The preview of the Met Costume Institute’s new exhibit, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” lasted 45 minutes. My editor, Tim Teeman, and I joked about how it might be possible to walk through nearly 250 years of sartorial history in less than an hour; he warned that if I spent too much time looking at the 1800s, maybe I should get through the first half of the 20th century. But looking at the skimpy collection, it became clear that 45 minutes was more than enough.
There is a justified austerity in the exhibit, which marks the Met’s first actual exposure since the pandemic. The coronavirus has ravaged the fashion industry; labels and media companies have cut jobs and some lines like Cushnie and Sies Marjan have closed their doors completely. But fashion week returned to in-person events, and the Met Gala moved from the first Monday in May to September 13. American designers need a boost; enter the United States Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour; and costume institute curator Andrew Bolton.
âIn America: A Fashion Lexiconâ is the first of two exhibitions. (The second, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion, opens next May.) Despite the title, Bolton said Vogue that he’s not interested in “defining” what makes clothing uniquely American. About a hundred items of clothing are on display; each is associated with an emotion.
A Michael Kors dress with gold sequins, associated with a long camel coat to the ground with a matching metallic lining, represents “Assurance”. Perry Ellis’ preppy sportswear shows âFellowshipâ. A Christopher John Rodgers plaid ball gown, with its voluminous skirt, means ‘exuberance’. And so on.
Bolton defined “American fashion” as Vogue in three words: heterogeneity, diversity and pluralism. But the curator added that “the idea of ââreducing American fashion to a definition is totally antithetical to the subject of this exhibition.”
Indeed, the Conservatives seem to content themselves with letting the clothes speak for themselves. Most parts are placed in one room; the light mannequins wear patterns organized somewhat chronologically. Clothing that looks alike is placed nearby, intended to show a cross line from decade to decade.
The collection is by no means final. The oldest design dates from 1941; it is a black silk crepe dress called “The Mermaid” made by Charles James, a Briton who worked in New York. Claire McCardell, the designer credited with developing American sportswear and who created the ability for women to move around comfortably, is also entitled to what she deserves. According to the show’s notes, her simple ‘wrap-around’ dress “exemplified a key tenet of American fashion, namely that it compliments the wearer rather than the designer.”
The Mainbocher uniforms intended for the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) branch of the US Navy dating from WWII and Helen Cookman coveralls are also included in the âstoryâ. There are vintage Ralph Laurens, Perry Ellis and Patrick Kelly. But most of the pieces are from the 21st century – in fact, most are around ten years old. It sounds like a push meant to uplift young designers, especially those struggling with challenges brought on by COVID.
The show opens with a quote from Jesse Jackson at the 1984 Democratic Convention that likens America to a patchwork quilt: âAmerica is not like a blanket – an unbroken piece of fabric, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt – many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.
And so visitors are expected to see the circularity of American fashion: Charles James’ gathered “The Mermaid” matches a slinky, sultry Calvin Klein dress made over 40 years later. A black Patrick Kelly mini dress adorned with countless colorful buttons looks like the back of a Jeremy Scott tuxedo jacket with similar embroidery.
As soon as the exhibition was announced in April, critics wondered how the Met would tackle the racism, exploitation and waste entrenched in the American fashion industry. The exhibit reflects on xenophobia and inequality at a few moments, namely an installation that showcases the different ways designers have flown the country’s flag on sweaters. (Ralph Lauren evokes the nostalgia, Willy Chavarria returned the design for his Spring 2019 collection, signaling the distress.)
Designers like Chromat, Christian Siriano and Fenty Savage, Rihanna’s lingerie line, are included for their contributions to body diversity on the runway. But as Technology review reporter Mia Sato noted that the Fenty fishnet catsuit is put on a sample size mannequin, which obviously goes against the brand’s much-loved and necessary push for inclusiveness.
The exhibition seems to be organized primarily for a certain type of fashion fan: those who are very online and follow every fashion show and runway show. Some of the included pieces have gone viral in recent years, such as an Off-White collaboration with outdoor brand Arc’teryx and a “Who Gets to be an American” scarf by Prabal Gurung.
Those unaware of these âvisual moments,â as fashion people like to call them, might just wonder about the maze of models and gawk at dresses that seem to be organized by style. And that’s not such a bad way to spend an afternoon. The exhibit has a clean set design (thankfully there are few facilities designed for Instagram for guests to selfie in front of) – a nod to the current state of the industry. It’s almost meditative to walk around.
I spotted Anna Wintour inside the exhibit just a moment. Then the Vogue the gallery’s editor-in-chief and namesake walked hastily behind a cordoned off area – she was moving at an impressive speed, considering her form-fitting sheath dress and high heels. The exhibition seems just as rushed. You leave the Met without really knowing what to feel, but nevertheless supported by that indelible rush that comes from a good day of fashionable window shoppingâAmerican fashion.
“In America: a fashion lexicon” opens at the Met on September 18 and will run until September 5, 2022.