'Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion' Showcases Fashion as Art and History

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently opened an exhibit called “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion,” showcasing what the curators deem “masterworks” of fashion throughout the 18th-21st centuries. At the entrance of the exhibit, a dress called "Wearable Art" from Viktor & Rolf's 2015 autumn/winter collection poses the age-old question: is fashion art? The dress, a paint-splashed canvas seemingly held together by picture frame trim, is symbolic of the entire exhibit itself and each piece seems to ask a similar question.

These “masterworks” are considered “examples of the highest aesthetic and technical quality that serve as superb expressions of their respective eras,” according to its plaque description. The exhibit's curators claim “together [they] demonstrate the evolution of fashionable dress over time.”

Andrew Bolton, head curator for the exhibit, states the mission of “Masterworks” in a press release. "[Masterworks] shifted from creating a collection of Western high fashion that is encyclopedic in breadth to one focused on acquiring a body of masterworks."

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The exhibit contains 50 pieces, beginning with 18th century decadent dresses and male attire from the French revolution period. Pieces from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries are also included with a plaque explaining each garment's significance. The descriptions include specifics about the designer, year of manufacture, and materials, but also the cultural significance of the piece and its impact on society.

This perspective of fashion as both art and history may be of particular interest to students, and the exhibit does a excellent job of referencing changes in technique, artistic movement, and cultural norms as the centuries progress. Themes like Surrealism and punk show themselves as influences in garments throughout different centuries.

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The exhibit is not just about dresses or shoes; it encompasses nuanced references to what was going on in the society at the time. The setup allows for comparisons of older garments to newer ones. Such striking resemblances and inspirations can be seen side by side, as with two pink gowns by Madeleine Vionnet (1929) and John Galliano (1999).

Certain garments provide fascinating cultural references within their stitches, like an Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 The Birds-inspired jacket by the visionary Alexander McQueen.

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"Masterworks" includes notable designers like Gianni Versace, House of Dior, House of Lanvin, Yohji Yamamoto, and Jon Galliano. The brilliant makers of the garments showcased illustrate how the exhibit masterfully blends the historical and artistic aspects of fashion. The exhibit gives museum goers a look at a beautifully curated chronology through fashion.

“Masterworks” is showing at the Met at Fifth Avenueuntil February 5. The exhibit is located just through the Egyptian exhibits in Galleries 980-981, the Anna Wintour Costume Center (within the Costume Institute) on the 1st floor of the Met. So be sure to experience the art, history and fashion of “Masterworks” before Christmas break, or at the start of the spring semester!

Culture, FashionDelaney Filby