The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is known for its exhibits that champion the artistry of fashion and its role in cultural history. Its fall 2016 exhibition, “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” adorns The Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery in the Anna Wintour Costume Center with 60 masterworks from the early 18th century to the present. The iconic works, chronologically organized, were acquired by the institute over the past decade. Each piece, primarily womenswear as well as a couple of menswear items are accompanied by an explanation of its significance within the history of fashiom. The Viktor & Rolf dress at the entrance of the exhibit immediately draws in visitors. The exhibit consists of iconic pieces in fashion, such as Versace’s safety pin dress, that are of the highest aesthetic and technical quality.
The designers featured in this exhibit have been known for changing fashion history and making fashion a form of art. In the 18th century, fashion was focused on fine textiles and surface embellishments, while items from the 19th century displayed the technological changes in the textile industry. This advancement in the textile industry can be seen within the intricately designed ball gown by House of Worth that is embellished with rhinestones and metal. The MMA received this dress from the Brooklyn Museum in 2009.
Yves Saint Laurent’s 1960 street-inspired jacket reflects 20th century works that move fashion forward and represent different ways of dressing. Some pieces that stand out in the exhibit are the recently acquired John Galliano for Maison Margiela dress from 2015 that is side-by-side to a Cristobal Balenciaga gown from 1964. A two-tone acetate Azzedine Alaia dress from 1994 is placed closely to a Charles James evening dress from the 1950s, giving a contrasting effect.
Also featured in the exhibit is an dinner jacket Elsa Schiaparelli created with a Jean Cocteau sketch that was embroidered by Lesage. The jacket is paired with a 1947 Gilbert Adrian dress made from a Salvador Dali-designed fabric. The biggest pieces of the exhibit that are sure to stop museum-goers in their tracks are a 1967 green silk Balenciaga dress and a 1928 Lanvin “Traviata” robe de style. They are showcased on their own to create dramatic effect and leave visitors in awe of the pieces. The two pieces stand on their own as a masterwork and represent different approaches to fashion.
“Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” reminds visitors of the evolution of fashion and how it has shaped our cultural history. The exhibition illustrates the ways fashion can tell a story just as much as any work of art can. Since The Costume Institute became part of the MMA in 1946, its collecting strategy for exhibits have shifted from creating a collection of Western high-fashion to focusing on acquiring masterworks such as those featured in this exhibition.
“Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” is on display at the MMA until Feb. 5, 2017.