To all those people who said American fashion was dead and that the pandemic, with its bankruptcies and store closures, was simply the tolling of the final bell; to the people who pointed to the anemic state of the digital New York Fashion Week, with its lack of big names and buzz, and said it was over; to the people who said it was going to be sweatpants and Crocs from now on …
Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Anna Wintour, trustee, Costume Institute booster and Conde Nast chief content officer, have a message for them: Get thee to a museum.
On April 12 they unveiled plans for not one but two big and interconnected Costume Institute shows, both focused on (you guessed it) American fashion. And there would be not one but two Met Galas alongside them.
Two Met Galas! That’s doubling down on the local scene. And a big gamble that the world will be prepared to embrace a party, and the party throwers, at a time when exactly how safe that party will be is still unclear.
Although the exhibitions will not make their debut in May, as has become tradition for the Met’s fashion extravaganzas, part one will open in September, just after Fashion Week; the gala will be the closing event of the collections. (Part two will open in May 2022.)
That will allow for covid restrictions to ease (they hope), attendees to get used to being around other people again (though size will be determined by government guidelines), and a previously unexploited synergy between the show and the shows to flower — especially because the dress code for the gala in all its glitzy, social-media-catnip glory will presumably be … American.
“We very consciously wanted this to be a celebration of the American fashion community, which suffered so much during the pandemic,” said Bolton, who added that he also wanted the show to spur a broader reassessment of American fashion. He believes, he said, that it had often been unfairly dismissed because of its historic associations with “sportswear and the related values of utility, functionality and pragmatism,” while European fashion was considered full of “expression and emotion.”
Indeed, he said: “I think American fashion is undergoing a renaissance, with young American designers at the vanguard of discussions around diversity, inclusion, sustainability and conscious creativity. I find it incredibly exciting.”
Take that, naysayers.
Bolton isn’t just trying to change the stereotype of American fashion or counter predictions of its demise; he’s trying to expand our understanding of what it means by telling stories of designers that have often been overlooked and forgotten.
To this end, the first show, called “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” will focus on contemporary designers to a greater extent than any previous Costume Institute exhibition, thus putting the institution’s stamp of approval on a fresh generation of names. It will be situated in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, which will be designed to mimic a “house” in which each room represents a different emotion. And it will be populated by designers old and new, drawing lines between the work of Claire McCardell and Collina Strada and what they consider the meaning of “well-being.” Or Patrick Kelly and Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and their focus on “devotion.”
The second show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” will be held in 21 of the American period rooms and will center on 300 years of historic narratives — personal and political. Some are well-known, like the Battle of Versailles and names like Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, but others are more obscure, like the story of Fannie Criss, a turn-of-the-20th-century dressmaker in Virginia and freeborn child of former slaves; and Elizabeth Keckley, a dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. (The Met does not own any of Keckley’s work and is still trying to source her pieces.)
The mise-en-scene of each room will be visualized by a different film director, though exactly who is still a work in progress — as are many of the pieces Bolton hopes to display.
What is confirmed is that Franklin Leonard, the founder of The Black List (a roundup of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays), will be a collaborator on the exhibition, as will Bradford Young, the cinematographer behind “Selma” and “When They See Us.” That is partly because, despite Bolton’s focus on how American fashion has reacted to social and political changes, the Costume Institute’s curators are all white — an uncomfortable reality given their goal is redefining the industry’s identity. Bolton said that diversifying the department’s curatorial staff was one of the Costume Institute’s long-term objectives.
In the short-term, he was hoping the new shows will serve to convince viewers that American fashion is at the same pivotal moment today that it was in 1973, during the Battle of Versailles, when, he said, it emerged “triumphant — partly because of the modernity of the clothes and the models but also partly because of the modernity of the attitude.”
If he’s right, the exhibitions could bring a new energy and focus to the industry.