Beyond the Costume Institute: Gorging on Fashion at the Met


Beyond the Costume Institute: Gorging on Fashion at the Met


It’s a terribly au courant impulse among self-satisfied aesthetes who pu-pu fashion to ask what all those fashion designers and editors and stylists and writers and models and bloggers do for the ten months of the year they don’t spend heaving exhaustively through an occidental parade of runway shows.

The ultimate retort, I’ve come to believe, is to ask what goes on when art museums are closed on Mondays.

I found myself a few Mondays ago lunching in a cathedral-like cafeteria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seated by the whims of circumstance next to two elegant Swedish women of nearly a certain age who were so wild about having curator Susan Alyson Stein, lead them through the museum’s Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity Exhibit, that they’d unknowingly crashed a midday event for the Museum’s young members group. We chatted amiably if reticently in the polite way you chat with swish, beautiful strangers, until I mentioned that I occasionally write on fashion, and then they lit up.

“Do you think,” one asked earnestly, urgently, “that women will ever stop wearing skinny pants?”

I demurred, but acknowledged that it was high time for the return of Hepburn trousers—and then they were off to the races, babbling on pants, on tailoring, on shopping online versus in a store, on fabrics, on men’s blazers and sportcoats, on the Dapper Dan story in the latest New Yorker style issue, etc.

The exhibit upstairs was a fitting acknowledgment of this reality: the Met’s patrons are nuts for fashion. The marvelous Costume Institute may put on some of the glossiest, dreamiest, most imaginative romps for exhibits, but they do it just once a year—and once a year is not enough. (As the Museum’s website states, “Due to the sensitive nature of textiles, the collection of the Costume Institute is not on permanent public view.”)

This is why the current exhibit is such a joyous boon. Pairing the paintings of Impressionists and their contemporaries with dresses from the period, the Museum not only gives visitors a taste of what usually unseen marvels lurk in the Costume Institute’s collections, but also raises bodacious questions about how seriously fashion gets taken in the present.

That the Museum takes fashion seriously has been clear for some time: I’d wager that it was no surprise to Harold Koda or Andrew Bolton that the McQueen exhibit was the eighth most viewed show in the Museum’s history. What’s more interesting is that, if you give a hoot about fashion or art, you’ll leave the show feeling skittish about how seriously we take the whole fashion thing as intellectuals. It’s breathtaking how readily French painters found such rich inspiration in haute couture clothing of the women they knew and loved: nearly all the depictions of well-togged women in the exhibit are rendered in historic portrait scale. It’s almost funny, in a punky sort of “gotcha” way, that their faces are obscured and the clothing itself becomes the focus. Take Monet’s “Camille,” in which his wife is wearing a mint and brown skirted dress: Camille’s back is turned, and her face the typical Monet ‘suggestion’ of features (oh, that Cher Horowitz was onto something), giving the viewer a big voyeuristic sweep of that mint chocolate couture confection. As the exhibit shows, poets and writers like Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Émile Zola were along for the ride. Mallarmé even started a fashion magazine, La Derniere mode.

That really ought to smart those smarms who look at the runway in 2013 and see buoyant frivolity at most. As the Observer’s Maika Pollack posits in her review of the exhibit, imagine “Phillip Roth on the latest women’s ankle boot, or John Jeremiah Sullivan extolling the virtues of the St-Tropez surfer ingénue of the Marant spring 2013 collection.” I’d say the better use of one’s imagination is to picture them at this exhibit, facing the facts about the way they consider current fashion compared to intellects of times past.

The exhibit gives an explanation of society’s preoccupation with the perpetual cycle of newness, of “la mode” and “la vogue”—which seems to me to have a nice parallel with the ephemerality and transitoriness of light that so captured the Impressionists. And here we all are, almost 150 years later, in world where cults form around bags and shoes and prints and silhouettes, with only a sliver of the right kind of intellect discussing it. Yes, there are great fashion writers like Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes and Robin Ghivan and Judith Thurman and The Business of Fashion, but the reality is that the big bad brain trust of pop-intellectual culture doesn’t really take it seriously. It may look at it from time to time, but it’ll keep it at arm’s length. And it certainly doesn’t care about wearing Aperlai shoes to meetings or carrying a manuscript in a Sophie Hulme tote.

As a result, a lot of writers—particularly Brooklyn Writers—walk around dressed like chumps. An n+1 party is a sea of jeans-and-blazers: blahsville! Say something, darn it! Even when a 25-year-old James Wolcott wore a ratty trench coat to meet with William Shawn in the mid-70s, he was wearing a costume. It should not be cool to think that taking yourself seriously means not caring what you wear.

From the profusion of two-cent fashion Tumblrs to those wonderful Swedish women I met a few weeks ago, it’s just plain clear that people love fashion. Yes, much of the industry has become, well, absurd, which makes it easy for the modern intellectual to roll his or her eyes and look away. But it has been permitted to become that way because the intellectual structure to shape and critique it as a functioning arm of pop culture and society isn’t really in place. Why do we expect Thinkers to opine on the role of Twitter in television program recaps when the fashion industry creates an economic impact in New York of over $860 million a year? Even putting economics aside, what’s so bad about looking great? A more Diana Vreeland outlook on life would make you about 10 times more fascinating—and happier.

So while you bide your time waiting for Punk: Chaos to Couture to open in May, take your smarmiest smarm on your arm for a turn about Fashion, Impressionism, and Modernity. Then take them to the tailor—that hemline is so not en vogue.