Exhibition Visit: “In America – A Lexicon of Fashion”

Last week, I was fortunate enough to see the new Costume Institute exhibition at the Met, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion during a members only preview and I have some THOUGHTS. As you probably already know, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a yearly exhibition curated by the Costume Institute and Vogue magazine centered around fashion and art. This is of course the reason for the Met Gala as well which serves as the launch event for the exhibition. Normally, the Gala is the 1st Monday in May (and I would highly recommend this documentary if you want to know more), and the exhibition opens not long after. The Gala and exhibition from 2020 were both delayed until September of this year for obvious Covid reasons. Anyways, I was able to visit the show last week and I wanted to share that experience with you.

Let me start off by saying that this was not my first Costume Institute show. I was able to visit in 2016 for the Manus x Machina show as well as Camp in 2019. Both of these shows were in my top exhibitions of all time that I have seen so I went into In America with high expectations to say the least.

Of course, the clothing was absolutely incredible. This pink plaid number above was probably my favorite. It is always fun to see both historical pieces and contemporary ones juxtaposed in this space especially when the individual pieces are so unique and exquisitely made.

My main criticism with the exhibition was with the theme and curation or lack thereof in both cases. Let’s start with the theme: the whole concept was that each piece was a stand-alone garment that represented one square of a quilt that made up America and American fashion. So far, that sounds good right? The problem came with the complete lack of connection between those squares within the actual exhibition itself. The theme was explained in the introductory wall text when you first entered the exhibition. You then went down a flight of stairs to actually view the exhibition itself so there was huge disjunction between the thematic ideas and what you were actually viewing.

The theme itself I do not have a problem with and I think is actually a very interesting thematic concept for a fashion exhibition. I think maybe the problem was that the theme was too large to cover in this small exhibition so the curators weren’t really able to discuss anything. Once you came down the staircase and entered the main exhibition space, there were rows of these white cubes, each with its own piece displayed. Then, each mannequin had a single word above it that was supposed to somehow relate to the theme. These words were never truly explained and were never extrapolated on. The description of each piece discussed the designer in brief and what the actual item was. There was no further connection to the theme or the individual words. While I think it is valuable to sometimes have less text and encourage the viewer to make their own connections, the complete lack of text made this exhibition feel disjointed and almost random for the majority.

From here, my next issue was the actual physical organization of the space. One of my biggest pet peeves in any kind of museum exhibition is when there is not a clear path visitors are supposed to take so you never know if you are missing something or going the wrong way. Plus, I hate when you have to backtrack within a space to move on to the next section. Both of these aspect take away from the exhibition itself and encourage viewers to wander aimlessly, ignoring any and all curatorial decisions.

In this case, the whole exhibition was laid out in one large cube with a small adjoining room on one side. You entered in the middle of one of the cube sides and there were the white boxes along the full perimeter. Then, there were rows of white boxes in front of you. Each side of the cube and row went together as a sort of transition from one style into another or from the minimalist version of one style to its extreme. For example, one of the rows started with a fit and a flair wrap dress from the 1940s, transitioned into wrap dresses in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, moved to trench coat like wrap dresses, then went to trench coats in general, and ended with the sequined trench coat number above. While I didn’t necessarily follow all of the transitions, they were interesting. That was not the problem.

Because the rows were the full length of the gallery and had white boxes on both sides that were part of different transitions, you either had to back track through every row, looking at a different side each time. Or, you had to try and absorb both transitions as you went. You also had to do the sides of the cube completely separately to actually see the full transition without the interruption of other rows.

The transitions themselves I thought were very interesting as they showed change over time for some transitions or change between designers being inspired by similar things within American culture. But this was completely prevented for most people because of the illogical layout and the complete lack of explanation. Even as an art historian and fashion lover, it took me until I had completely finished my first side to realize these weren’t random designs lined up next to each other, but that they were supposed to be in conversation. Although, I still think that conversation (even if it was clear) does not fully connect to the theme as currently presented.

As least for me, this exhibition was a better luck next time show for me. What do you think?

-Taylor

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