Currently at the Met’s Costume Institute is Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion. Visitors are given a peek into the Costume Institutes archives from the eighteenth century to twenty first. Not only has the museum acquired one of the largest collections in the world but one that includes Masterworks. Masterworks are labeled as such due to the garment ‘s technical qualities that have pushed the process of garment making forward. The qualities that deemed each piece a masterwork changed as eras progressed. Curators chose pieces that complemented each other no matter the time period. Essentially showing how fashion reacts to the past, present and future.
18th Century Masterworks: Quality of Materials
During the 1800’s the craftsmanships of embroidery, textiles, weaves and tailoring are what constitute masterwork. As the silhouettes of garments did not change much during this period it was the use of intricate techniques that made them masterworks. The Robe Volant, or one piece gown with a tight bodice, flowing front and back pleats was the typical style worn by women and girls. During this time the reference to lingerie through fuller proportions was seen as indecent and as a result so was the wearer. The shape was also frowned upon as people believed pregnancies due to affairs could be hidden. The simple silhouettes allowed the detailed damask or brocade prints to be the showcase of the garment. The making of a garment was through the process of draping fabric on a bodice and folding pleats rather than cutting and sewing.
Men’s attire for this period was inspired by new trade relations between Britain and Asia. An influx of new materials and styles such as silk and kimonos originated from China, India, Persia and Turkey changed the fashion of Europe. All of these cultures inspired the Banyan a casual house gown worn by British men. Depending on details like fit, cut or quilting they would be adorned at home or out at casual events. This coat’s European silhouette combined with Asian materials and styles was seen as elegant and fashionable. Men who wore a Banyan were considered well traveled with great fashion sense. Again simple lines and tailoring were used allowing detailed embroidery, bold patterns and bright colors to be the focus point of the garment.
During this same time period French fashion was pushing the boundaries and blurring the lines on what was acceptable for women to wear. Striped prints took the place of embroidery, a trend influenced by Asian relations. The print now being used for both female and male attire was previously associated with socially excluded populations. Men’s riding coats, cape collar and lapels were some of the masculine trends implemented into the Redingote or women’s dresses. To the dismay of French magazines and their progressive efforts the public viewed the this trend as a perverse mixing of gender roles.
19th Century Masterworks: Technical developments in tools and speed and changes in silhouettes
This century saw quick changes in a garment’s silhouette as opposed to the 18th century, which relied on materials to progress fashion. The use of bustles, crinolines and corsets was introduced drastically changing the form of a woman’s body. Technical abilities in cutting and sewing progressed with the introduction of the Jacard loom and the sewing machine. These tools allowed for garments to be made faster, cheaper and created ready-made or ready to wear accessibility. During this period the introduction of Haute Couture by designer Charles Fredrick Worth was also pushing fashion forward. His tradition of labeling his pieces introduced the notion that a designer was a creator and artist.
Early Twentieth Century Masterworks: Innovation and Reinvention
War World One like many other aspects of society affected fashion. Simple garments with less body restrictions was the norm. Haute Couture masters such as Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet embraced the uncorseted frame by using the draping method. As usual fashion and art intertwined with the surrealist movement inspiring collections by Elsa Schiaparelli and Charles James. As some designers looked to the future others looked to the past. Jeanne Lanvin’s mid-eighteenth century inspired pieces included techniques used in the 1800’s. Techniques such as simpler silhouettes with bold embroidery and prints were used again .
Late Twentieth Century Masterworks: Cultural Combinations, Youth Dominance and Couture’s Survival
At this point in fashion the popularity of Haute Couture was waning as the boom of ready to wear excelled. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent guided couture into relevancy by combining traditional couture elegance and modern street style. Cristobal Balenciaga looked to the past and continued implementing 17th century structures with modern details. While punk visionary Vivienne Westwood lead the uprise of deconstructive fashion. Influences for her 1970’s,80’s and continuous collections included the fashion of the 17th-19th centuries.
Contemporary Masterworks: Rebellion, Expression of the times, Garments with multiple meanings
Masters of the moment included Hussein Charlatan, Martin Margiela, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Alexander McQueen. The advancement of the deconstructive technique by Margiela unveiled the intricate details of the construction of a garment. A process normally only seen by the designer. The use of unconventional materials was introduced and paired with traditional couture techniques. Materials like porcelain and wood were transformed and conformed to a women’s shape. By doing this designers expanded the relationship between a women’s body and clothing as well as peoples traditional ideas of fashion. Pop culture, politics and perceptions were also questioned and applied to the creation of a garment. From my recollection of my college days even the history of a country and its fashion inspired collections. Alexander McQueen and John Galliano both designed the traditional corset with progressive materials like coiled wire.
The Harold Koda Gift
Curators are preservers of art who expand the lifespan of each piece. By doing so they allow art to live beyond its prime and introduce generations of observers to a historical world. This is what Harold Koda did as Curator in Charge at the Costume Institute for fifteen years before retiring in January of 2016. In tribute to him current Curator in Charge Andrew Bolton and Met Trustee Anna Wintour commissioned thirty designers to donate selections of their archives to the Met. Each piece chosen held significance for Honda and found a purposeful position in the existing collection. Designers recalled their admiration and relationship with Koda that was cultivated through collaborations for the Costume Institute.
The exhibit gives an inside look at how fashion continues to be influenced by history. It showcases how innovative designers find a way to move fashion forward with techniques of the past and future. Masterworks:Unpacking Fashion will be on through February 4th 2017. Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000th 5th Ave, NY,NY,