What day is it? What year is it? If we’re going forward in time, should we be moving counterclockwise?
As ten months of pandemic disruption sink in, there’s no better exhibition in New York to experience than the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute extravaganza, About Time: Fashion and Duration, on view through February 7.
Curator Andrew Bolton had the task of organizing a show in honor of the Met’s 150th anniversary, but wanted to take an exhibition approach that wasn’t simply a “greatest hits” showcase. He wondered what would it be like to mount a show that lets visitors see, feel, and experience how fashion sometimes folds back on itself – like time in Virginia Woolf novels.
Stepping into the first gallery, sixty black dresses are arranged like minutes on a clock. The exhibition begins with an example from 1870, the year that the Met was founded, and progresses in time from there. At each point, you see an ensemble from that year, paired with a designer look from a different year that echoes it – bustles, princess lines, gigot sleeves, tailored jackets, flourishes of 18th-century aristocratic opulence.
It’s all in the Met’s gallery guide.
The inspiration for the first room is a grandfather clock – warm wood colors, a constantly swinging pendulum, and the monotonous, even tick. As you slowly work around the room, the time is even, rhythmic, and set – just like the pace of fashion from 1870 to 1950.
The 19th century garments are solid black, with masterful tailoring, swags, trims, and embellishments. In a tribute to the home town, two were created in Brooklyn: the 1885 silk satin dinner dress by Mrs. Arnold (paired with Rei Kawakubo’s equally elaborate but deconstructed 2004 ensemble) and an 1897 riding habit from Brooklyn’s acclaimed department store, Frederick Loeser & Co. (paired with a 1968 equestrian-style suit by Victor Joris).
Some of our other favorite pairings in this room are the 1912 artistic dinner dress with its leather pannier clone by Rick Owens, the 1928 alphabet flapper dress paired with Galliano’s 1997 spider-web frock, and the 1947 Christian Dior “New Look” jacket paired with Watanabe’s 2011 experimental motorcycle jacket.
The second room is a shocker – mirrors everywhere, blinding white, undulating pathways, a fractured sense of time, and fashions morphing at breakneck speed – minis, maxis, minimalism, glitter, punk, pleats, unconventional materials, technology, and 3-D printing. (And it’s no surprise that so many pairings include visionary works by Charles James!)
The displays follow the same convention – sequential years paired with a “disrupter” dress or ensemble – but the impact is enormously disorienting, since the “twin” piece could be from the past or future and the mirrored walls and ceiling turn the experience into something like Kusama’s “infinity” room.
When you enter, it takes a few minutes to figure out where to go, how to move through the sequence, and find the continuing storyline of the exhibition. Is there another room in the exhibition that you missed? Did you just jump to the Seventies and Eighties and miss the Sixties? Is the “next garment” to the right or the left? What year are you in?
[The gallery security guards confirmed that this occurs all day long with visitors!]
To sort it out, take a look at this video – a sequential walk through fashion time punctuated by some out-of-time disrupters (or peruse some pairings on the web):
Some of our favorite pairings in the second room are the zipper twins from Gernreich (1968) and Alaia (2003), the red-edged jersey pairing of Stephen Burrows (1975) and Xuly.bet (1993), and Patrick Kelly’s simple pearl heart dress (1988) with Olivier Rousteing’s Versailles-inspired dress for Balmain lavished with pearls, crystals, and beads (2012).
Check out more of our favorites in our Flickr album.
And congratulations for including an unexpected (and deserving) multi-part display – Donna Karen’s “Five Easy Pieces” mix-and-match knit separates (1985) with the totally chic, revolutionary, coordinated wool knit separates invented by the ready-to-wear sportswear founder herself, Claire McCardell (1934). Wow!
When you finish walking through this gallery, you’re left wondering if fashion ever truly changes – the last pair features a 2018 coat with a 3-D printed understructure alongside a strangely similar coat from 1889. What just happened?
The exhibition finale is fitting – a small chapel where visitors can meditate on “slow fashion,” sustainability, and a return to basics before they exit to the gift shop. It features a suspended (or ascending) figure clad in one of Viktor & Rolf’s sweet dresses made of leftover off-white fabric swatches.
When the Met chose the theme for the show and designed it to debut with the celebrity-filled First Monday in May event, no one envisioned that the doors would be sealed shut until August. Or that the exhibition would so perfectly mirror the sensation of endless time, interruption of cycles, and fashion disruption/rethinking happening right now.
Join the Met’s fashion collection curator, Andrew Bolton, for a tour: