The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an institution that not only shapes the history of art but also the history of fashion, as becomes clear time the Met’s Costume Institute puts on exhibits in conjunction with the Met Gala.
The Met Gala has been split into two events these past two years, with the one in September was focused on the broad theme of American fashion, and the one in May on the Gilded Age. Accordingly, the Costume Institute put together two exhibits, the second of which, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” is now on view at the museum.
The typical displays—cases with materials related to key designers—are here complemented by expressive dioramas that showcase American fashion from the 19th century to the late 20th century, all set in different period rooms in the American Wing. To craft these cinematic vignettes, nine renowned directors were brought on: Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Sofia Coppola, Julie Dash, Tom Ford, Regina King, Martin Scorsese, Chloé Zhao, and Autumn de Wilde.
Each diorama exhibits not only the development of a key influence of American fashion but each filmmaker’s view of this area of history.
Blank, whose 2020 directorial debut The Forty-Year-Old Version won her an award at the Sundance Film Festival, created the most stylized room of the nine directors. A placard explains that the clothes we see in her space were designed by the Boston-based Maria Hollander, who was active in the late 1800s and who used her success to support abolition efforts and women’s rights. But in her artistic statement, Blank makes clear that Hollander’s success was something made possible by Black women, who she writes are “often uncredited as cultural weavers of the fabric of this country.”
A projection of a Black woman’s hands shines on the folds of a Hollander dress. The mannequin also sports a long, beaded headpiece woven with the words “We Good, Thx!,” an assertion that the Black community needs no white saviors.
The other scenes included were not as challenging. Some were even a bit boring.
Sofia Coppola’s diorama in the McKim, Mead and White Stair Hall and Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room lacked a sense of narrative tension as the detailed yet vacant mannequins were plopped around the dim, dark wood interiors.
If it seems unfair to ask for vividness or character from a mannequin, Chloé Zhao’s installation shows how they can be made animated and energetic. Zhao, whose 2020 film Nomadland won the Academy Award for Best Picture, was given a Shaker retiring room from the 1830s, in which she staged a scene of ecstatic religious contemplation. In a spare room, a golden, slanting light comes in through a set of windows as the women sit in prayer. All but one of the women are unaware of a floating apparition in the middle of the room, who the audience takes to be the female second coming of Christ that the Shaker’s believed in. The modernity and mysticism of the religion and period leaves a stunning impression, simply sublime.