Minimal and Maximal Fashion at FIT

Minimal 2011 silk evening dress by Narciso Rodriguez next to wild 2018 Multidimensional Graffiti ensemble by Rei Kawakubo.

The Museum of FIT is having it both ways in Minimalism/Maximalism, on view through November 16. The first thing you see is a super-minimalist slip dress by Narciso Rodriguez alongside Rei Kawakubo’s semi-abstract ensemble filled with flourishes.

The show is an opportunity for the curators to present an historical case for the wild swings in fashion for the last 250 years, all drawn from FIT’s massive fashion archive.

Over-the-top, way-too-much fashion is shown alongside clean, spare, elevated statements, demonstrating how the fashion pendulum has swung between these two extremes, reflecting women’s liberation and high fashion’s societal mirror. Periods of excess, followed by understated silhouettes and statements.

18th century extravagance — an elaborate 1785 embroidered velvet French court suit

The chronological tour begins back in the mid-1700s, when continental courtiers had to keep up with the minutia and meanings behind the tiniest sartorial flourishes of court stylings. The right buckle, the proper embroidery, luxurious fabrics, and new silhouettes. FIT presents the excesses of luxurious brocades, incredible embroideries, and flounces required for both men and women.

By the 1800s, the taste for British simplicity overtook French excesses. Besides, revolutions elevating the common man and woman had jolted the world. The curators present a simple man’s suit created of luxury velvet and dresses made of largely under-stated muslin.

They make the point that the silhouette might be stripped down, but luxurious fabrics and complex layers were the subtle signals that elevated fashions worn by the upper classes were (literally) a cut above those worn by everyday people.

Close up of rich ornamentation, drapery, and embellishment on 1883 Worth gown from France

The next pendulum swing shows ever-wider ladies’ crinolines of the mid-19th century giving way to elaborately draped confections by Worth by century’s end. The curators underscore the fact that ladies’ high-end wear was expected to convey a sense of frivolity, while men’s suits remained serious, restrained, and constricted to more formal black-and-white.

The exhibition spotlights the revolution in simplicity that followed by the 1920s, when Chanel and her contemporaries introduced super-slim silhouettes, pulled jersey into sportswear, and liberated women from now-ancient-looking corseted frocks.

Giittery dancing shoes, feathers and beads, fringed accessories signaled the Jazz Age – kinetic, modern, and Deco. The embellishments could be excessive, but they all had sharp lines and clean looks.

Simplified sportswear from America – detail of a 1952 cotton dress by Clare McCardell

There’s a nod to the post-War structured silhouettes of the tour-de-force European eveningwear designers, but these elaborate sculptural forms are sit next to the blazingly modern, simple sporty shapes of Clare McCardell. American women adopted these clean-lined creations in droves, not only because they were perfect to popping in and out of suburban cars, but they were widely available as ready-to-wear in stores across the country.

The Sixties section of the show begins with ultra-modern space and art-inspired dresses and jumpsuits and works its way into the flip side – over-the-top psychedelic fabric creations.

Remember the Sevenites and Eighties? The minimal side is represented by Jordache jeans, Halston, Armani soft suits, and Donna Karan’s easy pieces.  The excessive counterpoint by Thierry Mugler’s theatrical, disco-inspired, big-shouldered to-be-seen dress and a studded-to-the-max ensemble by Versace.

Body-conscious simplicity – a 1973 jersey color-contrast T-shirt dress by Stephen Burrows and 1976 silk jersey jumpsuit by Halston

Filling in the chronology to today, the curators use accessories – -Murakami’s Vuitton bag, McQueen’s pheasant-claw necklace, and Iris van Herpen shoes – to demonstrate the maximalist mixed bag to which we’re now accustomed at the ultra-high end.

Styles are eclipsed at a record pace, as evidenced by the video in the gallery — John Galiano’s 2019 collection for Margiela, which starts with crazy, nearly unwearable experiments and transforms to stripped-down, utilitarian wear.

It drives home the point that maximalist and minimalist sometimes co-exist today in the same show and within the same garment.

See some of our favorites from show in our Flickr album, and take a deeper dive into FIT’s fantastic web exhibition.

Minimal shape + maximal print: a 2015 ensemble by Phoebe Philo for Céline and a 2019 dress in digitally printed silk chiffon by Wes Gordon for Carolina Herrera

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