The Met’s Costume Institute Aims to Start a Conversation About More Than American Fashion

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Rosemary Feitelberg
·6 min read
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Instead of ushering in hundreds of media types, influencers and fashion-centric guests to preview its latest exhibition at The Costume Institute, as in years past, the Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomed fans virtually Monday morning to get a preview of its upcoming show.

Instead of simply a look at elaborate or immaculately tailored clothes, the show is meant to generate a discussion about many issues being debated worldwide — social equity, diversity, sustainability and more. The two-part yearlong show is an attempt to reclaim the past year in light of the pandemic.

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The Met’s director Max Hollein, Instagram’s vice president of fashion and shopping Eva Chen and The Costume Institute’s curator in charge Andrew Bolton helped with the run-through, hinting at the multimedia aspect of the doubleheader show. In what will be a yearlong endeavor, The Met will unveil “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Anna Wintour Costume Center on Sept. 18. The second part of the exhibition, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” will debut on May 5, 2022, in the American Wing period rooms. For the first part, the work of pioneers in American fashion will be celebrated along with the world’s diverse contemporary designers “to illustrate the shifting tides of American fashion,” Hollein said.

In its 75th year, the Costume Institute aims to not just honor the past but to embrace fashion’s changing roster of talent. Bolton referred to how American designers have been at the “forefront of conscious creativity for 75 years especially in regards to sustainability and transparency.” They have also been at the vanguard of discussions about diversity and inclusion. The social justice movements of last summer reinforced their commitment to these issues, “as well as their leadership.”

For those who may feel that the last year has been a bit of a blur, there will be signs of that in the second part of the show. Mirrors will be used to show the blurring of boundaries during the pandemic and “how the functions in the rooms of our homes became less distinct…” To that end, the rooms will be identified by their emotional qualities rather than their functions — the kitchen will be identified by well-being, the living room by trust, the library by reverence, the office by aspiration, the bedroom by intimacy, the attic by nostalgia and the basement by fear. Taken collectively, the clothes that will be displayed in each of the period rooms are meant to create “a modern vocabulary of American fashion that prioritizes its values, emotions and sentiments…,” Bolton said. “Fundamentally, the new vocabulary will address the creative impulses behind American fashion, as well as the social, political and environmental motivations.” The first part will showcase fashion by 20th- and 21st-century designers in line with these themes. Melina Matsoukas will create an open-ended film that will be projected on the galleries.

The second part of the exhibition is a collaboration between the Costume Institute and the American Wing. Spanning from the 18th century to the present, the exhibition will feature women’s and men’s historical and contemporary attire. There will be a series of three-dimensional freeze frames produced with well-known American filmmakers. Charles James, Claire McCardell and Fannie Criss, an activist dressmaker at the turn of the 20th century, will be featured. John Vanderlyn’s 1819 mural of Versailles will be a backdrop for an homage to the 1973 “Battle of Versailles,” which was what WWD’s legendary publisher John B. Fairchild dubbed the designer face-off between Americans and their European counterparts.

Acknowledging the reinvention and self-reflection taking place in the fashion industry, Bolton spoke of the endless possibilities that presents. The yearlong event at The Met is also meant to be an attempt to reclaim the past year, Bolton said. To play up what The Met hopes will be a cinematic, immersive and democratized experience, American filmmakers are helping to tell the story of American fashion in the second part of the show.

While simplicity and functionality are a few of the tenets that American fashion has been described as, the first part of the show will examine the complexity of American fashion. Noting that the fashion industry reevaluates and reinvents itself, Bolton also spoke of the importance of creating a new vocabulary to be more relevant, to be in step with the times that we are living.

Hollein noted that Instagram will sponsor both parts of the exhibition. Before leading into Chen’s video remarks, Hollein singled out Instagram’s Adam Mosseri and Condé Nast for its decades of support. He also praised Wintour, who will serve as co-chair of the first of first Met Gala with Mosseri and Tom Ford. Co-chairs will include Timothée Chalamet, Billie Eilish, Naomi Osaka and Amanda Gorman. That is planned for Sept. 13, pending government guidelines. A second Met Gala is slated for May 2, 2022.

Bolton highlighted such work as a voluminous pink taffeta dress by Christopher John Rogers and an upcycled white silk organza piece from Conner Ives’ “American Dream” collection that addresses different body types. Both designers are LVMH Prize finalists. There also is a work of Andre Walker from his “Nonexistent Patterns” spring 2018 collection that was partially sponsored by Pendleton Woolen Mills. Bolton noted a dress from Prabal Gurung’s 10th anniversary spring 2020 collection that combined traditional American designs with traditional Eastern dress. The white poplin dress on view had a sash imprinted with “Who Gets to Be American.”

A black washed denim wrap by Sterling Ruby will be used to open the first exhibition and to close the second one in order to connect the two exhibitions. Designed during last summer’s social justice movement, the artist called it the “veil flag” and has said that it explores “the concept of the flag as a signifier in flux and how our relationship to it may change when it as activated as a veil.” Bolton closed the preview with Ruby’s site-specific film of his creation.

Standing on the steps of The Met in a clip earlier in the presentation, Chen boasted of how Instagram has more than one billion users and that #fashion is one of the top five hashtags used every day. “Whether you’re an industry insider like a designer, model or stylist, or an everyday teen somewhere around the world, you know that Instagram is the place to get inspired and to build community. Over the last year though, Instagram has also been the place for real-time conversations around activism and global movements about social justice, equity, race and gender.” she said. “…I hope this exhibition helps spark a global conversation about what fashion in America means today and tomorrow.”

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