As the dust settles from the pomp and circumstances of the Met Gala and the accompanying discussions about who wore what, we take a closer look at the fashion show that was the nominal cause of the celebration, which opens tomorrow. .
The exhibition “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the first installment in a two-part series that aims to reframe the image of American fashion as the underperforming cousin of its upscale European parents. Andrew Bolton – the UK’s chief curator at the Met’s Costume Institute – is surely aware of this, so the exhibition invites us to think of American fashion in other words.
It makes sense – instead of constantly comparing American fashion to that of Europe – why not point out its own merits which may exist in other realms? Out of an excess of caution, the Met has decided to bypass notions of technical excellence, complexity, beauty, fantasy, theater – where, let’s face it, we still have some catching up to do – and opt for the purely subjective, which is the emotional. But even if we assume that all emotions are valid, as our current culture dictates, that doesn’t automatically make all fashions great.
In any case, to support the exhibition around emotionality, the Met’s curators decided to choose a slew of names each corresponding to an outfit, and thus to create a vocabulary around American fashion. The introductory display plaque claims that these names are “sewn together in their emotional resonance, resulting in a richly textured quilt of American fashion that is as diverse, multifaceted and heterogeneous as the nation itself.” May be. But the problem is, there are around 100 outfits in the exhibit, which means a hundred names, which means by the time you finish the exhibit you’re at a loss for meaning and words.
What is uniquely American about, say, “humor” – are other nations or their fashions devoid of it? At the last checks, the Italian Franco Moschino or the French Jean-Paul Gaultier had enough to spare. And what about a name like “Artfulness”, hardly something that American fashion can claim compared to the Japanese Rei Kawakubo, for example, or the English Alexander McQueen.
The sad reality for a curator is that once you lock yourself into a theme and a method, you are forced to forge connections that can become too tenuous for even the most generous audience. Take, for example, a 50s Tommy Hilfiger chunky knit fake college sweater with a giant “H” engraved on it. The accompanying note – name, “Association” – asserts that the sweater “somehow democratizes a nickname that has historically been reserved for the elite.” But how? By selling it at Macy’s? The last time I checked, anyone could walk into a Harvard merchandise store in Boston and buy a sweater or order one online with a few clicks. And if you think Hilfiger helped democratize anything, you haven’t paid attention to American politics over the past few decades. The elites are alive and well and doing better than ever, and their places at Harvard are guaranteed by donations and inherited admissions.
If there’s one story to tell about Hilfiger, it’s one of aspiration – inner-city black youths taking over Hilfiger in the ’90s because he yearned for the tale of the rich, white lifestyle. from New England that the brand pushed, then, in a circle, young white people imitating black because hip-hop made Hilfiger cool. Anyone who grew up in ’90s New York, like me, has witnessed this firsthand.
By the time I was done trying to process a hundred names, all attempts to create a meaningful narrative in his poor head crashed and burned. What I was looking at at the end was a word collection and an outfit collection, and the outfits were definitely more American.
If this “lexicon” did not satisfy a man’s quest for meaning, it certainly satisfied today’s demands for inclusiveness. The politico-cultural minefield that museums must navigate today is vast and its terrain intimidating. The result of this can be seen in the front room of this exhibit – a rather foolish idea that America is made up of different types of people who are sort of “sewn together” like a patchwork quilt. But that rings hollow after the events of the last few years; it’s not an argument that America collapsed like an H&M sweater after its third wash. If there’s a name that no longer describes America, it’s “Solidarity,” and certainly not in the form of a Tommy Hilfiger knit with the stars and stripes on it.
Here’s another big question the exhibition might have looked at: Who can be called an American fashion designer? He was lifted implicitly in the aforementioned quilt room, but the responses were confusing at times. For example, there was an excellent Burberry coat reworked by Miguel Adrover, a talented Spaniard who exhibited in New York City for about five years before returning home. But what about Austrian Helmut Lang, who arguably did his best job in New York City, and stayed here after he quit designing and started making tantrum art? Surely, an outfit of his would have enriched the exhibition which featured the work of lesser designers.
There is no shortage of stories in the vernacular of American fashion. We may lack the finesse, elegance, and craftsmanship of Europe and Japan because we don’t have centuries of aesthetic appreciation as a nation. In its early days, America had other more pragmatic concerns; and anyway, it was founded by Puritans for whom aesthetics were not only unnecessary but downright dangerous.
Instead, we have energy, nerve, a youthful culture, a pop culture, and a sense of possibility and daring that often comes from the streets, unencumbered by tradition and stimulated by the cultural and commercial climate conducive to novelty and risk-taking. This is American history, and this is the history of American fashion. Much would have preferred to see this, rather than the tiring set of kumbayas on our unit or a curvy collection of names. One can only hope that Part II of the exhibition, titled “In America: An Anthology of Fashion”, takes a different path.