Friday, March 9, 2007

The Costume Institute

The Costume Institute is the collection of historical and contemporary dress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For a long time working there was my dream job, but while I would still love the chance to work with the Institute's chief curator Harold Koda, an absolute genius at exhibition design, I'm not sure the Institute itself, rather ghettoized away from the rest of the Met and relying on Condé Nast for its financial support, offers the most academically rigorous of museum opportunities. It does however, have a beautiful collection of clothes.

Capes and Corsets:
This short cape looks like an incredibly modern interpretation of traditional Chinese dress, but in fact it dates from the the second half of the sixteenth century and has an entirely European form. The fabric, however, is a Ming Dynasty velvet, also from the sixteenth century. The gold piping, consisting of gilded paper around an orange silk core, is also typical of Chinese style. Jumping centuries a bit, we come to this corset from 1891, showing the hourglass shape that was so central to most nineteenth-century fashions. Both garments are French.

Nineteenth-Century Silhouettes:
The dress on the left illustrates the high "empire" waist style we know so well from Jane Austen movies. This particular dress probably dates from 1804 and its cotton fabric probably came already embroidered from India. The dress on the right shows my other favorite silhouette from the nineteenth century, the modified bustle of the 1870s. This was a kind of golden decade between the huge bustled and bell-shaped skirts of the late '60s (the cow look) and the exaggerated almost shelf-like bustles, combined with straight front skirts, of the 1880s (the horse look).

These haute couture dresses show the sophisticated side of the flapper aesthetic. On the left is a dress by Edward Molyneaux from 1926-7, in which the vertical strips of sequins are overlaid with loose shimmering filaments of georgette. On the right is a dress by Louiseboulanger from 1928. Its "feathers" are painstakingly knotted together from individual strands of ostrich plumes, each one died a different tone to create the cascade effect.

New Looks:
Madeleine Vionnet is one of my all-time favorite designers, most well known for innovating with bias cuts to create daringly simple body-skimming dresses. The dress at left is no exception. Its fringe isn't applied braid but consists of individual strands of silk thread embroidered through the fabric, each thread forming two drops. The "Bar Suit" at right from 1947 epitomizes Christian Dior's post-war "New Look." It rejected the slim silhouettes of the first half of the twentieth century in favor of wasp waists accentuated by padded hips.

Mid-century Modern:
At left is a suit from 1951 by Charles James, combining the complimentary colors of navy cashmere with orange-rust silk satin. At right is a dress by Cristobal Balenciaga, dating from 1960-64, which shows his singular genius as a tailor and his love for structuring the garment slightly apart from the body. Both these ensembles evoke the architectural geometry of mid-century modernism.

Contemporary Ball Gowns:
Both these gowns make me think "Whoosh!" At left, John Galliano's Maria-Luise (dite Coré) Ensemble features a skirt nine feet wide and embellished with flounces and trim typical of the ancien régime. It was shown in the Christian Dior Haute Couture collection of spring/summer 1998. At right, Alexander McQueen's Oyster Dress from 2003 literally deconstructs the image of Aphrodite rising from the sea, giving us the gritty exterior of the oyster rather than the pearl within.

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