Can you cast your mind back for a moment to spring 2019?
The stock market was still on its overall climb. “The Avengers: Endgame” was breaking box office records. The consumption cycle was evermore frenetic. Fashion designers were complaining about the impossibility of being creative on an accelerated schedule even as they produced greater and greater mountains of stuff. Social media had put the news cycle on fast-forward and Trump had flooded the zone. Time itself was suddenly a precious commodity.
Little wonder it gave Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum, who had been mulling over what to do for his next big fashion show, a celebration of the museum’s 150th anniversary, the spark of an idea.
One that sent Mr. Bolton not just into his own storage room but down a conceptual wormhole: through Charles Baudelaire and the early-20th-century philosopher Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein and Walter Benjamin, Proust and Virginia Woolf.
He emerged with a theme: two parallel chronologies, one running forward from 1870, the founding of the museum, through today; one curving around the other like the double helix, using fashion — which constantly doubles back on itself for reference and inspiration, the better to reflect the forward evolution of the culture around it — to demonstrate the ways in which our past informs our present, and history gives form and meaning to what’s next.
One that was suitably serious for such a serious anniversary, and would act as a counterpoint to the Technicolor pop culture crowd-pleasers of fashion exhibitions like last year’s “Camp” and the earlier “China Through the Looking Glass.” One that would be, as Mr. Bolton said, “very object-based” and about connoisseurship rather than showmanship.
One that had enough high-culture credibility for the museum nabobs, and enough potential glamour for the fashion party cum fund-raiser that is the Met Gala, the source of the Costume Institute’s budget. Louis Vuitton agreed to underwrite the exhibition. Emma Stone and Lin-Manuel Miranda signed on as party co-hosts.
And then everything stopped. The novel coronavirus closed the museum from March until late August. The show was put on hold. The gala was canceled. The economy dived. The Black Lives Matter movement of the summer forced a new reckoning at cultural institutions and within the fashion industry.
This week the exhibition, “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” opened, shorn of its usual celebratory bells and whistles.
The — well, timing turned out to be perfect.
Not just because the extra almost seven months allowed Mr. Bolton to re-curate the show, looking at his own choices through the lens of social justice and updating the display to include more designers of color as well as the most up-to-date pieces. (Nearly 25 percent of the exhibition changed, and the new work — by Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, Stephen Burrows, and Xuly.Bët, among other designers — can be identified by comparing the physical exhibition to the catalog, an elegant, matte black-and-white tome that was printed in February.)
But because Mr. Bolton could not have designed a better show for this strange, complicated moment if he had planned it.
Time, after all, has become something of an abstract concept for us all; we exist in the discomfiting netherworld of the present, in which actions past are picked over and re-examined and what happens next seems impossible to parse. The political reality of the election has given rise to a broad conversation that harks back to the founding principles of the country even as it debates its future.
The concerns the show addresses have taken on a new, acutely personal, dimension. Its relatively restrained dimensions are soothing in an age of bombast. And the socially distanced, quieter museum visitation rules dictated by safety protocols, rather than diminishing the experience, actually enhance it.
Unlike the expanse of 2018’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which escaped the bounds of a gallery to sprawl throughout the museum (and up to the Cloisters), “About Time” is contained within the bounds of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor rooms. You enter a darkened cocoon of a hallway to the soft, droning tones of Nicole Kidman reading from Woolf’s saga of time travel, “Orlando,” only to emerge into an equally somber clock of a room, a bronze pendulum swinging at the center (Es Devlin did the otherworldly exhibition design) synced to Philip Glass’s “The Poet Acts” from the film “The Hours,” itself based on the Woolf novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” tinkling on the soundtrack.
The atmosphere is heavy with suspended animation. Instead of written placards on the walls by each piece, which might have encouraged visitors to congregate too closely, the exhibition texts for each pair of garments — forerunner and successor — which place each look in its collection and social context, must be downloaded by visitors on their smartphones. This further underscores the sense of private communion between the eye and what it beholds, which are the “minutes” of the show: 60 duets of dresses or suits or coats or confections from different periods and designers that echo each other across the decades in silhouette, motif, or material. They are almost entirely black, with the rare shade of white for punctuation.
The mirroring technique was also employed to powerful effect, albeit on a smaller scale, in a section of last year’s “Camp” show that compared certain classic looks to their exaggerated counterparts, but here it is the guiding principle, and it is highly effective.
So the explosive bustle of a silk velvet Worth-inspired walking dress of 1885 is juxtaposed against the similar lines of a Yohji Yamamoto wool coat from 1986/87 spilling a fountain of white tulle out the back. The jutting silver-framed panniers of a 1927 taffeta robe de style by Jeanne Lanvin are echoed in the sheer lace-panniers of a 2020 dress from Loewe by Jonathan Anderson (which themselves hark back to the panniers of court dress). And Chanel’s little black sequined party slip with flowers on one strap from 1925 and a Norman Norell little black sequined dress with flowers on one strap from 1965 explicitly graph the connection between the freedoms of the 1920s and those of the 1960s. They are so close that it is a good thing Diet Prada, the Instagram watchdog currently known for calling out copying, was not around.
(The show also underscores why it is so hard to copyright clothing design, and why the industry finds it so hard to adjust to contemporary notions of appropriation and attribution since it has been freely borrowing from itself for over a century without a problem.)
The visitor then proceeds from the dark into the light via more “Orlando” narration, courtesy of Meryl Streep, more Glass, and a second room mirrored to the ceiling, refracting iterations of iterations: Issey Miyake’s accordion-pleated slinky-style “flying saucer’ dress of 1994 and Mariano Fortuny’s slinky pleated “Delphos” dress of 1930, both of them technical marvels of weightless formation; a skinny knit T-shirt dress from Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis, 1993, “ripped” open at the belly button, elongated sleeves shirred in a permanent crush, and a skinny knit T-shirt dress by Rudi Gernreich, 1965-66, same sleeves and line, same conscious grungy rebellion. An Iris van Herpen PVC strapless gown from 2012 with Alien-like appendages curving around the hips and thighs stands beside a cream satin 1951 ball gown from Charles James with the same tentacle-like protrusions on the hips and skirt.
The final look of the show, however, stands alone. An angelic white dress by Viktor & Rolf, it is made of lace remnants from old collections patchworked together into something new and worn by a mannequin suspended in the air; the past and future united in the present. It brings the exhibition to a graceful, optimistic close. (And makes one wonder if sustainability and circularity could be the next themes for Mr. Bolton.)
Indeed, all the layers of analytic claptrap that Mr. Bolton used to dress up his theme, and which are formalized in the book’s essay by Theodore Martin, as well as in a new, “Orlando”-inspired short story by Michael Cunningham commissioned for the catalog, turn out to be mostly distractions from the show’s central argument. Granted, some of the pairings are more of a stretch than others. (Are “bows” really about historical interconnection, or simply generic decoration?) And, for some, the payoff may seem less revelation than: duh! But as a whole, the use of clothes to make a point about how ideas, creativity and identity are products of a multiverse, rather than linear progression — how meanings morph even as forms call and repeat, and how that itself spurs change — is convincing. And extends far beyond fashion.
Maybe all those intellectual frills are necessary from an internal politics point of view, given that fashion has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the museum, forced to endlessly justify its presence among the high arts. (When the Costume Institute was formed in 1946, after the Museum of Costume Art joined the Met, it was on the condition that it alone, of all the museum’s curatorial departments, support itself.) But for those not burdened with such prejudices, they just get in the way.
Indeed, the lingering question is why the Costume Institute continues to be, as Max Hollein writes in the introduction, “an independent entity within the museum” as opposed to being simply a part of the museum. In its clarity and relevance, this show suggests that distinction is ripe for a rethink.
It would be about time.
About Time: Fashion and Duration
Through Feb. 7 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; metmuseum.org. Entry is by timed ticket or reservation only.