RUNWAY: May might as well be called Met Month in fashion. The Met Gala, introducing “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” the second part of the Costume Institute’s exhibition on homegrown style, will take place on May 2. Later in the month the catalog for the first part, “In America: A Lexicon of Style” (Yale University Press), will be released.
The organizing framework for “In America: A Lexicon of Style,” which opened in 2021 and was recently refreshed, is an American patchwork quilt, an object that’s both wondrous and humble, and combines art and thriftiness. The design of the exhibition and the catalog—of which you’re getting a sneak peek here—is straightforward and compartmentalized, allowing the clothes to speak for themselves and contain their own narratives.
Anna-Marie Kellen, associate chief photographer in the Met’s Imaging Department, has photographed selected looks from “Lexicon” on unadorned mannequins, in a way that highlights the objectness and construction of the garments. They are then contextualized by the words that Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, and assistant curator Amanda Garfinkel, have assigned to each look.
Over the past two years of COVID and protests, it’s become clear that how we talk about things, and what words we use, really do matter. The idea of “Lexicon” was first to identify the overarching feelings evoked by American fashion—like nostalgia, belonging, exuberance, joy, etc.—and then group designs into each category. Next, each look was assigned a single, expressive word. The cover of the catalog features a hand-painted sunset by Conner Ives, which they designated as an example of “reverence;” Stephen Burrows’s colorful, body-loving jersey knits are synonymous with “vibrancy.”
“While curators usually strive for a certain level of objectivity in their endeavors,” Bolton writes in the catalog, “we felt justified on this occasion to indulge in such a subjective exercise, given that our aim was to arrive at a modern vocabulary of American fashion based on its expressive qualities. Fashion is so familiar, so accessible, and so ubiquitous to our experience that it is open to a wide range of interpretations.” His hope is that visitors and readers will further expand the vocabulary around American fashion.
When the Costume Institute was founded 75 years ago, American fashion was just beginning to define itself as a native expression, rather than as an interpretation of Parisian styles. Over time, U.S. fashions became associated not only with sportswear and separates, but qualities like practicality and function, and, notes Bolton, the emotive aspects of fashion were assigned to European creation. The curator believes this is an outmoded way of thinking about American fashion and its creators, many of whom are passionately involved with the issues of the day, such as sustainability, gender, and social justice.
Paging through, it’s interesting to observe the different kinds of conversations taking place in “Lexicon.” If Bonnie Cashin’s hands-free dressing and Diane von Furstenberg’s easy-on-easy-off wrap dressed spoke to the lifestyle and needs of the liberated American woman—a relatively “light” subject—the work of a new and vastly more diverse generation of designers that includes Willy Chavarria and Denim Tears’s Tremaine Emory, speaks to weightier topics, acknowledging the historical and personal experiences of Black and brown Americans, while looking to the future, or commenting on current events.
The catalog and exhibition include examples of designers talking among themselves, as well. See Tom Ford’s homage to Charles James’s draping, and Michael Kors’s and Marc Jacobs’s nods to Norman Norell’s sequined mermaid dresses. There is also a dialogue within fashion history. The aesthetics of the early aughts are all the rage at the moment, but “Lexicon” documents the impact of the art-ier New York brands of that era—including Susan Cianciolo, Miguel Adrover, Imitation of Christ, and Threeasfour—who can now be appreciated not only for being “different,” but also prescient. Their independent voices helped start a conversation that others are continuing, and broadening, today.