‘About Time: Fashion and Duration’ Examines Enduring Styles Since The Met Was Founded

“About Time: Fashion and Duration” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute seems somehow fated.

Thursday’s official opening was bumped from early May, due to the museum’s months-long closure due to the coronavirus. First and foremost, “About Time” is a celebration of The Met’s 150th anniversary, and the endurance of fashion. But the coronavirus has given the theme greater relevance and resonance, as much of the world has grown to look at the passage, or shiftlessness, of time so differently as they slog or stride through the pandemic.

During a preview Saturday afternoon, Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu curator in charge at the Costume Institute, said museum-goers may now be more inclined to look at the show and see what has endured and how that has happened, whether that be in regards to a sleeve, the chemise or the bustle. “The time of the mind is very different from the time of the clock. That is what I thought a lot about, especially in lockdown,” Bolton said.

One of the starting points for the show was the fact that world standardized time was created in the same decade that The Met was founded.

The show’s layout is structured around the sparring concepts of temporality by Henri Bergson and Charles Baudelaire, who coined the term “modernity” and considered fashion to be the hallmark of it, Bolton said. Bergson introduced the concept of pure duration in 1889, believing the past and present coexist in a continuous flow. Baudelaire’s view was the past and present are divisible, with the present succeeding the past.

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Set up to reflect 60 minutes of fashion, there are 60 groupings of two ensembles each. Baudelaire’s temporality is presented as a linear, chronological timeline of those fashions from 1870 to the present day, drenched in black to accentuate their silhouettes and the timelessness of fashion progression. Bergson’s temporality consists of 60 interruptions or disruptions that predate or post-date those in the Baudelaire timeline, but often reflect shapes, materials, techniques and decorations that illustrate Bergson’s notion of endurance. Each “minute” has one ensemble reflecting the Baudelaire timeline and a second disruptor ensemble representative of the Bergson one. Black index notches on the bottom edges relate to the Baudelaire timeline and those on the top edge show the Bergson one. What time is it?

The first gallery is dark and somber with the pendulum of an Es Devlin-designed clock suspended and swinging from the ceiling. The white-walled second gallery is covered with mirrors that create a kaleidoscopic look of enduring designer fashion or perhaps a reflection of fast fashion.

Acknowledging how the pandemic has heightened the “About Time” theme, Bolton said the fashion industry has always been driven by time and the exhibit is a way of slowing things down. “Fashion is reflecting this accelerated pace of time with technology and everything being so digitally connected 24/7. But fashion has reflected this need for immediacy and instantaneousness [for a while]. The production of fashion has had to speed up, the circulation of fashion has turned up and the consumption has sped up so some of this is about slowing down,” Bolton said.

With that, he exited the multimirrored second gallery and its innumerable reflections of the garments on display and turned a corner to the finale look — a white Viktor & Rolf made from swatches collected over the years. The design is a nod to sustainability, noting how their couture collections for the past four years have been comprised of surplus fabrics. “I love the simplicity of it. The silhouette suggests a pre-modern year. But apart from that, the act of quilt making and patchwork is about shared labor, community and collaboration. It’s an example of conscious creativity and the need to slow things down,” Bolton said.

An American mourning dress from 1870 the first item visitors will see in the show might do the trick. The choice appears to be a double entendre, given the current tumult worldwide. The elaborate dress is displayed in profile to show its raised-waist, floor-length skirt and bustle. It is exhibited with a 1939 Elsa Schiaparelli black felt evening dress, her then-updated take on the bustle. One of Bolton’s favorite pairings is an American afternoon dress from 1876 paired with Alexander McQueen’s bumster skirt that gives a new twist on the process line. Charles Frederick Worth first designed it for Princess Alexandra of Denmark.

Cristóbal Balenciaga, Jonathan Anderson, Iris van Herpen, Rudi Gernreich, Boué Soeurs, Norman Norrell, Malcolm McLaren, Jun Takahashi, Rei Kawakubo, Marc Jacobs, Gianni Versace, Issey Miyake, Charles James, Georgina Godley, Gabrielle Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Thom Browne, Kei Ninomiya and Olivier Rousteing are among the designers featured in the show. While some may see a what’s-old-is-new undercurrent or direct design inspiration, Bolton said the show is more about endurance and portraying connections over time such as how the bow motif has endured. Ditto for deconstruction, which the Punk movement created in the Seventies. “It’s about the recirculation of ideas, and the reappropriation of ideas. That’s what the tensions are trying to tease out with the timeline,” he said.

Walking through the exhibit, “what needs to be reflected on is fashion’s dominant ideologies like change, power, class, whiteness. They all need to be addressed, and this is a time when we can do that and have mad ideas,“ Bolton said. “Why doesn’t fashion week happen in one city every year like the Olympic Games? It could be Johannesburg one year that celebrates fashion, rejuvenates a city and decentralizes fashion, and decolonizes fashion obviously. It’s a time to think radically and thoughtfully. What you don’t want to do is think rashly and think quickly. You don’t want to replace one bias with another bias. It’s time for radical change but thoughtful change.”

Referring to the choice of black as the exhibit’s predominant color, he said, “The color black has so many connotations of authority and power, but also chicness and elegance. It’s a meditation on the color black, and also on fashion and temporality.” It’s also appropriate. “Can you imagine if we did ‘Camp’ this year? It would have been a disaster,” Bolton said with a laugh, referring to last year’s Costume Institute exhibit. “This show has a quietness, a reflective and contemplative quality that the show certainly helps with.”

After Black Lives Matter gained momentum, Bolton reconsidered the curation and added more styles from Black designers. The initial plan had been to select iconic pieces or the most quintessential silhouette of a specific period on a timeline. “I wasn’t thinking about race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. I was really looking at it purely aesthetically. Black Lives Matter made me realize it can’t not be. When you work on any show going forward, it has to be part of your intellectual framework. It has benefited the show tremendously,” Bolton said.

He was “thrilled” to add an ensemble from Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver. “Shayne’s tricky to get a hold of because he’s such an independent thinker. He has so many interests. We’ve tried to work with Shayne in the past and his interests have been elsewhere. It’s been lovely to work with him,” Bolton said.

A Stephen Burrows black dress with lettuce edging in red top stitching was another addition after Bolton found it on 1stdibs last summer. Another non-museum find that is displayed is a Patrick Kelly dress that is embellished with a heart-shaped motif. That one was procured on Etsy. The Met has pieces from Burrows and Kelly. However, major museums have been criticized for their limited archival work from Black designers.

Off-White’s Virgil Abloh was part of the initial roster for the Louis Vuitton-sponsored show. A long-sleeved black dress imprinted with “Little Black Dress” in white lettering that he designed is presented with one from Coco Chanel.

Working from home last spring had its challenges, since using the museum’s database doesn’t give you a sense of proportions or color, Bolton said. Being homebound had upsides, too. “It allowed me to respond to current events, which I would have never done otherwise. That’s been a huge plus,” he said.

The antithesis of that may be Bertha Black Lewry’s 1943 dinner suit that was re-created from a man’s tailcoat suit from 1929. The repurposing was done in response to the U.S. restrictions on textiles at that time and Harper’s Bazaar tasked the designer with the repurposing challenge. Lewry’s look is partnered with a Martin Margiela broadcloth and silk satin jacket from 2000. Nearby, another type of fashion endurance is on view — a Madame Grès gown that a client commissioned, after visiting her in Paris during the war to reassure her that couture was thriving. As fashion shifts more to sustainability, longevity is a key aspect, Bolton said.

Eighty-five percent of the items are from the museum’s permanent collection, more than 10 percent were gifts from designers in honor of The Met’s anniversary and there were a few loaners, such as a Saint Laurent “Broken Mirrors” evening jacket that paid homage to the one Schiaparelli created decades earlier, using panes from hand mirrors that evoked Versailles’ “Hall of Mirrors.”

The Met, like many global cultural institutions, is dealing with significant economic challenges after months of being closed. It reopened two months ago with advanced ticketing and 25 percent of its normal capacity. A number of visitors were milling around the second floor on Saturday afternoon but weekday traffic is said to be more sparse. While “About Time’s“ opening was postponed for five months, The Met Gala was canceled altogether this year. Already at work on next year’s Costume Institute show, Bolton had to juggle his time between that and “About Time.”

Wall text has intentionally been kept to a minimum and printed guides are obsolete due to COVID-19. For the first time, visitors can use a QR code to access a body of text on their smartphones that can also be read before or after.

Knowing travel restrictions and health concerns will keep many would-be visitors from walking through The Met’s Fifth Avenue doors, a video has been created of the exhibit for its site. There are other digital and audio additions. Upon entering “About Time,” visitors will hear Nicole Kidman’s voice hauntingly reading from Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando.” Woolf serves as the ghost narrator with time-centered quotes from her books featured throughout the show. The author’s changing view of time from the chronological to one centered on inner duration is what Bolton would like gallery-goers to leave with.

Kidman isn’t the only Oscar-winning actress, who lent her voice to the museum. Her costars from “The Hours” Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore also chimed in. After cooking up the idea to pipe into the galleries Philip Glass’ music from the film, Bolton wondered if the three lead actresses would be game. Streep was the first to oblige, recording her reading in her kitchen with a clock ticking in the background. Nervous about getting Kidman and Moore, who were busy on location with projects, Bolton said. “It was Meryl, who said, ‘Why don’t you ask them to record it into their iPhones? It will be easier for them and they won’t have to go to a recording studio.’ That’s how they did it. That’s what you’re hearing. So, thanks Meryl.”

Another stroke of synergy came from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Cunningham, who penned a short story titled “Out of Time” for the “About Time” catalogue. His book “The Hours” inspired the film.

Not everything ran like clockwork, though: Bolton had wanted to stage the exhibit as a maze and lined up Es Devlin, the artist and lighting designer, to design one. After word came back that the fire department would not approve, Bolton decided to do a clock instead and Devlin scrapped the maze model and went to work.

If the literal ticking of her clock feels a little like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” that’s not by chance. “Standardized time is so connected to the ideology of modernity, which ‘Metropolis’ is all about. Fashion, to me, is the purest expression of modernity, and ephemerality, change and progress. More than any other art form, fashion is able to turn so quickly. That’s what’s so nice to walk around it [the pendulum] — you see emphatically the Fifties, the Thirties, the Twenties. It just takes you right there.”

Sometimes revisiting the past is not well-received. Although John Galliano, who remains a controversial figure in fashion, is one of the few featured designers to have more than one selection, Bolton said he wasn’t concerned. “If you look at John’s work from the Nineties, his Masai or Orient Express collections for Dior, the cultural appropriations read so different now. I was looking at the coverage of John’s work during that period. There was not one mention of cultural appropriation, whereas now that would be a story.”

Describing Galliano as “a technical genius,” Bolton is interested in doing an exhibit that looks back at designers’ approaches to controversial collections as well as people’s reception. Galliano’s personal actions have also made him controversial, namely due to a videotaped anti-Semitic rant for which he was sentenced in France and later apologized for.

Bolton said, “It’s hard because you could go through the whole museum and look at artists’ [work] with controversial backgrounds or issues. I think what we have to do is perhaps to play it forward to address them all and contextualize them all. I am not a great fan of taking things out of history. I’d much rather have an exhibit and address issues. If we are able to have an exhibit down the line and globally, I do think that’s important, for sure.”

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