All those people who said American fashion was dead and that the pandemic, with its bankruptcies and store closures, was simply the tolling of the final bell? The people who pointed to the anemic state of the digital New York Fashion Week, with its lack of big names and buzz, and said it was over? The people who said it was going to be sweatpants and Crocs from now on?
Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Anna Wintour, trustee, Costume Institute booster and Condé Nast chief content officer, have a message for them: Get thee to a museum.
On Monday they unveiled plans for not one but two big and interconnected Costume Institute shows, both focused on (you guessed it) American fashion. And there would be not one but two Met Galas alongside them.
Two Met Galas! That’s doubling down on the local scene. And a big gamble that the world will be prepared to embrace a party, and the party throwers, at a time when exactly how safe that party will be is still unclear.
Though the exhibitions will not make their debut in May, as has become tradition for the Met’s fashion extravaganzas, part one will open in September, just after Fashion Week; the gala will be the closing event of the collections. (Part two will open in May 2022.)
That will allow for Covid restrictions to ease (they hope), attendees to get used to being around other people again (though size will be determined by government guidelines), and a previously unexploited synergy between the show and the shows to flower. Especially because the dress code for the gala in all its glitzy, social-media-catnip glory, will presumably be … American.
“We very consciously wanted this to be a celebration of the American fashion community, which suffered so much during the pandemic,” said Mr. Bolton, who added that he also wanted the show to spur a broader reassessment of American fashion. He believes, he said, that it had often been unfairly dismissed because of its historic associations with “sportswear and the related values of utility, functionality and pragmatism,” while European fashion was considered full of “expression and emotion.”
Indeed, he said: “I think American fashion is undergoing a renaissance, with young American designers at the vanguard of discussions around diversity, inclusion, sustainability and conscious creativity. I find it incredibly exciting.”
Mr. Bolton began contemplating a focus on American fashion in 2018, when he was planning “About Time,” the fashion show celebrating the museum’s 150th anniversary, which opened last year. Since 2021 will mark the Costume Institute’s 75th birthday, he thought it would be appropriate to honor the local community that supported it.
Also, doing so made logistical sense, given the pandemic restrictions on travel and loans; the museum equivalent of working from home is working from your own collections. Approximately 80 percent of the clothes in the show will come from the Met’s holdings, with only one garment originating outside the country.
Yet the exhibitions’ focus also reflects the more existential and political developments of the last year: debates over what it means to be American today and efforts to expose and grapple with racism.
Though the Costume Institute, and Mr. Bolton, have highlighted American fashion in the past, those shows took the form of either a single designer retrospective (the 2014 Charles James exhibition) or a more abstract endeavor like “American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity” in 2010, which focused on American archetypes as interpreted by designers around the world. The current show, like those on China, Catholicism and Camp that have come to define Mr. Bolton’s term as curator in charge, has much larger ambitions and a broader sweep.
Mr. Bolton isn’t just trying to change the stereotype of American fashion or counter predictions of its demise; he’s trying to expand our understanding of what it means by telling stories of designers that have often been overlooked and forgotten.
To this end, the first show, called “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” will focus on contemporary designers to a greater extent than any other previous Costume Institute exhibition, thus putting the institution’s stamp of approval on a fresh generation of names. It will be situated in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, which will be designed to mimic a “house” in which each room represents a different emotion. And it will be populated by designers old and new, drawing lines between the work of Claire McCardell and Collina Strada and what they consider the meaning of “well-being.” Or Patrick Kelly and Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and their focus on “devotion.”
The second show, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” will be held in 21 of the American period rooms and will center on 300 years of historic narratives both personal and political. Some are well-known, like the Battle of Versailles and names like Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, but others are more obscure, like the story of Fannie Criss, a turn-of-the-20th-century dressmaker in Virginia and freeborn child of former slaves; and Elizabeth Keckley, a dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. (The Met does not own any of Ms. Keckley’s work and is still trying to source her pieces.)
The mise-en-scène of each room will be visualized by a different film director, though exactly who is still a work in progress — as are many of the pieces Mr. Bolton hopes to display.
What is confirmed is that Franklin Leonard, the founder of The Black List (a roundup of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays), will be a collaborator on the exhibition, as will Bradford Young, the cinematographer behind “Selma” and “When They See Us.” That is partly because, despite Mr. Bolton’s focus on how American fashion has reacted to social and political changes, the Costume Institute’s curators are all white — an uncomfortable reality given their goal is redefining the industry’s identity. Mr. Bolton said that diversifying the department’s curatorial staff was one of the Costume Institute’s long-term objectives.
In the short-term, he was hoping the new shows will serve to convince viewers that American fashion is at the same pivotal moment today that it was in 1973, during the Battle of Versailles, when, he said, it emerged “triumphant — partly because of the modernity of the clothes and the models, but also partly because of the modernity of the attitude.”
If he’s right, the exhibitions could bring a new energy and focus to the industry.
As to why there will be a gala for each part of the show — for the first time since the galas began in 1948 and despite lingering unease around the pandemic and risks of a let-them-eat-cake reaction — the reason is partly practical. The Costume Institute is the only curatorial department in the museum that is forced to raise the money for its own budget, most of which comes from the gala. (In May, 2019, the party raised more than $15 million.) The fact that last May’s event was canceled, as was the one that would have taken place next month, has, Mr. Bolton acknowledged, created fiscal challenges.
Though the celebrity hosts for the gala have not yet been announced (that’s apparently coming next month, though rumor has it Tom Ford and Amanda Gorman will play the role in Met ball #1), Instagram will be one of the show’s main sponsors, along with Condé Nast. For anyone excited about the tantalizing possibility that Mark Zuckerberg, Instagram’s big boss and someone who did quite a lot to popularize his own American uniform, could potentially take his place at the top of the stairs in a black tie hoodie, apparently it is not to be.
On the other hand, depending on government and health restrictions, it is very possible that masked balls may take on a whole new meaning.