, having decided upon the gallery showcasing John Vanderlyn’s panoramic 1819 mural of Versailles to showcase a reenactment of “The Battle of Versailles.”
But “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” won’t be a glossy celluloid take on American fashion; instead, it will explore social, cultural and political events that have influenced fashion. From The Met’s Marina Kellen French director Max Hollein’s point of view, the two-part exhibition is meant to jumpstart conversations “about the tremendous cultural contributions of designers working in the U.S. and the very definition of the American aesthetic.”
The cinematic approach should not only lure visitors into the oft-overlooked American Wing, but also should appeal to first-time visitors. Like many major cultural institutions, the months-long forced temporary closures and reduced capacity caused by the pandemic have taken a toll on attendance and staffing at The Met. The museum faced layoffs, furloughs and a significant deficit. To help drum up interest in the upcoming exhibition, Hollein and Bolton hosted an annual media preview Tuesday morning.
Instagram’s vice president of fashion and shopping partnerships Eva Chen also delivered some insights and helped to quantify The Met Gala’s global appeal and social media reach. Last September, videos with The Met Gala hashtag (for last fall’s scaled-down gathering) had more than 1 billion plays within a week, Chen said.
About 100 pieces of women’s and men’s attire spanning from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century will be displayed in vignettes with the aim being to address unfinished stories in American fashion. Scheduled to be on view through Sept. 5, the upcoming show will run concurrent with the existing first part, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” in the Anna Wintour Costume Center. That first installment ranges from the ’40s to the present with an abundance of work from current young designers including several little-known ones like Mimi Prober. Enclosed in glass cubes meant to be reminiscent of the patches of a quilt, the first-part is grouped into 12 sections that highlight emotional qualities such as nostalgia, belonging and wonder.
Once “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” debuts, the vignettes will play to the layered histories of those rooms. The directors’ mise-en-scènes will also consider how the role of dress shapes the diverse nature of American identities. Along with Scorsese, the directors will include Sofia Coppola of “Lost in Translation”; Janicza Bravo of “Zola”; Julie Dash of “The Rosa Parks Story”; Chloé Zhao of “Nomadland”; Autumn de Wilde, and actress and director Regina King. While Coppola will be working in the McKim, Mead and White Stair Hall and Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room, Zhao’s vignette will unwind in a Shaker retiring room from the 1830s and King’s will unfold in a 19th-century parlor from Richmond, Va. In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Bolton said he and his team worked closely with American Wing curators, who had been considering the untold stories in their collection, and the selection of directors and featured designers evolved from the stories in the period rooms. De Wilde, for example, was chosen for the Baltimore room, due to its synergy time-wise to her film “Emma.”
As for whether the upcoming show is meant to make the past more palatable, Bolton said, “It’s a way of making fashion history more nuanced for sure.” And it is one that will expand upon the monolithic interpretation of American fashion history to include designers, who may not have been as successful as others, but had an impact in a short span of time, Bolton added.
Many of the directors beyond Ford have close ties to fashion — Coppola is a front-row fixture who has directed a short film for Chanel, while Scorsese has had long ties with Giorgio Armani, whom he has done a documentary about. Inviting film directors to get involved was a way to focus on “these sometimes fictional elements that sometimes underpin the rooms. They meld the fact and fiction in the period rooms. But [they are] also enlivening the stories and deepening them. In a way, there are multiple voices in the exhibition. There is the curatorial voice and then they are being visualized by the eyes of film directors….It’s also about telling fashion through a different lens and a different context. It’s about modern voices really,” Bolton said.
The designer lineup will include the well-known like Bill Blass, Halston, Claire McCardell, Stephen Burrows, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta and Norman Norrell, and the far less-heralded Ann Lowe, Fannie Criss Payne, Franziska Noll Gross and Jessie Franklin Turner, among others. Lowe was an African American designer who worked with high society clients like the Rockefellers and Roosevelts from the ’20s through the ’60s. She created the portrait-neckline wedding gown — reportedly made of 50 yards of silk taffeta — that Jacqueline Bouvier wore to exchange vows with then-Sen. John Kennedy in 1953.
During Tuesday’s press preview, Bolton outlined the differences between the two-part show. “While ‘Lexicon’ is expansive reflecting on qualities that have defined and continue to define American fashion, ‘Anthology’ is more focused presenting isolated stories on the individual tailors, dressmakers and designers. Although some of the names will be familiar to most of us, many have been forgotten, overlooked or relegated to a footnote in the annals of fashion history.”
In addition, six case studies will be staged in The American Wing galleries to take a closer look at some historical garments that were integral to the development of American fashion in the late 18th to the mid-20th centuries. To that point, there are two coats from Brooks Brothers — including a livery dating back to 1857 to 1865 that was worn by an unidentified enslaved man. There will also be a dress by New Orleans-based designer Madame Olympe circa 1865 — the Costume Institute’s earliest American example of an item with a label that identifies the creator.
Asked what the upcoming show says about The Met’s efforts to improve diversity, Bolton told WWD the museum has made “huge inroads” with its DEI initiatives, but there is more work to be done. “This certainly is something that we are very much conscious of and was, when we were developing the exhibition. It is something that we have been doing — both the Costume Institute and American Wing curators — have been doing for quite some time, trying to tell these untold or unfinished stories.”
Obviously, The American Wing isn’t the only area in the expansive museum that will be getting a change of scenery. In the Anna Wintour Costume Center, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” will be temporarily closed from March 14 to 20 so that nearly half of the works can be replaced with pieces from other American designers.