Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review of the New York Fashion Exhibits - The Met

I was lucky enough to take a short trip to New York a couple of weeks ago with the sole intent of seeing the concurrent fashion exhibits on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Both exhibits feature treasures from the Brooklyn Museum's extensive costume collection that has been transferred to the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute.

My first jaunt was to the Metropolitan Museum's exhibit, "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity". This exhibit focuses on American fashion from 1890 - 1940 and was curated by Andrew Bolton. The exhibit space is divided into 7 round rooms, each housing the clothing of an American female archetype from the "Gilded Age" of the 1890s through 1930s and 40s "Screen Sirens".

While the 80 costumes in this exhibit are indeed gorgeous, the focus on the clothing is overpowered by the "sets" which were designed by film production designer Nathan Crowley. The costumes are almost afterthoughts amongst distracting furniture, painted backdrops, music, and movies. The mood lighting is nearly too low and the last room is entirely wasted in a surround of projected images of modern American women that moves too quickly and features no clothing at all.

In the room dedicated to "The Patriot and The Suffragist", only 5 costumes are featured. They are dwarfed by two huge movie screens that show images from the Suffragist movement, although the movie wasn't working on the day I was there. In the "Screen Sirens" room, the clothes are an afterthought to the 3 large screens showing clips from classic films of the 1930s and 40s. I watched the people in the exhibit space focus on the films rather than the clothing. Too bad.

The Met commissioned hair stylist Julien d'Ys to fashion wigs for the mannequins; wigs that were sparkled, lacquered and sprayed. The wigs only added to the distraction from what should have been the centerpiece of the show, the clothes themselves.

This is the 3rd costume exhibit I've attended in recent years at the Met that has lost it's focus in unnecessary theatrics and splashy showmanship. It is ironic that in order to really see the details in the clothing, one has to buy the book that accompanies both exhibits. There you will find the clothing photographed on a simple mannequin set against a solid backdrop.

Elsewhere in the museum, you'll find Picassos and Rembrandts displayed on plain walls, well lit, and with no distracting movies or music. Why not do the same for Mainbochers and Lanvins? Overall, I found this exhibit to be disappointing, especially when compared to the one at the Brooklyn Museum, which I'll review tomorrow.

Here is the Met's video which shows the entire exhibit.