At first glance, it feels a bit random to see a contemporary, avant-garde Maison Margiela by John Galliano displayed next to a red, wool broadcloth coat from post-revolutionary France—it seems the only thing they have in common is their crimson hue. But the influence of the 18th century piece is evident in the modern piece in the high collar and flowing coattails, which are made of silk chiffon. This juxtaposition perfectly represents “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” an exhibit on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art now through February 5, 2017.
Showcasing 60 pieces spanning three centuries, the show was curated by assistant curator Jessica Regan with support from curator-in-charge Andrew Bolton. “When we began working on this exhibition, which highlights acquisitions of the past 10 years, we felt that it was not only an occasion to share important additions to the collection but also an opportunity to illuminate our collecting strategy, addressing the question of how do we define a fashion masterwork,” Regan said as she addressed a crowd during a preview of the exhibit. “The title references our efforts to unpack the significance of these works. When we collect, our principal concern is the artistic merit of an object. We seek examples of the highest aesthetic and technical quality, pieces that are superb expressions of their respective eras and that we believe are exhibition-worthy.”
The show is designed to evoke packing crates, with the platforms serving as an abstract version of them. The visual metaphor represents that they’re literally and figuratively unpacking recent acquisitions. Organized chronologically, in some galleries the old mingles with the new, such as the duo of red coats. “These juxtapositions illustrate how the new pieces compliment our existing holdings, allowing us to represent a fuller history of fashion,” said Regan. “The pairings also illuminate the ways in which fashion is inspired by and responds to its past, how modern fashion is influenced by historical dress, and contemporary designers are inspired by master couturiers of earlier eras. These are recurring themes that frequently form our collective.”
In the 18th century, the focus of fashion was on fine textiles and surface embellishments. “These elements were the defining features of high-style garments and so they’re key to our collecting criteria for this period,” Regan explained. “Our 18th century masterworks reveal the artistry and skill of the era’s textile designers, weavers, and embroiderers.” One such highlight is a Robe à l’Anglaise crafted from a silk brocade with three types of silver thread, each of which was designed to reflect light differently, giving it a shimmering effect under candlelight.
During the 19th century, rapid technological changes had a deep influence on fashion as dressmaking and tailoring techniques became increasingly sophisticated, leading to a refinement of cut and construction exemplified by gowns by the House of Worth. “The house’s founder, Charles Frederick Worth, not only ushered in an era defined by the growing importance of named designers as arbiters of style, but he also repositioned the role of the couturier as that of an artist with a unique aesthetic vision,” Regan said. “Worth set standards for creative and technical excellence that continue to define haute couture today.”
For the 20th and 21st centuries, the Costume Institute’s curators considered masterworks to be signature pieces by designers who have expanded the possibilities for fashion, either conceptually or through advances in innovative construction. For instance, Madeleine Vionnet popularized a new approach to dressmaking based on draping instead of tailoring techniques, breaking barriers by embracing a natural, uncorseted body. Iconic pieces like Yves Saint Laurent’s Chicago jacket, designed for Dior in 1960—a refined, couture take on street style in crocodile and mink—mingles with Vivienne Westwood’s rare Venus T-shirt, which captures its punk style and attitude.
The show culminates in the The Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, with ensembles that were donated to the museum in honor of Harold Koda’s recent retirement as curator-in-charge of The Costume Institute. “When he retired, Anna Wintour and I approached 30 designers to donate works from their archives in recognition of Harold’s extraordinary tenure at the Met,” Bolton said. “We were very specific about the pieces that we requested as we knew that they all had a very special place in Harold’s heart.” Regan said, “Whether practically fresh off the runway or a piece of history, all of the pieces have incredible craftsmanship in common. Each stands as a vivid expression of its time, and together they reveal how the criteria for finding a fashion masterwork shifts depending on the era of its creation.”