The preview for the Met Costume Institute’s new exhibit, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”, lasted all of 45 minutes. My editor, Tim Teeman, and I joked about how it could be possible to truck through nearly 250 years of sartorial history in less than an hour; he warned that if I spent too long gawking at the 1800s I might have to skip through the first half of the 20th century. But upon viewing the skimpy collection, it became clear that 45 minutes was more than enough time.
There is a warranted austerity to the exhibit, which marks the first real-life Met showing since the pandemic. Coronavirus gutted the fashion industry; labels and media companies hemorrhaged jobs and some lines like Cushnie and Sies Marjan shuttered altogether. But fashion week has returned to in-person events, and the Met Gala has moved from the first Monday in May to Sept. 13. American designers need a boost; enter US Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour and Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton.
“In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” is the first of two exhibits. (The second, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion, opens next May.) Despite the title, Bolton told Vogue that he is uninterested in “defining” what makes clothing uniquely American. Around 100 pieces of clothing are on display; each one is paired with an emotion.
A gold sequin Michael Kors gown, paired with a floor-length camel coat with matching metallic liner, represents “Assurance.” Perry Ellis’ preppy sportswear manifests “Fellowship.” A plaid Christopher John Rodgers ball gown, with its voluminous skirt, means “exuberance.” And on and on.
Bolton defined “American fashion” to Vogue in three words: heterogeneity, diversity, and pluralism. But the curator added that “the idea of reducing American fashion down to one definition is totally antithetical to what this exhibition is about.”
Indeed, the curators seem content to let the clothes speak for themselves. Most of the pieces are placed in one room; clear mannequins wear designs that are organized in a bit of a chronological free-for-all. Clothes that resemble each other are placed nearby, meant to show a through-line from decade to decade.
The collection is absolutely not definitive. The oldest design comes from 1941; it’s a black silk crepe dress called “La Sirène” made by Charles James, a Brit who worked in New York. Claire McCardell, the designer who is credited with developing American sportswear and created with women’s ability to move comfortably, gets her due too. According to show notes, her simple “wraparound” dress “exemplified a key tenet of American fashion—that it compliments the wearer rather than the designer.”
Mainbocher uniforms meant for the U.S. Navy’s World War II-era Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) branch and coveralls by Helen Cookman are included as “history,” too. There is vintage Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, and Patrick Kelly. But most of the pieces are from the 21st century–in fact, most are from the past ten or so years. This feels like a boost intended to uplift young designers, especially those who are struggling from COVID-induced challenges.
The show opens with a quote from Jesse Jackson at the 1984 Democratic Convention which compares America to a patchwork quilt: “America is not like a blanket—one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt—many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.”
And so visitors are meant to see the circularity in American fashion: Charles James’ ruched “La Sirène” matches a slinky and sensual Calvin Klein gown made over 40 years later. A black Patrick Kelly mini dress adorned with countless colorful buttons resembles the back of a Jeremy Scott tuxedo jacket with similar embroidery.
From the moment the exhibit was announced in April, critics wondered how the Met would address the racism, exploitation, and waste embedded in the American fashion industry. The exhibit muses on xenophobia and inequality at a few junctures, namely an installation that features the various ways designers have blazed the country’s flag on sweaters. (Ralph Lauren’s evokes nostalgia, Willy Chavarria flipped the design over for his spring 2019 collection, signaling distress.)
Designers like Chromat, Christian Siriano, and Fenty Savage, Rihanna’s lingerie line, are included for their contributions to body diversity on the runway. But as Technology Review reporter Mia Sato noted, the fishnet Fenty catsuit is put on a sample-size mannequin, which obviously counters the brand’s beloved and necessary push for inclusivity.
The exhibit appears to be curated mostly for a certain type of fashion fan: those who are very-online, and follow each and every clothing drop and runway show. Some of the pieces included have gone viral in recent years, such as an Off-White collaboration with the outdoor brand Arc’teryx, and a “Who Gets to be an American” sash by Prabal Gurung
Those who are unaware of such “visual moments,” as fashion people like to call them, might just wonder around the maze of mannequins and gawk at dresses that appear to be organized by style. And that’s not such a bad way to spend an afternoon. The exhibit has a pared-back set design (there are blessedly few made-for-Instagram installations for guests to selfie in front of)—a nod to just how battered the industry is right now. It feels almost meditative to walk around.
I spotted Anna Wintour inside the exhibit, just for a moment. Then the Vogue editor-in-chief and gallery’s namesake walked hurriedly behind a cordoned-off area—she moved impressively fast, given her tight sheath dress and high heels. The exhibit seems just as hurried. One leaves the Met not quite sure what to feel, but buoyed nonetheless with that indelible rush that comes from a good day of window shopping fashion—American fashion.
“In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” opens at The Met on Sept. 18 and runs until Sept. 5, 2022.