Updated: Jul 6, 2021
By Bart Boehlert
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is taking a provocative look back at 150 years of fashion with its new show “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” which coincides with the museum’s 150th anniversary. With timed tickets, it runs from October 29, 2020 to February 7, 2021, and is sponsored by Louis Vuitton. This Costume Institute exhibit was meant to open in May as it does annually with the Met Gala, which is always held on the first Monday of that month and raises most of the funding for the department. All of this of course was canceled this year, but now, since the Met opened again in August, it’s “about time” for this show!
While putting this exhibition together, Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, decided early on to feature garments that were mainly black, creating a dramatic presentation. Bolton organized this show, which explores fashion and the passing of time, with 60 ensembles since there are 60 minutes in an hour. The continuum story of fashion begins with a black American mourning dress from 1870 and progresses through the years to 2020 with a white Viktor & Rolf haute couture dress made of surplus fabrics, representing a sustainable future. However, behind each primary outfit is a second one from a different era that is similar in shape or material or decoration, inviting the visitor to compare and contrast the pairings, and witness the cyclical nature of fashion.
The exhibition’s two galleries were designed around a clock theme by London-based artist Es Devlin, who is well known for creating imaginative stage sets and environments. The first dark gallery with black walls gives way to a short hallway that leads to bright light in a second large gallery that dazzles with silvery mirroring. Overhead, the soundtrack features Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore reading excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; the three actresses starred in the movie The Hours, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham, which was inspired by Woolf.
The parade of black clothes on display, most of which are drawn from the Costume Institute’s permanent collection, illustrate the history of fashion but are also mysterious and evoke the passing of time. Some of the pairings are love letters between designers, curator Bolton explained to this reporter at an exhibition preview. “They are homages of mutual admiration,” said Bolton, pointing out how Miuccia Prada’s little black slip of a dress from 2011 echoes Yves Saint Laurent’s sleeveless, low-waisted black dress from 1966. In turn, Yves Saint Laurent’s 1978 “broken mirror” jacket, the back of which is decorated with silver foil fractured in a gold strip frame, was inspired by Elsa Schiaparelli’s 1938 evening jacket embroidered with mirrors and gold cording. But none of the pairings on view are a simple copy or imitation. “Fashion never repeats itself,” said Bolton. “It reinvents itself. Fashion may look to the past but it always reflects the time in which it lives.” This striking show thoughtfully explores that history up until early 2020. It remains to be seen how fashion will interpret the unprecedented times we are living through now.
Click through for a slideshow of images from the exhibition.