This should have been a banner week for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Costume Institute would have kicked off another sure-to-be-blockbuster fashion exhibit, About Time: Fashion and Duration, with the Met Gala on Monday, and the ensuing water-cooler chatter about the wildest fashions would have continued at least through the following day. Chalk up yet another victim of the coronavirus pandemic. (Vogue did host a virtual Met Gala live-streamed on YouTube, but of course, it wasn’t the same without the mouthwatering red-carpet looks.) Also on Monday, though, the Met announced that About Time would still be happening, with the opening date moved to October 29. So fashion mavens will at least have something to look forward to once the worst of this global health crisis has passed.
So why discuss an exhibit that people won’t be able to see until months from now? Well, for one thing, the premise of About Time feels strangely timely in the era of the coronavirus quarantine. Described by the Met as a historical survey that “will explore how clothes generate temporal associations that conflate past, present, and future,” the exhibit—judging by the 12-minute preview video the Met released yesterday in addition to the copy on its webpage—will pair past and present garments together to suggest recurring fashion design trends throughout history. The more things change, the more things stay the same? Perhaps not so much as the fact that even art history tends to repeat itself, with some variations, the way history tends to operate in the wider world.
This truth can’t help but resonate during a period when, for most of us, time seems to be standing still as we’re forced to wait out a pandemic raging outside our homes. For About Time, curator Andrew Bolton has also wrapped these fashion pairings around the words of Virginia Woolf, with time-related quotations from writings like Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and more offering what the Met calls a “ghost narration” for the show (you can check out a representative sample of quotes here). It’s especially poignant to see these words written by Woolf in her 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography: “The mind of man…works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour maybe accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.” Has it really been “only” a month and a half since many of us began our quarantines in earnest? Time may remain constant, but our perception of it is constantly shifting.
Even more poignant, though, is the idea of even considering fashion in a time when thinking about such a thing can’t help but seem trivial. And yet, ever since its early days in 1937, when it was known as the Museum of Costume Art, the Costume Institute has done more than most organizations to transform people’s ideas of the artistic possibilities of fashion. I still vividly remember the sense of awe I felt back in 2011 when I braved a long line in the second-to-last week of the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit and found my previously fashion-backward mind thoroughly blown by the late British fashion designer’s darkly whimsical, seductively baroque creations. Having never even considered the possibility of fashion being a potential avenue for an artist to express their distinctive vision, the exhibit left a lasting impression on me, as did subsequent Costume Institute shows like the explorations of the influence of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion in China: Through the Looking Glass (2015); the pairings of divinity and divinely inspired wear in Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination (2018); and the revelatory historical context offered to the proudly gaudy, over-the-top clothes and accessories displayed in last year’s Camp: Notes on Fashion.
Fashion as personal expression: surely not something many people are thinking about while stuck at home right now, because who else will see or care what you’re wearing? And yet, as quarantine drags on, I’ve found myself dressing up more and more—for Zoom calls, for quick outside trips to the grocery store, even for just the occasional gratuitous (but potentially empowering) Instagram selfie. These days, fashion isn’t just an indulgence, but a marker of a sense of normalcy, a reminder of what we’ll be able to reclaim in a hopefully brighter future. Clothing is what makes us feel human in a time when one may be feeling less than that while imprisoned in our respective homes. It may be disappointing that we won’t be seeing a new Costume Institute exhibit at the Met for a few more months, but the hope for recapturing an aspect of our daily lives that gives our existence boundless color is surely something to hold onto until then.
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