Met’s new costume exhibit showcases ‘Masterworks’ in fashion

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has for decades championed the idea of fashion as art and a marker of cultural history.

Its latest exhibition, “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” presents 60 works the institute has acquired over the past decade and encompasses fashion from the 18th century to today. Chief curator Andrew Bolton defines these “masterworks” as “iconic pieces that both reflect the evolution and artistry of fashion.”

Speaking at a recent media preview, he explained the exhibition “reflects a broader mission to present costume as a living art, that interprets history [and] becomes part of the historical process.”

Adding to Bolton’s sentiment, curator Jessica Regan said that each item on display “stands as a vivid expression of its time, and together they reveal how the criteria for defining a fashion masterwork shifts depending on the era of its creation.”

In the 18th century, fashion’s focus was on “fine textiles and surface embellishments,” Regan said, while items from the 19th century display the technological changes in the textile industry, producing sophisticated finishing techniques.

An embroidered ball gown by House of Worth illustrates this advancement, with intricately embroidered butterflies embellished with rhinestones and metal. The garment is part of the costume collection the Met received from the Brooklyn Museum in 2009.

Twentieth century works and contemporary items have been selected with the criteria that they “move fashion forward and represent different ways of thinking about dress,” Regan said. Yves Saint Laurent’s 1960 street-inspired jacket and Issey Miyake’s plastic bustier are among the items showcased.

The exhibition also gives a nod to former chief curator Harold Koda, who retired in January. A number of works on display were gifted to the museum by designers in his honor.

Taken as a whole, the exhibit vividly illustrates the ways fashion can tell a story every bit as rich and complex as any work of art.