Fashion returns to Museum

With “In America” at the Met and “Christian Dior” at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, our critics debate the nuances of showing fashion in art institutions, and find a depth of influence among young American designers.

By guest authors Vanessa Friedman and Zachary Woolfe from the New York Times

It may be a simple coincidence that the Brooklyn Museum unveiled a major Dior extravaganza, “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” the week before the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute opens its fall show, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” But after two years of lockdowns and sweatpants, it seemed like fate. A fashion horn of plenty!

In many ways the two shows are like opposite sides of a coin. One is an epic — 22,000-square-foot — and very glamorous ode to a single European brand, often considered the epitome of French fashion, which has passed through the hands of seven different designers. The other is a tight — 5,000-square-foot — and somewhat unexpected argument for reassessing the stereotypes around this country’s style legacy, crammed with names most attendees will probably never have heard of, and almost determinedly diverse.

But together they raised some interesting questions for Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic for The New York Times, and Zachary Woolfe, The Times’s classical music editor, about what kinds of garments belong in a museum, and the nature of a fashion exhibition compared to a runway show. Parsing the answers became an extended conversation.

Coolness Ensembles by Bstroy, the American menswear company founded in 2013 by Brick Owens & Dieter Grams, in “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center. In the show, they represent the way designers explore intimacy and collaboration.Credit…Mohamed Sadek for The New York Times

VANESSA FRIEDMAN In some ways, I’m not surprised at the idea that both the Met and the Brooklyn Museum ended up with fashion shows — albeit very different ones — at the same time. After all, much has been made about New York opening up again this fall, and when it comes to luring people back into museums, fashion is one of an encyclopedic art institution’s most accessible pop culture arms.

ZACHARY WOOLFE Yes, it was hard to miss the contrast between the Versailles-flashy overflow in Brooklyn and the coolly neat grid of vitrines at the Met — as precise in their geometry as the 19th-century patchwork quilt from the museum’s collection that inspired the show’s layout.

And there was another contrast: between this iteration of the Dior retrospective, which has traveled the world in shifting configurations and may well continue to do so, and the one that we both saw in Paris in 2017. How were the two installations different?

At “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” at the Met, left, an ensemble by Gabriela Hearst, a Uruguayan designer, fall 2021. Right, the Signature quilt opens the main part of the show: “Tumbling Blocks” pattern, by Adeline Harris Sears (1839-1931), begun in 1856, was signed by Abraham Lincoln. Quilts represent the multifaceted nature of the show: the many different pieces that compose a whole.Credit…Mohamed Sadek for The New York Times

FRIEDMAN “Designer of Dreams” is what most people probably think of when they think of a fashion exhibition. Tons of fairy-tale dresses! Some historical and artistic context! (Not too much!) A celebrity connection or two. (Or 20.) Some lavish scenography.

When I first saw it four years ago in Paris, I thought it was enormously successful within those parameters. I actually learned something about Dior the man, who started his career as a gallerist. And it was convincing in presenting the way he established the vocabulary of the house: the extravagant yet trim femininity of the “New Look”; his lush colour palette; his fascination with flowers, filigree and tarot. And the show patiently, richly showed how the designers who came after him (Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and now Maria Grazia Chiuri) played with those concepts.

But this iteration — after Paris, London, Shanghai and Chengdu, with related presentations in Denver and Dallas — seems to me increasingly removed from the original. It’s still very glittery, and I appreciated the early focus on Dior’s first trip to America and how this country took up residence in his mind, but as far as I could tell the bulk of the argument it’s making now seems to be: Look how well Maria Grazia Chiuri’s work fits in the tradition! Plus: Don’tcha want to buy some perfume? There is an entire wall, after all, devoted to the sparkly J’Adore frocks.

WOOLFE I apologize for the obnoxiousness of “You should’ve seen it in Paris!” But it’s true! There, installed at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the show had the aesthetic and historical weight of a great museum exhibition. Dramatic tension, too: in the way the brand’s initial preoccupations were pushed and pulled by the designers who followed the founder; in the way it was left open, at the end, exactly how Chiuri, then newly appointed, would fit in. A tantalizing question mark.

Now, four years further into her tenure, the exhibition ends with more of an ellipsis, or maybe a staring-blankly-ahead emoji. Chiuri clothes, mostly pretty and forgettable, take up significantly more space on the checklist in Brooklyn, elbowing aside Saint Laurent, who distilled the essence of Dior; Bohan, the long-serving classicist; flamboyant Ferré; irresistibly outré Galliano; and Simons, with his timeless spare precision.

But there’s a distinct sense of her work anxiously protesting too much, both about its relevance (all those wan political slogans on T-shirts!) and its place in the house’s lineage (all that tarot imagery, just like what obsessed Monsieur Dior!). And the more there is from the present, as you suggest, the more promotional it all feels — like Bernard Arnault and LVMH, Dior’s corporate overlords, have made the museum set all this stuff alongside masterpieces of art history, solely to burnish the brand and move merchandise. (This is, it should be said, far from an unknown phenomenon in the art world.)

Just a few examples are Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, whose coat-that-wears-a-shirt is in the show; Heron Preston, who has two pieces, one an upcycled version of a New York Department of Sanitation uniform; the No Sesso gang of Pierre Davis, Autumn Randolph and Arin Hayes, whose piece is a kind of ruffly cocktail frock made of jeans; and Christopher John Rogers, whose explosive and fabulous plaid ball gown is the first thing you see when you descend the stairs to the Anna Wintour Costume Center.

At the same time, only about 21 percent of what’s on display is from the Met’s own collection; the rest has been borrowed from the designers. When I asked Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, if he was going to acquire the pieces for the Costume Institute — like, is Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lacy nothing, in the show representing the idea of “recognition,” going to end up in the museum? — he said he would probably acquire from 80 percent of the new names, but not necessarily the pieces in the exhibition. Which made me wonder about the criteria for inclusion.

If these garments don’t deserve to be in the museum on their own merits, what are they doing there? Since you’re a music critic, does this strike a discordant note?

WOOLFE It reminds me a little about debates that go on about the classical music repertory, basically suggesting that if a piece isn’t going to be done by an orchestra as much as, say, Beethoven’s Ninth, why are they playing it at all? I think there’s such value in presenting variety, and as much of it as possible: If you believe in the talent and integrity of an artist, just keep throwing the work onstage. I like when musical institutions make a commitment to a composer, knowing that not every premiere is going to turn out to have the same level of success, or to be something they’ll ever want to play again.

Art is slightly different because of the potential distinction between exhibiting and buying. Certainly there are any number of exhibitions that contain loans that the presenting museum isn’t particularly interested in acquiring, but that are important to have on view in terms of the themes of the given show — like the needs of a particular orchestral program. In other words, believing an object can be displayed at the Met is not necessarily the same as thinking it should or must be in the Met’s collection.

It’s inevitable with any broad yet brisk survey, but were there designers, trends or aesthetics that you felt were missing, that would have helped the story the Met is trying to tell?

FRIEDMAN Hoo, boy — that’s the question. Playing “guess who didn’t make it in” is going to be a major parlor game for fashion folk. (Note: Bolton also said he was planning to rotate up to 60 percent of the show, so the contents will change, and Part 2, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” opening in the spring, will further expand it — to the period rooms in the museum’s American Wing, and with garments going back to the 18th century.) Even when it comes to the names that are there, sometimes the pieces chosen seem not entirely signature. That Marc Jacobs simple gold dress, for example.

I also don’t think that the words Bolton has attached to each look — the “lexicon” part: “freedom,” “fluency,” “coziness,” “calm” — will make any real impression on visitors. But I bet what people will remember is how coherent certain overarching themes are: the elegant black dress, draped just so on the body from Charles James through Isabel Toledo and Rick Owens; the structured skirt suit; the camel cashmere; plush homemade knit; denim (of course!); and the really terrific opening room featuring a bouquet of patchwork clothes by everyone from Ralph Lauren to SC103 and Puppets and Puppets. And the whole thing may make visitors think twice about American fashion, which was the goal.

That said, I also bet people will be drawn to the Dior show, which demands less of the viewer. It’s like a Marvel movie to the Met’s Wes Anderson. What do you think?

WOOLFE There’s something of a reversal of roles here: The scrappy Brooklyn Museum hosting the glam behemoth, while the mighty Met strikes a sweeter, more modest and (dare I say) underground pose. (That extends to the apt soundtrack: the genially twinkling “Femenine,” a recently rediscovered work from the 1970s by the Black, gay Post-Minimalist composer Julius Eastman.)

It says something — everything? — about New York and how it’s changed that Dior has taken up residence in Prospect Heights, rather than on Fifth Avenue.