It's been 10 years since the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute dedicated an exhibition exclusively to new acquisitions, so the fall 2016 exhibit "Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion," open to the public on Friday in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, showcases the Costume Institute's best and most recent fashion additions since, as well as a glimpse into the staff's collecting strategy and process.
Organized by assistant curator Jessica Regan, the exhibition's featured works, 60 in total, are displayed on platforms inspired by wooden packing crates — a visual metaphor for how chief curator Andrew Bolton, Regan and the Costume Institute team unbox its collected items and determine their contributions to both the Costume Institute's collection and the scope of fashion history. "When we collect, our principal concern is the artistic merit of an object," explained Regan at the exhibit's preview on Thursday morning. "We seek examples of the highest aesthetic and technical quality. Pieces that are superb expressions of their respective eras and we believe are exhibition-worthy."
"Masterworks" is a modest yet fulfilling display and a refreshing breather before the Costume Institute's more highly anticipated event: the Met Gala and its spring exhibit, which will honor Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo in May of 2017. It's the perfect follow-up to "The First Monday in May" as well. The documentary, released earlier this year, gave a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations for the 2015 Met Gala and "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit. Though we love a candid Anna Wintour moment, the film's most captivating scenes involved Bolton and his staff at work as they tediously prepared the archived pieces for public display.
The current exhibit is organized chronologically across three centuries, beginning with the 18th century when designers, weavers and embroiders focused on fine textiles and surface embellishments. One of the earliest highlights includes a French robe volante from the 1730s, composed of Spitalsfield silk that's brocaded with three types of silver thread, which according to Regan, would reflect light differently and produce a glittering effect under candlelight.
A 1890s ball gown from the House of Worth reveals the 19th century's advancement in dressmaking and tailoring techniques, as well as a greater refinement of cut and construction. "Worth set standards for creative and technical excellence that continue to define the haute couture today," said Regan. Fashion construction and concepts continued to innovate through the exhibit's masterworks from the 20th and 21st centuries. Madeleine Vionnet’s evening dress from 1929, made up of pink silk tulle, was created using a half-size mannequin and fitted for a natural, uncorseted body.
Throughout "Masterworks," select pieces are shown alongside earlier acquisitions to illustrate how new pieces complement the Costume Institute's existing holdings and represent a full history of fashion, noted Regan. Displayed alongside Vionnet’s design is a peach nylon lace evening dress from John Galliano's spring 1999 collection that follows the female French designer's streamlined aesthetic. Another example is Azzedine Alaïa's spring 1994 dress with alternating black and white knitted bands that highlights the contours of a figure. The look is paired with (and informed by) Charles James's "La Sirène" evening dress from around 1951, featuring horizontal release tucks that follow a body's curves.
"When it comes to collecting contemporary fashion, curators must be especially mindful of passing fads," explained Regan. Instead, this section showcases designs that "move fashion forward and represent different ways of thinking about dress." Viewers can admire designs by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga, Martin Margiela, Yohji Yamamoto, Thom Browne and Rei Kawakubo.
The finale of "Masterworks," within the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, is comprised of select donated works dedicated to Harold Koda, who retired from his head curator role at the Costume Institute in January. "Harold was hands down the most brilliant and most inspiring curator I have ever met," said Bolton, who also received the help of Anna Wintour to acquire the dedicated pieces from more than 30 designers, which are shown alongside personal testimonies from each one. "Harold has enlightened and delighted thousands of people with the wonderful exhibitions he has curated for the Metropolitan Museum," says a note from Raf Simons with an haute couture ensemble from his tenure at Dior. "We are indebted to him for all he has done to further the understanding and significance in our collective history."
"In fact, the entire show is a kind of love poem to Harold," explained Bolton during his remarks. "Harold loved the collection and more than anything else. Many of the acquisitions you see here came about because of Harold's passion and dedication."
Click through the gallery below for a sneak peek of “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion.”
"Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion" is on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center from Nov. 18 to Feb. 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.