Ongoing at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City is a small but finely curated exhibit called “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion.” Instead of concentrating on quantity, which the Costume Institute (CI) has had since its founding in 1946, this exhibition concentrates on quality.
Fifty fashion masterworks acquired over the past 10 years are presented to reflect the breadth and quality of the CI’s collection. Instrumental in this exhibit is CI trustee and Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, who has directed some of her vision, energy and philanthropy toward enhancing what may already be one of the world’s most extensive costume collections.
To honor the former curator of the CI, Harold Koda, who retired in January 2016, Wintour and curator in charge Andrew Bolton persuaded more than 30 designers to donate selected works from their archives.
Koda himself had enlarged the collection by convincing the Brooklyn Museum to integrate its collection into that of the institute.
These recently acquired pieces had been admired by Koda, who believed in “the power of dialogue between past and present—the idea that the artistry of the past can be enlivened by that of the present day and that the significance of contemporary work is clarified when it is anchored in a broader historical narrative.”
The Harold Koda gift is featured in a special section of “Masterworks” to echo the exhibition theme.
“Masterworks” spans three centuries—18th to 20th—and spills over into the 21st. The 18th century is highlighted here not so much for its inherent design, but for the quality of its textiles in an era of growing industrialization, political and economic revolution and expanding global trade. Changes in cut and silhouette occurred only gradually, and what was important was craftsmanship in terms of weaving, embroidery and material.
The 19th century saw advances not only in technology and mechanization, but also in the ability of fashion to reshape the human silhouette through concealed wiring, bustles, crinolines and corsets. The more rapid communication also led to greater internationalization of style. Fashion seesawed between historic nostalgia and democratization.
Mechanization, as in the jacquard loom, enabled cheaper manufacture and production of readymade garments (the knock-offs of that time).
At the same time, the elite was being served by high fashion masters such as Charles Frederick Worth and his son Jean-Philippe, who defined themselves as artists and innovators under exclusive brands.
This laid the groundwork for what would be haute couture and pret-a-porter in the 20th century.
While fashion may have been made more available to the bourgeoisie and to the masses, exclusivity for the rich was heightened by more intricate decoration, finer or more expensive material, innovative design or arcane techniques.
The world of fashion in the 20th century similarly reflected trends in society such as the emancipation of women, the relaxation of formality, individuality and comfort.
The Jazz Age of the 1920s witnessed the jettisoning of corsets and impractical shapes or skirt lengths. The garçonne or the boy-like silhouette was considered the ideal for women.
In the earlier 20th century, Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet pioneered in design which emphasized comfort and naturalness for women. Surrealism saw itself reflected in the styles of Elsa Schiaparelli and Charles James, so that Dali’s sketches and Freud’s dream analyses might emerge on the bosom of an evening jacket.
Quintessential to this era was Madame Coco Chanel, who borrowed details and textiles from male sportswear and fishermen’s singlets to create the women’s suit, which defines both a businesslike attitude and “class” for women executives today.
Updated by Karl Lagerfeld and reinterpreted by many other designers, the Chanel look remains a woman’s classic item. Ironically, it was the suit in which Jacqueline Kennedy was clad that fateful day in November 1963.
Since fashion never remains static, a counterpoint was established by Christian Dior and Jeanne Lanvin, who, in the postwar period, brought back the 18th-century silhouette and more feminine details such as embroidery.
Yves Saint Laurent was also known for hewing to both bold modernity and classical nostalgia.
Dresses from different eras are juxtaposed to illustrate how designers dip into the past to revive forgotten forms. Hence, French-Tunisian Azzedine Alaia echoes in his 1994 designs the 1951-52 La Sirene (mermaid) garment of Charles James.
John Galliano revives a style of 18th-century fashion worn by dandies called the “Incroyables” (or Incredibles) with “exaggerated proportions and affected carelessness,” but with modern reworking of chiffon and wool.
The 21st century is represented by radical styles and highly unusual materials as experimented by such designers as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gianni Versace, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, John Galliano and Yohji Yamamoto.
Fashion went simply beyond cladding the human body and into ideology, thus creating the “fashion victim.” One sees here the sexy black dress worn by Hugh Grant’s ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley, literally held together by safety pins, as well as a Zandra Rhodes’ gown of ragged holes and tears in crystal-studded knit rayon.
A blood-red dress designed by Kawakubo (of Comme des Garçons) resembles a deconstructed terno of Imelda Marcos, described as “an abstraction of shapes, materials and surfaces that draw powerfully on the color’s emotional associations and potency.”
Yamamoto’s wooden ensemble designed in 1991-92 is surely one of the most unusual creations featured here, which would be challenging to any human being to wear. Its description: “The flat, overlapping planes resemble Cubist sculpture, and the panels of wood, set at sharp angles, suggest the folds and movements of a more fluid material. While the planarity of the bodice also recalls the shaping of 18th-century stays, the hinges allow the garment to move with the body rather than reshape it.”
In the highly mobile 21st century, the principal accessory featured is the shoe, as represented by Christian Louboutin, with impossibly high heels and shapes that would torture a Greek hetaera, a Russian ballerina or a Venetian streetwalker. The accompanying caption here states that Louboutin’s design is “more concept piece than wearable fashion, the stiletto… extended to an incapacitating height.” The shoes were created for “Fetish,” a Paris exhibition organized in collaboration with artist and filmmaker David Lynch.
To balance off such impractical wear, a sequined dress of Tom Ford imitating a football player’s garb is also featured, perhaps a nod to the wearability and comfort of fashion preferred by most women.
A necklace of strung ceramic shards and a cloth dress made to look like a paper pattern for a real dress remind us that simplicity can be the best solution for women who might not have the wherewithal or the courage to try out the more extreme proposals of contemporary designers.
Though no Philippine designer was featured in this particular collection, the bodice of a wedding dress created by Nicolas Ghesquière seems to be made out of Philippine piña cloth, or at least, reminiscent of it in its embroidery.
Finally, British hatmaker Philip Treacy created a Philippine orchid hat (the Paphiopedilum philippinense) out of printed and glazed silk crepe. Surely that will knock them out at Ascot! —CONTRIBUTED