Time Unravelled at the Met’s Exhibition Celebrating 150 Years of Fashion

About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, Clock Two. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, Clock One. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, Clock Two. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[Left] Timeline. Dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895–1972), fall/winter 1958–59 haute couture; Gift of Rosamond Bernier, 1973 (1973.58.1a, b). [Right] Interruption. Dress, Nicolas Ghesquière (French, born 1971) for Louis Vuitton (French, founded 1854), spring/summer 2018; Courtesy Collection Louis Vuitton. Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[Left] Timeline. Dress, Iris Van Herpen (Dutch, born 1984), fall/winter 2012–13 haute couture; Gift of Iris Van Herpen, in honor of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.185). [Right] Interruption. Ball Gown, Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906– 1978), 1951; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Coulson, 1964 (2009.300.1311). Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, 2020. Dress, Viktor & Rolf (Dutch, founded 1993), spring/summer 2020 haute couture; Courtesy Viktor + Rolf. Headpiece by Shay Ashual in collaboration with Yevgeny Koramblyum. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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An exhibition at the Met enlists Virginia Woolf as ‘ghost narrator’ and explores time through continuations of couture.

 

TEXT: Sophie Kalkreuth
IMAGES: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Six months after its postponement due to COVID-19, “About Time: Fashion and Duration” has opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met).

Sponsored by Louis Vuitton, “About Time” features dazzling set designs by Es Devlin, the influential London-based artist and stage designer behind monumental concert scenes for Beyoncé and Lorde. The show also incorporates the talents of a more somber, literary aesthete, the modernist author Virginia Woolf, billed here as the “ghost narrator.”

As I approach the museum, I imagine Woolf walking in my stead, an autumn wind ruffling her skirt, the click-clack of her lace-up boots on the stone steps. I wonder what she might observe about these past months of lockdown, where objective time has seemingly collapsed, calendar days and hours receding while the granular moments of our days bloomed wide.

 

About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, Clock Two. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Woolf is known for experimental novels that dismantle omniscient time. Her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway famously takes place in London over a single day. Time is subjective; as experienced by its characters dips and swells, where past and present collide, and life is made up of an ever-shifting constellation of moments that elude Big Ben’s steady chime.

Over the course of the pandemic Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Met’s Costume Institute has also become conscious of time’s double movement. Staging a fashion exhibition during COVID-19, he says, made him appreciate that “the time in your head is so out of sync with the time of the clock.”

“About Time” celebrates the museum’s 150th anniversary, but also nods to the institution’s role in the shaping of contemporary fashion exhibitions. The Met’s Yves Saint Laurent retrospective curated by former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in 1983 was the first to present fashion as contemporary art rather than historic costume. A commercial success, the YSL retrospective led to fashion exhibitions becoming a staple in the programming of many major museums.

But “About Time” veers from the typical fashion exhibit formula. Rather than drawing upon its archives for garments that present a particular era, the exhibition is organised around the theme of time itself and, beginning in 1870, the year the Met was founded, employs a curatorial style, ripe with juxtaposition, first championed by the museum in the ‘90s.

 

About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, Clock One. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, Clock Two. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Nearly 200 garments unfold across two adjacent circular galleries, a space Devlin conceived as a dramatic, clock-like passageway. Entering the hallway’s dim cocoon, Nicole Kidman, who portrayed Woolf in the 2002 film The Hours, is heard reading from Woolf’s time-traveling 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography (apparently, Kidman recorded the audio into her iPhone). In the dusky room beyond, a bronze pendulum swings while Philip Glass’s arpeggiated score for The Hours reverberates through the space.

Inside the first gallery a conventional linear timeline unfolds. Sixty pairings, each representing a “minute” in fashion’s frenetic hour, are staged as duets, forbearers and successors, starting with a bustled mourning dress circa 1870 set beside a curvy Elsa Schiaparelli evening dress from 1939.

Moments, made up of dresses, suits and coats, echo each other across time, in silhouette, material or motif.  There is a princess dress from the late 1870s with a dropped waist and darted torso juxtaposed with Alexander McQueen’s celebrated “Bumster” skirt from 1995—elongated torsos accentuated through radically different means. And elsewhere, a black silk satin dress from the mid-1890s with enormous gigot sleeves is set beside a Comme des Garçons deconstructed ensemble from 2004.

The first gallery’s final pairing, a Hubert de Givenchy dress with bloomy embroideries set alongside Raf Simons’s 2013 take on the silhouette for Dior, is followed by temporal rupture. Proceeding from the darkened room visitors hear additional passages from Orlando—this time courtesy of Meryl Streep who starred alongside Kidman in The Hours and recorded herself in her kitchen with a clock ticking in the background—and an emerge into the white-walled second gallery where time is presented as interruption, its malleability shown by a nonlinear narrative of stitch and thread where shapes echo and reflect each other in the gallery’s mirrored walls.

Bolton describes this second gallery as “achronological” and “fragmentedthrough the manner in which juxtaposed styles and ideas are assembled in duos and trios. Viewers might find a Victoriana top from Louis Vuitton circa the 2010s paired with one from the 1880s and another from the 1980s. The frenzied history of fashion from the 1960s to the present is rendered less as call and response, and more as an improvised riff that folds over itself in refracting iterations.

 

[Left] Timeline. Dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga (Spanish, 1895–1972), fall/winter 1958–59 haute couture; Gift of Rosamond Bernier, 1973 (1973.58.1a, b). [Right] Interruption. Dress, Nicolas Ghesquière (French, born 1971) for Louis Vuitton (French, founded 1854), spring/summer 2018; Courtesy Collection Louis Vuitton. Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[Left] Timeline. Dress, Iris Van Herpen (Dutch, born 1984), fall/winter 2012–13 haute couture; Gift of Iris Van Herpen, in honor of Harold Koda, 2016 (2016.185). [Right] Interruption. Ball Gown, Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906– 1978), 1951; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Coulson, 1964 (2009.300.1311). Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 

Highlights here include master of weightless form Mariano Fortuny’s signature pleated ‘Delphos’ gown from 1930 is shown alongside Issey Miyake’s 1994 space-age accordion-pleated ‘Flying Saucer’ dress. Elsewhere a skinny knit T-shirt dress from Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis’ 1993 grunge collection, torn open with drawn-out arms gathered in a permanent crush is shown next to a skinny knit T-shirt dress by Rudi Gernreich, 1965-66, both exhibiting similar sleeves and a style of ragged rebellion.

The creative process, the exhibition suggests, is much like time itself: not straightforward and linear, but layered, extending in multiple dimensions and influence, connections and meanings that mutate even as forms are repeated.

In a frenetic industry obsessed with novelty, and a retail calendar that is increasingly overcrowded, contemplation of time, influence and iteration, of circularity and materials is imperative. Nearly three-fifths of all clothing currently ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced and the apparel industry currently contributes over eight percent of the worlds’ total global greenhouse gas emissions.

About Time: Fashion and Duration. Gallery View, 2020. Dress, Viktor & Rolf (Dutch, founded 1993), spring/summer 2020 haute couture; Courtesy Viktor + Rolf. Headpiece by Shay Ashual in collaboration with Yevgeny Koramblyum. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

But there is hope, the curators obliquely suggest. While nearly all garments drawn from archival vaults are black, “About Time” concludes with a suspended mannequin donning a rosy white 2020 Viktor & Rolf dress. The dress gleams cream and pink under the lights and, made from lace offcuts from old collections and patched together into something new, it hints at what might be fashion’s only sustainable future.

 

About Time: Fashion and Duration
28 October 2020 – 7 February 2021
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

 

 
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