June 10, 2023

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City aims to tell untold stories in American fashion with their latest exhibition at the Costume Institute, In America: An Anthology of Fashion. Whether it’s garb worn by Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, or even a room devoted to the Battle of Versailles.

The exhibition features 100 outfits dating from the 19th to late 20th century fashion, all shown within the museum’s American Wing period rooms. Yes, it’s better than just lining up mannequins under spotlights, but it also has a historic “welcome to the small town cottage house museum in Virginia” vibe in many instances.

Staged across 13 wings, the exhibition is what the Costume Institute curator Max Bolton says “focuses on the development of fashion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” he said during the press remarks, adding that “the revival of the American style and the rise of the name ‘designer.’”

So, are we talking about what fashion was like before big-name brands like Gucci and Dior took over rap lyrics and tattoo flash sheets?

The designers on view are the kind of classic fashion labels you find in garments that are hand sewn in, with beautiful fonts, like Fannie Criss Payne, an African American designer who created handcrafted gowns for the elite in New York, and Josephine H. Egan, who designed velvet dresses for women back in 1880.

There’s also garments designed by Hungarian designer Eta Hentz, who designed simple, elegant womenswear for American women during the 1920s (which oddly, were inspired by the Middle Ages), and L.P. Hollander & Co, which was founded in 1848 by Boston dressmaker, Maria Theresa Baldwin.

Granted, many of these talents were women. That was the point.

“The intention of the exhibition is to spotlight the talents of great individuals, many of which were women,” Bolton said during the press remarks. “We hope to offer a nuanced, less monolithic version of American fashion. We also hope to show untold stories.”

Basically, the Met asked nine film directors, including Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Regina King, Autumn de Wilde, Chloé Zhao, Janicza Bravo, Radha Blank, Julie Dash, and Tom Ford, to participate. They were each assigned rooms to intrigue gallery-goers and create a mood for each room to see the costumes on mannequins and even a taxidermy dog wearing a silk suit jacket.

“Each director visualizes each vignette, single-frame movie, that not only visualizes their individual aesthetics, but also presents fashion in new contexts,” explained Bolton.

Let’s put it this way: Film directors know how to work with actors, not mannequins. They know how to frame a shot and tell a story. And usually, they’re great photographers. There’s a lifelessness to this exhibition. It’s probably because the mannequins in this show look like they’re from a sewing store that went bankrupt in the 1930s. The staging is great, you’re taken back into another era, but it lacks luster without actors filling the roles and working with each director to bring these sets to life. What would have been great is seeing how each director would incorporate each of these century-old costumes on actors in short films, or photo shoots.

Let’s face it: You really have to be a fashion nerd to enjoy this exhibition. Much of it is walking along mannequins that are staged within rooms that you’re unable to enter. There’s a certain distance to that, a once-removed quality, and there’s something very traditional about this exhibition set up. Yes, it takes you back in time, but these pieces are trapped in history, too.

According to Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said in a statement that the exhibition “traces the emergence of a distinct American style, revealing underlying stories that often go unrecognized.”

It just isn’t fully realized without film directors actually telling stories about these pieces, beyond the static sculpture of clothes hanging on mannequins.

While Bolton said: “It is through these largely hidden stories that a nuanced picture of American fashion comes into focus,” but when it comes to “hidden stories,” why not make room for costume designers who work on film sets to be the bridge between fashion and the film directors invited to dress up the Met’s period rooms—all of which are pretty well-known names—to help bring these mannequins to life?

It is a Costume Institute, after all, and who better to help turn the key than actual costume designers working in film today, many of whose work goes largely unrecognized?

That would have been cool.

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