“Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” a Class on the Evolution of Fashion Throughout the Centuries



To the sound of “Opening” by Philip Glass, the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Met is a world apart from the crowds of tourists in New York’s largest museum. Its current show, “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” will guide you through the fashion masterpieces representative of each century.

The Costume Institute’s curator in charge, Andrew Bolton, and assistant curator Jessica Regan put together approximately 60 of the Institute’s masterpieces that have been acquired over the last decade and that are representative of each century’s fashion. In between wooden packing crates, as if the ensembles have just been unpacked, the exhibit can be considered a class on Fashion History.

Starting with the Robe à la Française, the 18th century masterworks are defined by its fine textiles and surface embellishments. Stop for a moment to admire the 1747 wedding dress, made of ivory silk faille brocaded with a delicate silver thread.

In contrast, the 19th century masterworks are chosen based on its technological advancements, distinctive silhouettes and the use of complex understructures, like corsets and crinolines. In exhibition, a light blue silk satin ball gown by the father of haute couture, Charles Frederick Worth is juxtaposed with Paul Poiret’s Opera Coat, which represents a total break in couture conventions.

Moving forward, the 20th century’s masterworks are iconic and depict the individual designer’s body of work, while the contemporary masterworks represent new ways of thinking about dress and challenge boundaries of wearability.

“I have a predilection for designers who in a way make us think differently about fashion, who go beyond notions of wearability or functionality,” says Andrew Bolton. The Alexander McQueen jacket inspired by Hitchcock’s film The Birds, Hussein Chalayan’s customizable dress that can be collapsed into an envelope, Yohji Yamamoto’s ensemble made of wood panels, are just a few of the pieces representing Bolton’s design predilections.

The best part of the exhibit, however, is found towards the end, at the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery. There, a tribute to Harold Koda, the former Costume Intitute’s curator in charge, shows some of the ensembles donated by designers upon Koda’s retirement in January, 2016. Precious pieces by Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford, Iris Van Herpen and Raf Simons, among others are showcased with quotes from its respective designers on how Koda’s work have influenced and inspired them.

“Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” is definitely worth seeing, but don’t expect a breathtaking show such as “Manus x Machina” or “China: Through the Looking Glass.” This is a much small exhibit, which requires a lot of interest for and previous knowledge of fashion to be fully appreciated.

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