To the relaxing sound of Philip Glass’ “Opening”, visitors are welcomed to the Anna Wintour Costume Center by a Viktor & Rolf ball gown that justifies the title of the exhibit: “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” running at the MET through February 5th, 2017.
In between wooden packing crates, Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute curator in charge and assistant curator Jessica Regan, put together approximately 60 of the Institute’s masterpieces that have been purchased over the last decade, in what has become almost a fashion history class. One of those that cannot be missed, I should add.
“In recent years, the department’s mission has shifted from building an encyclopedic collection to acquiring masterworks – examples of the highest aesthetic and technical quality that serve as superb expressions of their respective eras and together demonstrate the evolution of fashionable dress over time,” explains the show opening text.
Divided by centuries, “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” juxtaposes the old and the new, the modern and the contemporary, the evolution of fashion and, at the same time, its constant reference to the past. The fine textiles and surface embellishments, for example, define a fashion masterwork from the 18th century. The 1747 wedding dress in exhibition is the proof. Made of ivory silk faille brocaded with a delicate silver thread, the dress is a piece of art.
A masterwork in the 19th century, on the other hand, is a representation of the technological advancements of the era and is defined by distinctive silhouettes and the use of complex understructures, such as corsets and crinolines. It is also during the 19th century that Charles Frederick Worth establishes the haute couture model, going in the opposite direction of the mechanization of fashion. Worth’s technical mastery is represented in the show by a light blue silk satin ball gown with butterfly motifs, right next to Paul Poiret’s Opera Coat, a total break with couture conventions.
The exhibit continues by presenting the masterpieces of each century. The 20th century’s masterworks are iconic and represent 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.