With Help From Animation, AI, and an Olfactory Artist, “Sleeping Beauties”

by | Apr 18, 2024 | Photo

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Elizabeth Debicki wears a dress from Marni’s spring 2024 collection. In his invitation to the runway show, the house’s creative director, Francesco Risso, described encountering a fragrance in Paris that he longed one day to smell again. “Sleeping Beauties” revels in such quests, recapturing the look, feel, sound, and even the scent of garments from The Costume Institute’s collection.
Fashion Editor: Amanda Harlech. Photographed by Steven Meisel, Vogue, May 2024.

With Help From Animation, AI, and an Olfactory Artist, “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” Is Bringing Rarely Seen Pieces to Life

VOGUE MAGAZINE: On the avenue today before The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is frosty, with a selection of clothing that reflects the weather—pedestrians are hastening by with scarves and tweed coats drawn to their chins. But soon the rush of passing garments will change. In the spring, when the trees of Central Park grow fragrant and the asphalt warms, people wearing dresses in soft fabrics will pass scatterings of tourists out on the museum steps. At the start of May, a red carpet will draw up the staircase, and guests dressed for the Met Gala will catch camera flashes on their way inside. By tradition, that will be high fashion’s brightest moment, when an outfit and a personality bring each other most entirely to life. Then the attendees will enter the museum, where, most years, they would tour an exhibition of historic dresses whose wearers are long vanished, and whose fabrics are now frozen in place.

“It’s something we always struggle with—that, once a garment comes into the museum, a lot of the sensorial experiences that we take for granted with clothing are lost,” Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge at the Costume Institute, explains this morning, over tea, in a dimly lit conference room inside The Met. Photographs of more than 50 clothing items are pinned to the wall. “The positive part of it is that we’re custodians of the clothing, here to take care of it in perpetuity,” he goes on. “But that involves very specific conditions: You can’t touch it, you can’t smell it, it can’t be worn. And you can’t hear it.”

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All the clothes photographed on Debicki for this story—including an organza Iris van Herpen couture dress from spring 2020, seen here with Femme LA shoes—were later acquired by the Costume Institute for the show, except where noted.

For centuries, each of those qualities was considered not incidental to fashion but an integral part of its experience and design. Dresses were marketed in part by their sound, known as scroop: the sensuous rustle of fabrics against one another as the wearer crossed the room. Cloth buttons used to be constructed around bits of cotton wool to absorb and emanate drops of perfume. “If we’re able to capture this information now,” Bolton says, “it’s a way of helping future generations appreciate how it was worn, what it looked like on the body, and how it moved.”

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On Christian Dior’s May dress from spring 1953, flowering grasses and wild clover are etched into organza.

“Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion,” opening on May 10 and closing on September 2, is Bolton and the Costume Institute’s bid to break beyond the limits of display and bring long-dormant garments back to life, reinventing on the way what a museum show can be. With a team of researchers and an array of technologies, the museum has extracted information about how historic pieces stimulated the senses and has devised ways to present this data. “The information is going to be there in perpetuity—not just in the exhibition but on our website forever,” Bolton says.

The show is a landmark for the museum, in part because it frees The Met to turn back to its own collection with new eyes. There was no borrowing from other institutions to flesh out the displays, and although the Costume Institute made 75 new acquisitions for the show—from an exquisite Christian Dior petal dress and a magnificent Iris van Herpen draped garment, as delicate as moth wings, to a Philip Treacy headpiece built around the upside-down form of a rose—the inspiration came about organically, in every sense, from The Met’s existing collection of more than 33,000 objects. “What struck me, when the pieces were all on my wall here”—Bolton gestures to the pinboard—​“was how many pieces in the collection have been inspired by the natural world.” Themes recurred: There were patterns of flowers, birds, butterflies. And there were constant references, he noticed, to the elements of earth, air, and water. All this would shape the formal organization of the show. “One of the things that resonated with me—and why I think nature seemed particularly relevant—was the impermanence and the transitory nature of fashion,” he says, “but also the cyclical nature of it: the rebirth.”

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A splendid 2017 reimagining of the Junon dress from Christian Dior Haute Couture’s fall 1949 collection (courtesy of Dior).

The exhibition’s title refers to the ultra-fragile garments that Bolton has made the centerpiece of the show. So delicate that they can barely be handled, let alone hung on a mannequin, these “sleeping beauties” must lie flat and undisturbed in their cases. Most have what is known in the conservation trade as inherent vice: Because of the materials involved or the way these elements are bound together, they have progressive, irreversible degradation and will one day come to shreds. In the sleeping beauties, Bolton’s team found the emblem for both the exhibition’s sensory project—reviving the lost physical attributes of a garment—and its scientific goals.

“This show makes us reflect a bit more on what we need to do to make sure that we keep and maintain the integrity of an object,” Max Hollein, The Met’s director and CEO, says. “It will help us understand how to not only amplify the experience, but to resurrect the total authenticity of the object—and that will have an impact on other areas of the museum.”

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A fairy-tale-worthy Gucci cape and dress by Alessandro Michele for fall 2017.

“A piece of clothing isn’t something we purchase just to hang on a hanger or put on a mannequin,” says the photographer Nick Knight. “We have dreams in it and live our lives through it.” Knight’s digital-fashion company ShowStudio, which not long ago digitally animated a custom Gucci dress by Alessandro Michele in a Björk music video, is collaborating with Bolton to reanimate two garments in similar ways. Some crucial dresses will be brought to life again as Pepper’s ghosts—a holographic illusion by which a flat-image projection appears as an object in three-dimensional space.

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A mystical-seeming House of Worth cape from 1889.

More broadly, the Costume Institute has undertaken a careful study of postures, perfumes, habits, and mores in the milieus where the garments first lived. “There are ball gowns—you could go to a dance in them,” Knight explains. “You’d be in an environment where the way you held your fan, the way you held a glass of Champagne, how you curtsied, bowed, and danced: All those things were important.” The show will display the clothes, but it will also work to re-create the experience of encountering them. “The idea is, if you met somebody at one of these balls 150 years ago, what would it feel like?” he says. “Why would it be…exciting?”

Now, deep in the Costume Institute’s warren of office space, the conservator Elizabeth Shaeffer rolls out translucent sheets of Mylar trimmed to match the panels of a dress. The studio resembles a laboratory—bright, quiet, and filled with technical equipment. Even by The Met’s scrupulous standards, it is a place of exceptional care: Metal tables are draped, for the artifacts’ protection, with white cloth, and inside the doorway a foot mat is fixed to the floor with its adhesive surface facing upward to remove stray particles from the soles of the shoes of everyone who enters. Shaeffer—attentive and soft-spoken—sorts the Mylar pieces on the table.

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Left: Beholding this coat, dress, and crinoline from Olivier Theyskens’s fall 2000 collection, one can nearly hear the sumptuous sound of its silk moiré in motion—an auditory experience known among fashion conservators as scroop that’s also on display in the exhibition. Right: A British waistcoat from 1615–20.

“This is a full-scale model from which a dress can be sewn,” she explains. Each piece has been traced from a panel of a sleeping-beauty dress—a noninvasive process that helps the conservators gather information about its structure. From the Mylar, the pattern forms are transferred onto paper, marked with a grid, while the dress is rendered digitally: the one form in which, in theory, it can live forever. “All of this information,” Bolton says, “is being used to bring it back to life—not only three-dimensionally, as it was meant to be on the body, but the movement.

The specimen on the table today, a circa-1887 piece by Charles Frederick Worth, the landmark English designer whose House of Worth laid the groundwork for 20th‑​century couture, is the sleeping beauty that inspired the entire show. Once owned by an Astor, the garment is one of the exhibition’s most fragile, beset by warp loss: a form of degradation in which the long, shiny filaments of satin abrade away, leaving feathery, rip-like streaks. As with most of the sleeping beauties, handing the dress—even delicately—hastens its decay; Bolton made the decision that the risk was worth the opportunity to gather detailed information about what the Worth dress, in its prime, had been. “For me, it’s like, yes, of course if you kept it in a drawer and it’s never seen ever again, that does slow the deterioration,” he says. But what would be the value of that?

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The Upside-Down Rose hat from Philip Treacy’s spring 2000 haute couture collection, like so many of the pieces in “Sleeping Beauties,” channels the natural world.

A separate curatorial decision he made was to bring the dress—now faded into lovely pastels—back to life in its original colors. Sitting in her office off the conservation studio with Bolton, Shaeffer studies bits of chiffon near the seams, unfaded by daylight, and matches those colors to Pantone hues, from which the colors can be digitally re-created, for a Pepper’s ghost. (The team also used spectrophotographic analysis to pick out original color.)

“Something has gone a little wrong here,” Shaeffer notes, studying the colors on her screen. “This is an evening gown, so it would only come out at night, and gas lamps and early electric light bulbs were very warm in tone.”

She plays a draft of the animation that Knight’s team has sent, studying the motion of the dress. An avatar dressed in a computer rendering of the garment swirls and dances vigorously, seeming to kick its knees in the air. Bolton frowns.

“It’s a bit like The King and I,” he says gently.

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Clockwise from top: A 1957 Balenciaga hat, Deirdre Hawken’s Cauliflower Headpiece from 2013, a layered silk hat from the 1940s, and a 1942 Germaine Vittu hat.

Shaeffer draws closer to the screen. “I think the chiffon is a little too bouncy and doesn’t take into consideration the many layers of things that go underneath,” she murmurs.

If movement studies are an unorthodox conservation task, they are not the strangest in “Sleeping Beauties,” an exhibition that is also based largely in sound. The conservation room also contains an ornate, colorfully painted dress covered in aluminum flowers that Francesco Risso designed for this year’s Marni spring season. Another of The Met’s new acquisitions, it is recently back from the anechoic chamber at Binghamton University in New York, where Bolton recorded the clatter of the flowers against one another. The same process was used to capture the scroop associated with a historical dress, and both audio samples will be included in this exhibition.

Yet the real reason for including the Marni dress, Bolton explains, is not its sound but its association with scent. In his invitation for the runway show in which it featured, Risso described his experience being introduced to an enchanting perfume at a party in Paris at the age of 14, then spending his adulthood roaming the city, trying to discover its origin or its wearer.

One of the exhibition’s leading collaborators is the Berlin-​based olfactory artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas, a pioneer in the work of creating—and recording—the world of smell. Trained as a chemist and a linguist, Tolaas spent seven years traveling the globe from her small hometown on an island in Norway with the goal of smelling everything. “I liked becoming a dog,” she says. “I built up massive databases of scents; trained myself to understand the importance of smell in terms of memory, language, tolerance; and, after seven years, was ready to conquer the world.”

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An anthurium-inspired bodice from Loewe’s spring 2023 collection.

Tolaas spent close to a year analyzing scents associated with both garments and their wearers for the Costume Institute exhibition. Her discoveries will become part of the displays, while certain scents will be smellable, reinterpreted for the exhibition halls. “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?” T.S. Eliot wrote early in the 20th century. At The Met, visitors will be able to encounter fragrance elements of that time.

One room, devoted to the floral theme, will feature an array of hats with floral motifs. Another will be devoted to Millicent Rogers, the early-20th-century socialite and philanthropist. “I’m focusing on literally the molecules emitting from the various items that were used by this woman: the scents of her body, her habits, her culture, her rituals, the food she ate,” Tolaas says. The data of science and the sensory mysteries of art emerge from one another. “I’m not ‘perfuming spaces,’ ” she explains. “I’m highlighting or amplifying hidden information in the garments.”

Rogers’s collection, which includes Schiaparelli’s famous seed-packet dress of 1937—an allusion to the designer’s own past putting seeds in her mouth to try to grow a garden from within to make herself more beautiful—stands as evidence of the individuality and peculiarity of fashion: One person’s taste can be just that, to an ecstatic degree. Growing beyond Rogers, there’s Christian Dior’s standard-​setting Vilmorin dress, which references his childhood love of gardening, as a reader of his mother’s Vilmorin-​Andrieux seed catalogs. There is a resplendent Balenciaga hat made to look exactly like a cabbage, and—one of the great triumphs of awkward-chic—an example of prewar “hobble skirts”: a flash-in-the-pan fashion that left women unable to walk with a normal gait. There is Sarah Burton’s astonishing butterfly dress, with an explosion of fiery wings at the collar, alongside a butterfly­-themed sleeping beauty from Charles James.

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A complete look from Rick Owens’s spring 2022 Fogachine collection (courtesy of Rick Owens).


One of the most improbable of the exhibition’s sleeping beauties is a coat, by Jonathan Anderson for Loewe, that is sown—in the agricultural sense—with grass seed. With time, the grass grows, creating a lush green pelt. Bolton will display a live coat that slowly dies over the course of the show, ultimately replacing it with an already-grown version, now dead as the California hills in summer. (All the while, a time-lapse video of grass sprouting will play nearby.) Another of Anderson’s contributions to the show, an outfit centered on a large re-creation of an anthurium, will be part of the garden galleries—making it more of an object than it ever was on the runway. “I love when clothing becomes sculptural,” he explains. “You look at the form, in three dimensions, and see how it interacts with the body.” Loewe is a sponsor of the exhibition, and Anderson notes that the show’s capacity to bring out a garment’s physical qualities this way struck him as part of its appeal. “When you’re taking things out of an archive, reexamining them, and trying to find newness or storytelling within something old,” he says, “how do you engage new audiences and at the same time not overexplain something?”

The greatest of the show’s technological moments, meanwhile, is also the most daring. An exquisite wedding dress worn in the 1930s by Jazz Age New York socialite and actress Natalie Potter will be brought to life with an interactive interface specially designed for the show by OpenAI. “The Met team provided us with a lot of source documents, facts, and materials about Natalie, her life, and her dress,” Isa Fulford, an Open­AI technician, explains. “We gave the model custom instructions about how to interact with the attendees in the style and tone of Natalie’s voice, and then we gave the model access to all of these facts about her life, dress, wedding, and so on.” Visitors will be able to text “Natalie” and get back specific answers. “I wanted to have an example of a garment that is actively responding to your engagement with it,” Bolton explains. “Something I find a little bit frustrating in any show is how passive the objects are.”

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Constantin Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse, 1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.

© 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Here in the exhibition halls, motion sets the mood. Shaping the physical space for so sensual an exhibition was a daunting enough task that Bolton looked to Leong Leong, an architecture firm of two brothers based in New York’s Chinatown. Rather than traditional galleries, Leong Leong envisaged a single snaking hallway widening into a series of round, domed rooms, like pearls strung on a necklace—a series of immersive spaces. “The design of the exhibition is episodic: You progress from one room to another,” Dominic Leong explains. Many rooms center on glass cases reminiscent of bell jars, an icon of scientific objectivity. The sleeping beauties, meanwhile, will lie flat in cases throughout the exhibition, surrounded by frosted glass for a ghostly, holographic air.

On arriving at the show, visitors will first see a Brancusi bronze placed into dialogue with the Worth sleeping beauty. A contemporary garment that the Worth dress helped to inspire—an Alessandro Michele piece for Gucci—will be displayed nearby. Visitors will progress into a space filled with botanicals on painted silk—a Chinese technique imitated by Europeans in the 18th century and updated by Mary Katrantzou, whose garment is nearby. A small room that follows will be devoted to warp printing, a technique with a beautiful out-of-­focus effect on patterning and images, echoed by a lenticular hologram.

From there, Bolton says one morning in the museum, rushing around with growing excitement, the exhibition blooms into its naturalistic themes. A room devoted to touch features a Miss Dior dress created by Raf Simons in 2013, with a touchable scale model. Next comes the Van Gogh room, centered on a Saint Laurent jacket inspired by the artist’s painting of irises, put into dialogue with Rodarte’s dress inspired by Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and the poppy room, centering on Isaac Mizrahi’s bleeding poppy dress, inspired by the work of Irving Penn. The poppies lead to daisies embroidered on an intricate 18th-century French court suit; the daisies lead to Spitalfields silks, shown with a projection of the original botanical watercolors on which they were modeled; the Spitalfields lead on to tulips, roses, and what Bolton calls a “garden room.”

And on it goes, through dresses of Chinese silk as yellow as the sun; a surprisingly wide selection of beetle-​related fashion, including early-​plastic necklaces by Schiaparelli; and a room of snake style, animated with terrifying videos. As Bolton elaborates the immersive world of cutting-edge technology he is building to recover the lost experiences of the past, he is seemingly impressed less by the ambitious scale of the exhibition than by the possibilities of future work that it has opened up. “It’s a very humbling show to work on,” he says. “It makes you realize how little you are.”

In this story: hair, Guido; hair colorist, @lenaott; makeup, Dame Pat McGrath; manicurist, Jin Soon Choi; tailor, Carol Ai.

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