The inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum’s new fashion exhibition is believed to come from the colorful 19th-century quilt referenced at the opening of the American-themed exhibition by curator Andrew Bolton. Indeed, Adeline Harris Sears’ incredible showcase made up of 360 autographs sewn in a tumble-block pattern deserves a bigger spotlight. But cross In America: a fashion lexicon, which opens in New York City on September 18, it’s hard to shake the feeling that its curators have in fact been influenced by a more contemporary patchwork, one that lives on their cellphones.
Instagram, which is the corporate sponsor of the Costume Institute’s show and gala, has over a billion users, who regularly make #fashion one of the top five most used hashtags on the app every day. The Facebook-owned social media platform appears to have infiltrated the concept and curation of the year-long show.
Consider the show’s production design: each garment is enclosed in a frame and captioned with a single word “bubble,” as Bolton calls it, floating above the mannequin’s head. For example, the word “sweetness” is associated with the candy pink dress of Isaac Mizrahi; “Closeness” is attached to Bstroy’s sweatshirts; and “reality” captions a leather jacket stamped with the Louis Vuitton monogram by haberdasher Dapper Dan. They are eerily reminiscent of the Instagram story filter type with phrases or questions that appear on the face of the selfie taker.
With displays arranged in a narrow maze in the gallery in the museum’s basement, the exhibit feels specially designed for quick swiping or scrolling, discouraging visitors from lingering for more than a few seconds, especially for a period of time. where we are conditioned for social distancing.
A “living exhibition” of fashion at the Met
Perhaps the Met’s most remarkable nod to Internet culture is its new curatorial approach.
Like an online article, or a document shared in the cloud, the exhibition will be updated in real time.. The museum says it intends to exchange several of the 100 items on display during the duration of the exhibition.
The updates will happen “organically,” Bolton said, without specifying when or how the museum will make changes. At the September 13 press premiere, Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, called the show a “living exhibit” which “will reflect the vitality and diversity of American fashion.”
“Our intention is for this vocabulary to expand into a more comprehensive dictionary, as visitors engage with the clothes and react with their own emotional connections,” he said.
The egalitarian spirit behind a “living exhibit” seems benign, but it signals a dramatic shift in the role of a curator. Traditionally, we look to these savvy experts to assemble thought-provoking exhibits that expand culture and deepen and challenge our understanding of contemporary issues. Whether they make the right choices is always up for debate, but they rarely get the chance to change their minds and swap things out during the show, as the Met intends to.
Announcing a list of changes ahead of time also gives the museum a place to deal with looming controversies. The Costume Institute has previously been criticized for the lack of representation of black and female designers in its collection. Already, some activists are bristling that there are not enough Native American designers in this year’s survey.
The big tech sponsors of the Met
Instagram isn’t the Met’s first major tech sponsor. Amazon was the main sponsor of the Costume Institute’s Schiaparelli and Prada in 2012 and Apple sponsored two shows, Manus x Machina in 2015 and Rei Kawakubo / Comme des Garçons in 2017. Instagram’s investment in an exhibition that seeks to codify American fashion reflects an interest in solidifying the app’s reputation as a defining force in the industry and in visual culture in general.