Finally! The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its latest Costume Institute show Thursday, after multiple delays — and a canceled gala — due to COVID-19. And it’s only fitting, since the exhibit is all about . . . time.
“About Time: Fashion and Duration” marks the Met’s 150th anniversary, and the exhibit reflects 150 years of fashion, culling largely from the Costume Institute’s own archive. Yet instead of a straightforward timeline showing the progress of trends and silhouettes, “About Time” has a more eclectic approach, showing how fashion — like history — continually repeats itself.
“In essence, the show is a meditation of fashion and temporality,” said curator Andrew Bolton in remarks to the press earlier this week, “drawing out the tensions of change and endurance [as well as] ephemerality and persistence.”
The show is organized chronologically, starting with a bustled “mourning dress” from 1870 and ending with a silk rose-shaped frock by Alexander McQueen designer Sarah Burton from 2019. Yet a second, parallel timeline runs throughout the show, juxtaposing these looks marking the passage of time with similar creations from an entirely different time period. Bolton chose 120 mostly black ensembles, “to emphasize their changing silhouettes and interconnection.”
On one hand, the exhibit is proof of that old adage “great artists steal,” showing that even the most iconic, boundary-pushing garments (from Jean Paul Gaultier’s cone bra for Madonna to Gianni Versace’s va-va-voom safety pin dress) had taken inspiration from more antique duds. Yet, it also shows that pretty much every single fad is ripe for resurrection. It’s not just the timeless artifacts that get recycled again and again — the little black dress, the smoking jacket, the tweed skirt suit — but the most outre, ridiculous and dated, too: bulbous bustles, constricting corsets, padded hips, a World War I-era Red Cross uniform copied by designer John Galliano in . . . 2020?
Well, why not? As Bolton said, “Time exists as a continuous flow.”
Here, a look at some of the exhibit’s most famous styles, and how they continue to proliferate today.
“About Time” runs through Feb. 7, 2021. Timed tickets are required for entry to the exhibition and are available at MetMuseum.org or, for members and New York State residents, on site.
Elizabeth Hurley caused a sensation when she arrived at the 1994 premiere of the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in this salacious sheath with skin-baring slits held together by oversize safety pins. Yet Versace wasn’t the only designer to combine hardware, exposed skin and high fashion. In 1977, British designer Zandra Rhodes debuted her torn “punk wedding dress,” adorned with beaded safety pins and ball-chain fringe. And in 1884, a young socialite named Virginie Gautreau scandalized le tout-Paris when her portrait — painted by John Singer Sargent — debuted, showing her in a revealing black dress with a sweetheart neckline and bejeweled shoulder straps, which bears more than a striking resemblance to Hurley’s equally shocking frock.
The Chanel suit
Coco Chanel created “timeless” fashion, which is why nearly a century after her “little black dress,” she’s still being copied. Take her signature wool suit, which debuted in 1954, consisting of a boxy cardigan-like jacket and a straight skirt. No less than Jacqueline Kennedy wore a knockoff — the infamous bubblegum pink suit she was wearing when her husband was assassinated in 1963. (Although Jackie’s did come from a genuine Chanel pattern.) When Karl Lagerfeld took over the storied House of Chanel in 1982, he immediately shortened the suit’s hem to micro proportions. Other designers have put a postmodern spin on the classic, rendering it in garish McDonald’s colors (a la Jeremy Scott) or shredding it and turning it inside-out (a la Junya Watanabe). Current muse Kristen Stewart has worn infinite variations herself, including this one in pale pink satin that she styled without a shirt underneath — how au courant!
Sometimes it’s the least practical items that end up coming back into fashion again and again. Take the ostentatious waistcoats and “riding jackets” of late 17th and early 18th century France, stiffly embroidered with flowers and worn with frilly lace collars. Queen Alexandra, consort of King Edward VII, was photographed wearing this decorative puff-sleeved silk velvet riding jacket by Morin Blossier in 1902. In 2003, Italian designer Roberto Cavalli did an Edwardian frock coat in denim worn with cut-offs, and in 2018 Louis Vuitton director Nicolas Ghesquière showed a series of jacquard-woven silk jackets and waistcoats paired with athletic shorts and sneakers — directly inspired by the historic garments in the Met’s collection.
Believe it or not, Madonna’s signature cone bra — which she wore for her 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour — wasn’t all that original. The bra’s creator, Jean Paul Gaultier, had debuted an even more exaggerated version of the silhouette in his 1984 fall runway collection, featuring corseted crushed-velvet dresses with the cartoonish conical cups inspired by the perky-breasted sweater girls of the 1940s and ‘50s. Punk provocateur Vivienne Westwood debuted a similar, more demure version of the high-fashion cone bra in the early 1980s. And back in 1949, the American couturier Charles James — known for his classy ballgowns — debuted his “Tulip” dress, featuring a conical bust that looks almost exactly like Gaultier’s later boundary-pushing creation.
By Raquel Laneri