About 30 years ago I attended an exhibition of corsets at a great costume collection in Manchester, England. In a dim room were gathered a dozen elegant undergarments, each in its own glass case, and each accompanied by at least three paragraphs of scholarly labeling about materials, structure, and shape.
Chosen from a collection of hundreds of corsets, these garments dated only from the second quarter of the 18th century. They were masterpieces of delicate craftsmanship; no two were exactly the same. Looking at them was like looking at ancient Etruscan bronzes or Renaissance enameled boxes. But it was also like a private showing: Nobody else was there. In those days, “costume” was dear only to a few obsessed antiquarians, with no connection to the mad scuffle of fashion in real life. A show back then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute might have displayed a tired ecclesiastical vestment from 17th-century Spain or a stiffly embroidered linen nightcap looking inert and inscrutable.
No longer. The current Costume Institute show, “Our New Clothes: Acquisitions of the 1990s,” vibrates with modern energy. Under curator Richard Martin’s direction, fashions of the moment resonate backward into the past, and the modes of olden days awaken to new life next to their modern revisions. Martin also succeeded in intermingling history and the present day in an earlier show called “The Ceaseless Century,” by which he meant the 18th.
There were reasons for picking that century. Chic outfits in good condition date back only as far as about 1700, or maybe a little before that. Except for bits and pieces, no gorgeous suits from Shakespeare’s day survive, no gold-bordered gowns from Mona Lisa’s wardrobe, none of King Richard III’s rich doublets fitted to his humpback. The dazzling styles of the distant past live only in pictures.
A fashion designer can put old imagery to use. But a museum collector needs history in material form, the better to display its links with the productions of more recent ateliers. The earliest and most magnificent item in the current show is a bright salmon-pink English lady’s ensemble from 1708, made of silk damask brocaded in bold patterns with multicolored silk floss and metallic thread. The strong color and buoyant presence of this ornate dress command our attention; the dress has no mustiness at all. Another, French, ensemble from around 1760, all in canary-yellow silk taffeta, self-trimmed in miles of applied pleated ruffles, creates a similar effect. These dramatic dresses easily compete in intensity or sensationalism with the vivid works by Issey Miyake and Alix Grés nearby.
Some 18th-century men’s outfits are equally bold, especially a French coat dated between 1787-92–which is to say, just at the Revolutionary moment. This lean, unadorned, high-collared garment in plain fire-engine-red wool contrasts wonderfully with a peach velvet and green satin coat-and-waistcoat men’s ensemble from about 1765, its cuffs and vest covered with embroideries, its buttons glittering with paste diamonds. The latter was made at a time when the king’s head was still on, and refined elegance could still relax and keep refining. A bright blue checked linen tailcoat from America dated around 1815, neat and tight fitting with self-covered buttons, is a nice contrast to both of these. Its summery simplicity suggests fresh American artlessness and love of convenience.
T he antique menswear in this show has a clarity of line and color that claims an affinity with the surges of invention in men’s clothes right now. There’s Tom Ford’s red velvet suit from his 1996-97 winter collection, displayed next to the red wool French Revolutionary coat: Its old-fashioned 1970s redness sets up vibrations with older-fashioned 1790s redness, and both look timely. A brotherhood of male expression communicates across time, and we start to imagine the red coats of the future. Jean-Paul Gaultier, of course, has already begun (after all, this is the only designer who has repeatedly offered skirts for men). Gaultier’s dark red and white man’s jacket in silk-and-rayon twill has a modern classical shape, but it’s printed with variably modulated stripes that form the vision of a nude Greek classical torso, complete with arms and thighs. At the groin, the two sides of the jacket discreetly curve apart to unveil the wearer’s own black-trouser-clad crotch.
Numerous white dresses are gathered in a group. The earliest is another French 18th-century damask ensemble. It’s in ivory and dates from 1770, and its flavor and trimmings are consciously echoed by an American wedding dress from about 1880. The intervening snowy marvels are in cotton–crisp and vigorous, or frothy and delicate–followed by the modern silky columns that cling, fall, or drape in unexpected ways. The possibilities of feminine white turn out to be infinite, to mirror any emotional and erotic nuance in the souls of women for three centuries.
The exhibit made me hope that the fashion of the future will be all the more liberated for seeking its sources in the liberties of the past. But the show made me realize something else as well: that our present clothes are already museum pieces. The largest change in fashion since 1968 has been an immense new consciousness of what clothes mean, so that people have got used to thinking about what their own outfits “say.” By bringing together old and new, this exhibition encourages that habit of looking for significance in our own garments. While we stare with detached sociological attention at the garb of generations who lived in complex past times, we’re invited to stare the same way at contemporary modes, to see them as the historical artifacts of our own fraught epoch. And the gulf between Those Days and These, once unbridgeable, starts to disappear.