Along a century and a half of style, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute delves deeply into the place of time—particularly the fluid, open nature of time—in fashion history from 1870 to the present. Opening this week in honor of the New York museum's 150th anniversary, and postponed from its annual opening at the start of spring due to COVID-19, About Time: Fashion and Duration discovers how the measure winds through visions of style—collapsing past, present and future into singular creativity.
French philosopher Henri Bergson's concept of la durée, or a “nonlinear duration,” guides the exhibition's vantage beyond the clock, illustrating just how the idea can reimagine our understanding of history. “Fashion is all about the here and now. Even if there are borrowings from the past, fashion is always located in the present,” Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of The Costume Institute, tells L’OFFICIEL. “When you walk through the exhibition, and you see the returns to the past, these are always emphatically located in the time in which they were created.”
Crafted by artist and stage designer Es Devlin, the showcase is devised as two adjacent galleries transformed into oversized clock faces. The spaces each represent 60 minutes of fashion, anchored by illuminated tick marks for every pair of clothing ensembles. The pieces shown are primarily black—with pops of white and red—to emphasize connections by shape, theme, material, or decoration. The visual presentation is “ghost narrated" by writer Virginia Woolf, whose sentiments are audible above classical music and the ticking hands of the clock, with quotes about time and timelessness.
While the first gallery shows a linear, continuous mode of attire, the second space is created as a hall of mirrors that juxtaposes pieces on an “alternative timeline." The space reveals a coexistence, rather than a succession of moments, in time past and present. “Even when fashion looks back on itself, it is always reflective of the times in which we live. More than any other art form, [fashion] is able to respond to the times quickly and accessibly,” says Bolton. “That is part of its power and why it is such a good barometer of culture. Fashion is about change, and in some aspects, ephemerality.”
Among the exhibition’s highlights are an 1880s walking dress and a Yohji Yamamoto gown with similar bustle contours, which was designed more than a century later. Then follows an exaggerated-sleeve garment of the era, presented with a complementary-shaped Comme des Garçons aughts ensemble. A classic '20s flapper dress is then shown alongside a resembling piece by John Galliano for Spring/Summer 1997. Hallmark styles—such as Chanel's Little Black Dress and tweed suit, as well as Yves Saint Laurent's "Le Smoking"—are presented with interpretations from over half a century after by Virgil Abloh, Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gaultier, respectively.
Inspired pairings continue with Christian Dior's ‘40s Bar jacket and Junya Watanabe’s update with moto styling for Fall/Winter 2011. Also, in a recent interpretation for Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière uses leather to modernize a piece that echoes a Cristóbal Balenciaga ‘50s dress. “As a designer, I have always looked to marry silhouettes, techniques, memories, and impressions from the past with the latest technology to create fashion for today that speaks to the future,” shares Ghesquière virtually from Paris. While bow-embellished designs by Madeleine Vionnet and Viktor & Rolf, as well as voluminous creations by Charles James and Iris Van Herpen, also signify the continuity of fashion’s old and new guard in a myriad of forms.
Style indeed connects to time, affecting history—as much as reflecting and predicting its turns. For the show's finale, a white gown from Viktor & Rolf’s Spring/Summer 2020 Haute Couture collection floats inside an airy infinity box. A direct response to fashion’s temporal acceleration, this piece is constructed from a patchwork of upcycled swatches and surrounded by a “tornado” of loose fabric fragments, symbolizing the future of fashion’s ideals.
“Since 2016, Viktor & Rolf have been making couture garments from surplus fabrics of past collections. Theirs is a very conscious creativity and this particular piece is made up of a series of swatches,” explains Bolton, who says the dress’ casting was intentional. “It’s really poetic because it references a pre-industrial aesthetic and apart from that, it references the idea of handcraft and labor. Because fashion reflects time so much, it also reflects a 24-7 need for instantaneity and immediacy. The production, circulation, and consumption of fashion have sped up so greatly and as a result, I felt the dress sends a positive message in terms of slightly slowing fashion down.”
Replete with conventional time, alternative measures, and interruptions that “fold” time into itself, the exhibition tells the story of fashion history as an ephemeral link. About Time reimagines the meter into a continuum that endures outside of chronology. And here, fashion is fixed squarely in the present, when and wherever that moment may find itself.
About Time: Fashion and Duration is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 29, 2020 until February 7, 2021.