For this edition of Sunday Things, I’ve battled the museum crowds so you don’t have to, to bring you deets on vintage gowns, crowns and angel wings. Each year, the glitz of the Met Gala ushers in the Costume Institute at the Met Museum’s annual exhibition, which is in addition to the other displays and resources available at the Institute. Underscored by the premise of fashion as art, each year’s exhibition is shaped by a theme. The first installation I attended was China: Through The Looking Glass in 2015. After seeing the singer Rihanna in that unforgettable yellow Guo Pei gown at that year’s Met Gala, a striking, fox-fur piece complete with sixteen-foot train, attending 2015’s exhibition was a must. Rihanna’s 2015 gown was Created by Chinese designer Guo Pei, a designer for more that three decades, largely unknown outside her native country.
I have fond standouts from China: Through The Looking Glass, the vintage perfume bottles, some in delicious red lacquer vessels while others were in jade green flacons. My other favourite element of that year’s exhibition were the snippets of vintage films playing on a loop in specific areas. One of the film clips was Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000). I still regard it as one of the most epic works on film and if you’ve never seen it nor heard of it, I implore you to use part of a lazy Sunday to have a look. The cinematography and costuming are beautifully matched to the film’s premise while being a wonderland of colour, emotion and design. As it happened, Wong Kar-Wai served as the artistic director for that year’s exhibition. Sadly, I was unable to recover the photographs I took during my visit.
Then came 2016’s exhibition, Manus x Machina: Fashion in An Age Of Technology, replete with classic two-piece skirt suits from Chanel along with other frothy, lacy creations from Iris van Herpen, Nicolas Ghesquiere, Miuccia Prada and Christopher Kane. Manus x Machina brought forward design developments that didn’t solely rely on hand labour. Instead, it showcased creations boasting a mix of hand work and machine work, thus the title Manus x Machina, with manus representing the hand and machina, machines.
At these exhibitions, you’re only permitted to get but so close to the designs. But I enjoy seeing couture pieces in real time, especially the vintage gowns, the embroidery, feather appliques, pailettes, pleating and dentellerie (lace work). It makes you realise that the price of a couture gown is not arrived at on a whim.
2017 saw Rei Kawakubo’s Commes des Garçons as that year’s exhibition theme. Admittedly, it was not my favourite but gaining a greater understanding of Kawakubo’s body of work was worthwhile. Similar to the fate of the photographs I took in 2015, I can no longer locate the ones I took during this exhibition, which is regrettable since we were able to get closer for this one. Plus, the ability to get closer diminished the feeling of being removed and the sense of illusion. Nonetheless, Commes des Garçons produce impeccable leather goods of an especially high quality, a fact that I can personally attest to.
Honestly, many of these exhibitions feel like illusions, especially since there’s usually a barrier between the exhibited pieces and us, the attendees. I suppose it’s a way to reinforce the feeling that one has stepped into a capsule containing prized objects and various works of art of all styles, from antiquity to now. So attending these exhibitions almost forces one to go slower, to pause, gaze and ponder.
Which leads me to 2018’s installation, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and The Catholic Imagination, complete with angel wings and true bejewelled crowns. Walking into the Metropolitan Museum, once you’ve cleared the throngs in the ticketing and information area and you’ve taken your first few steps into the exhibition space, the sound changes, similar to when the human noise on an aircraft fades away, right as the nose of the plane lifts of the ground and you feel that first ascendant lurch. And so, when I saw the first few pieces of Heavenly Bodies, especially the portion where photography was prohibited, seeing the hand-embroidered yards of pure silk stitched with canonical letters and symbols spread out and cordoned off, it reinforced the fact that as much as religion is supposed to be open to anyone, there are aspects that are impenetrable and dare I say, problematic?
The designers featured in Heavenly Bodies were mostly raised in the Catholic faith, and seeing the extent to which their designs were informed by official Catholic Church vestments was astounding. But also, from seeing
embroidered papal shoes, to the jewels used in Pius IX’s head wear to the two gowns below from Jeanne Lanvin and the adorning angel wings, one senses a sort of tension running through all of it.
Heavenly Bodies had a greater scope because it took up more floor space of The Met and also because some of it was also staged at The Cloisters, which is located in the upper part of Manhattan. While I didn’t attend The Cloisters portion of the exhibit, I was superficially satisfied with what I witnessed in the main museum.
Prior to attending Heavenly Bodies, the only co-relation I ever drew between official Catholic vestments and fashion was when I thought back on the speculation surrounding the makers of former Pope Benedict’s red loafers. And I suppose the only other instance was fervently scouring the internet to determine the costume designer behind Jude Law’s papal wardrobe in The Young Pope, a television series that seemed to have a wider audience in Europe but was also shown on HBO. As an aside, I highly recommend a watch if it’s still available because the costuming, set design and locations were dazzling, plus I found it to be exquisitely written. While Jude Law was compelling in the series, I was more transfixed by the Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who portrayed the character Cardinal Voiello. Diane Keaton was also a key character as Sister Mary, the nun who looked after Jude Law’s character Pope Pius XIII as a young boy and remained at his side as he grappled with his role in the church.
Once I had time to reflect on Heavenly Bodies, I felt a bit conflicted. But I was not alone in that feeling as the exhibition drew some controversy in the wider public, something I’m sure the organisers realised was inevitable. Conversely, it has turned out to be the most attended special exhibition at the Met in a number of years. I attended on two occasions and struggled to ‘accept’ its full implications and symbolism easily. But I suppose that’s part of the idea, no matter the theme. I’m already looking forward to next year’s exhibition, which we already know won’t necessarily be vintage gowns, crowns and angel wings but surely it will excite.
Have you been to any of these exhibitions or something similar and if so, where did it take your perception?