Take the Costume Institute’s permanent galleries in the basement of the Met, where garments are displayed in dimly lit glass cases lining the walls. Visitors can see each object only from a single angle. But clothes, like sculpture, are three-dimensional art. An evening gown’s plunging back may contrast with a modest front—think of Hilary Swank’s dress at the 2005 Oscars—but you can’t appreciate the relationship if you can see only one side. No wonder the recent exhibition of the late socialite Nan Kempner’s extraordinary wardrobe seemed less like an art retrospective than a series of crowded shop windows, a tribute less to Yves Saint Laurent’s or Madame Grès’ work than to Kempner’s buying power.
Elsewhere curators have mostly dispensed with the glass, relying on decorum and guards to keep corrosive fingers off the clothes. The result is a much fuller experience of the art. “If it is lit well, you can really see the details, and you can see the surface and hand of the fabric,” says Steele. No photograph can adequately convey the cascades of seemingly weightless pinked ruffles and the precise yet delicate pleats of the Rodarte evening gown on display in Phoenix. Like an impressionist painting, it has to be seen firsthand.
The best of fashion, like the best of fine art, offers not only nuance to the connoisseur but also immediate pleasure to the uninitiated. The familiarity of clothes makes fashion exhibits accessible, but that very familiarity also highlights the difference between daily dress and museum-quality garments. “At the time when people are getting fatter and dressing more casually than ever before—jeans at the opera!—there is an increase in interest in very fashionable dress,” notes Sewell, the Phoenix curator.
The challenge for fashion curators is to balance aesthetics and history, pleasure and meaning. The Met’s 2001 exhibit of Jackie Kennedy’s White House wardrobe was wildly popular, but it made little sense in a museum dedicated to aesthetic masterworks. Kennedy’s clothes were derivative of French fashions, interesting for what they reveal about the first lady’s self-conscious image-building but not for any fashion innovation. They belonged in a history museum.
If museums treat fashion purely as art for art’s sake, however, they risk draining the medium of what makes it distinctive and meaningful—not only its aesthetic elements but its connection to history and the human body. Fashion is, as Steele has insisted since she was a Yale doctoral student, a part of cultural history, and the relationship goes both ways. No history of business or chemistry explains the appeal of aniline dyes as powerfully as coming upon the 1860 purple-and-black striped dress in FIT’s current exhibition on color in fashion. (One of FIT’s two exhibitions is always historical, for the benefit of fashion students.)
Three years ago, the Met’s “Dangerous Liaisons” exhibit showcased 18th-century costumes in the museum’s period rooms, creating dramatic vignettes of mannequins socializing in naturalistic poses. The clothes were not only beautiful but, shown in their physical and social context, culturally understandable despite their extreme artifice. The clothes, furniture, and interior design became not just displays of luxury and handcraft but tools for seduction and self-expression, relating the unfamiliar setting to universal human behaviors. Emphasizing romantic intrigue, says Harold Koda, the Costume Institute’s curator in charge, “is a way in which one can get a contemporary audience to look at 18th-century dress that doesn’t look like Cinderella.”
Great fashion, like any museum-worthy art, is both timeless and time-bound, recalling the tension between the classic claims of art and the work’s origin in a specific time and place. As Steele says: “We are trying to convey the story of fashion, the appeal of fashion, the experience of fashion. Fashion is about change. It is about changing silhouettes, and it is about new ways of presenting yourself to the world.” It is, in short, an ideal art form for modern times.