The Met’s New Costume Institute Show Puts a Cinematic Spin on American Fashion, With a Little Help From Martin Scorsese

The show recruited leading film directors to create vignettes inside the Met's American period rooms.

Martin Scorsese's chic whodunnit in the Frank Lloyd Wright Room (courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

One feels the weight of history walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” The exhibition—the second and by far more dynamic chapter of a two-part show—opens with George Washington’s remarkably well-preserved inaugural coat standing at rigid attention affixed to a dress form.

George Washington’s coat. (courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Spread out in less pristine condition in a nearby case is the black custom Brooks Brothers’ “great coat” that Abraham Lincoln wore to his second inauguration—and on his final outing to the Ford Theater. One sleeve is completely detached. Stitched into the quilted lining is the prophesy, “One Country, One Destiny.”

The show isn’t always this heavy, nor does it veer into self-aggrandizing and jingoistic rah-rah. But one can’t tell the story of American clothing without also contending with the fraught history of the country itself—a task “In America” doesn’t shy away from. At the same time, the show allows itself to revel in the majesty, wonder, and escapism of fashion.

The First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, summed up the power of fashion when speaking to assembled press at yesterday morning’s preview. “We reveal and conceal who we are with symbols and shapes, colors and cuts, and who creates them,” she said. She was also well aware of the constraints fashion has upon the role of First Lady. “As the State of the Union approached, I knew the only thing that would be reported about me was what I was wearing,” she said. (At the Met, she wore a floral Tom Ford ensemble.)

The exhibition opens to the public this Saturday, May 7. But VIPs got a first peek during the Met Gala on Monday evening. The theme of the event, which raises the lion’s share of the budget for the Met Costume Institute each year, was “Gilded Glamour”—so there were shiny crowns, diadems, and tiaras galore.

The show itself is set in the Met’s American Wing period rooms, which serve as the stage for approximately 100 examples of men’s and women’s fashion from the 19th to the late 20th century. The museum recruited nine film directors—including Julie Dash, Chloé Zhao, Sofia Coppola, and Janicza Bravo—to create their own mise en scene.

Tom Ford's "The Battle of Versailles" plays out against the Vanderlyn Panorama (courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Tom Ford’s “The Battle of Versailles” plays out against the Vanderlyn Panorama (courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

For his contribution, fashion designer and auteur Tom Ford exuberantly distilled the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show where American upstarts were pitted against their French establishment  contemporaries. This disco death match is set in front of John Vanderlyn’s 1819 panorama of the palace. But nothing wholesome happens underneath a mirrored ceiling. Metallic mannequins decked out in Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta duke it out in freeze-frame with Saint Laurent and Ungaro.

Regina King’s takeover of the Richmond Room flipped the script of what one would expect in a 19th century Virginia parlor. Her tableau focused on Fannie Criss Payne, a dressmaker born in 1860 to former enslaved people. She is shown fitting a customer, “her stature suggesting power and command, expecting to be paid for her time,” King explains in the show notes.

Regina Hill reinterpreted the Richmond Room. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese envisioned the Frank Lloyd Wright drawing room as the setting for a noir epic, costumed in Charles James.

This portion of the show has everything the first part lacked: gravitas, cohesion, narrative, and focus. Opened last year and on display until September as well, “The Lexicon of Fashion” posed the question, what is an American designer? But it didn’t attempt to answer it. The overall effect was like stepping into a Uniqlo store in purgatory populated by white mannequins in anodyne glass cubes. Above the heads are cloying buzzwords, such as “Hope” and “Belonging.” And why were we looking at Fear of God’s 2021 beige sweatpants behind Plexiglass when we can get them on sale at The Real Real?

Chloe Zhao's austere Shaker Revival Room. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Chloe Zhao’s austere Shaker Revival Room. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For the sequel, the Met harnessed its institutional grandeur and star power, and managed to capitalize on what it does best: show the connections between art, design, and fashion in a way that enriches our understanding of all three. “An Anthology of Fashion” offers a magnificent journey that is at times escapist, but with a healthy dose of harsh reality around the corner.

“In America: An Anthology of Fashion” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through September 5, 2022. 

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