Manhattan is home to the splashiest fashion show in the world—the annual blockbuster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is a serious exhibition, but it launches each May with a Fellini-esque take on the Ziegfeld Follies, a gala that sees stars of Hollywood, pop and hip-hop sailing in, dressed for red-carpet dominance. The sheer scale of this show and its party now seems to have precluded the one or two smaller fashion exhibitions that the Met’s Costume Institute used to mount within the same year. Thank heaven for FIT.
Exhibitionism: 50 Years of The Museum at FIT
Fashion Institute of Technology
Through April 20, 2019
That’s the Fashion Institute of Technology, Manhattan’s downtown college of design, art, communications and business founded in 1944 when young adults were pooh-poohing the needle trades to become doctors and lawyers. “What we need is an MIT for the fashion industries,” said Mortimer C. Ritter, an educator who led the way to the institute’s creation. The Museum at FIT followed in 1969 and is one of the world’s few specialized fashion museums—“the fashion insiders’ fashion museum,” designer Michael Kors calls it. Exhibitions came slowly in the beginning, as the museum was building its collection, but today, in any given year, there will be eight or more exhibitions of varying breadth and depth. On the 50th anniversary of its founding, with more than 200 exhibitions under its belt, The Museum at FIT presents “Exhibitionism,” a look back at 33 past shows.
A survey of this kind cannot, by definition, be deep. Its pleasures are those of compression, the way each of the 33 shows is conjured with a vignette that includes two or more emblematic garments, buttressed by symbolic accessories and imagery. A survey approach also allows us to trace an evolution—how fashion scholarship in a museum setting has blossomed in the past half century, communicating on levels intellectual, sociological and semiotic. In fact, many of the garments on view, their labels tell us, have appeared in numerous shows on various subjects, attesting to the multiple meanings that can cohere in one piece. For example, André Courrèges’s white kid space-age boots of 1964 were not only part of 2017-18’s “Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme,” they also showed up in “Shoes: A Lexicon of Style” (1999), “Fashion and Politics” (2009) and “Youthquake: The 1960s Fashion Revolution” (2012).
The exhibition’s organizers—Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the museum, and Colleen Hill, its curator of costume and accessories—have chosen shows that were influential or innovative. The vignettes in both rooms begin with a nod to Robert Riley, the founding director of the museum, which was originally called the Design Laboratory and Galleries at FIT.
The museum’s first show, 1971’s Adrian Retrospective, actually was a show—a one-time runway presentation on moving, breathing bodies (today’s conservationists would faint dead at the thought). When MGM heard about Riley’s event, it donated Adrians designed for Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo (one of the prizes, Garbo’s black velvet gown from “Camille,” is on view). In 1976, Riley’s “Paul Poiret, King of Fashion” reacquainted the public with a forgotten yet revolutionary couturier, wowing viewers with its re-creation of Poiret’s Paris garden. A new era for fashion exhibitions was dawning. (Up at the Met, Diana Vreeland had begun her 15-year run, curating by instinct and imagination if not precise historicity.)
After Riley came the years of Richard Martin and Harold Koda, who worked with the new director of the museum, Laura Sinderbrand. Acclaimed exhibitions such as “Three Women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo” (1987), “Fashion and Surrealism” (1987-88) and “Halston: Absolute Modernism” (1991-92) played a seminal role in framing fashion as art and the fashion exhibition as a display of ideas as well as clothes.
Ms. Steele took over the museum’s directorship in 2003. A Yale Ph.D. who bucked fashion-phobic academia and wrote her thesis on fashion and eroticism in the Victorian era, Ms. Steele’s influence on fashion studies has been provocative and generative, as have many of the exhibitions she’s curated and commissioned. Through the looking glass of sexuality and gender Ms. Steele pulls groundbreaking shows: “The Corset: Fashioning the Body” (2000), “Gothic: Dark Glamour” (2008-09) and, co-curated with Fred Dennis, “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” (2013-14).
Meanwhile, elegant reassessments of received history—“Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion” (2008), “Ivy Style” (2012-13)—have become a hallmark of Patricia Mears, FIT deputy director. And Ms. Hill’s transporting hit of 2016, “Fairy Tale Fashion,” not only marked an inventive curatorial vision: Its moody mindscapes put a much-deserved focus on the architect Kimberly Ackert, who designs the museum’s Special Exhibitions.
Because so many of these shows were firsts in the field, I wish the curators had tooted the museum’s horn a bit more. Then again, the most exhibited piece here—seven outings!—stands as a kind of principle or paradigm. This is Norman Norell’s “Subway” ensemble, circa 1958, a plain camel coat, fit for a bus or subway ride, that opens to reveal a silk lining matched to a silk dress, both a-dazzle in gold sequins. It’s the brilliant opposite of exhibitionism.
—Ms. Jacobs writes about culture and fashion for the Journal.