Saturday, June 22, 2024

Inside The Met’s magical ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ exhibition

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‘More than any other form of artistic expression, fashion undergoes the most radical transformation in status upon entering The Met’s collection,’ said Andrew Bolton, curator-in-charge of The Anna Wintour Costume Center, in his address this morning (6 May 2024) at the preview of The Met Museum’s annual fashion exhibition, this year titled ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’. ‘Fashion is a living art form that requires most of our senses for its fullest appreciation and the greatest understanding.’

The exhibition ‘Sleeping Beauties’ aims to ’reactivate the sensory capacities of garments from the museum’s permanent collection,’ added Bolton. Indeed, he has employed the senses of touch, sound, and remarkably smell, through clever devices, traditional means and cutting-edge technologies.

First look: The Met’s ‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ exhibition

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ gallery view: ‘Painted Flowers’

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

Interaction is encouraged, transforming visitors from spectators into active participants. Visitors can smell the molecules extracted by microfilter and reproduced to scent rooms and garments – coumarin, found in tobacco and hay, and benzaldehyde, found in honey and almonds, were detected in vintage evening dresses for Dior and Lanvin by scent expert and consultant to the exhibition, Sissel Tolaas. A miniature white floral dress Christian Dior dress, and the surrounding black rubber wall, can be stroked. Scratch and sniff backdrops scent rooms. The actor Morgan Spector recites John McCrae’s 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ as a voiceover to Philip Treacy for Jasper Conran’s glazed chiffon and black feather hat in the form of an oversized poppy. And, at times, the sheer mastery of construction is enough: Pierpaolo Picciolo for Valentino’s A/W 2023 Haute Couture silk taffeta jacket is a giant red rose in full bloom. 

Gallery view of The Met’s Sleeping Beauties Reawakening Fashion, featuring a dress in a vitrine with blurred pictures of flowers on either side

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ gallery view: ‘Blurred Blossoms’

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

Gallery view of The Met’s Sleeping Beauties Reawakening Fashion, featuring a trio of clouson-style historical jackets

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ gallery view: ‘Garthwaite’s Garden’

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

In fact, flowers and gardens prove a theme. Yves Saint Laurent’s famous ‘Iris’ jacket inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, is ‘an artistic and technical tour de force that required 250 metres of ribbon, 200,000 beads, and 250,000 paillettes in 22 different colours,’ says Bolton. Previously, that might have been adequate to incite awe. For this exhibition, a high definition projection of the craftsmanship is itself is an added work of art. ’These embellishments were recreated through CGI, a process that involved 11,200 frames,’ Bolton added, who consulted SHOWstudio’s Nick Knight to input on various digital aspects of the exhibition and worked with architecture studio Leong Leong on the display’s design. AI was enlisted to create projections, such as a film of beetlewings in conversation with a jacket by Dries Van Noten and advanced animations of details such as embroidery techniques are presented as if under a microscope. 

Gallery view of The Met’s Sleeping Beauties Reawakening Fashion, featuring tulip-shaped black gown

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ gallery view: ‘Tulips’

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

The conversation between historical dress and present-day fashion is a lively one. It’s as if the delicate hand-painted flowers trimmed with gold thread on a moire faille 1740s British robe à la française accelerate into a blur, racing forwards 300 years to decorate Loewe’s A/W 2023 white duchess satin dress with blurred digitally printed blooms. Loewe is the sponsor of this year’s exhibition, while creative director Jonathan Anderson will serve as honorary chair at the Met Gala this evening, themed ‘The Garden in Time’.

‘It’s very humbling to see Loewe amongst pieces of such extraordinary significance… It’s been really inspiring to watch Andrew work on this show,’ said the designer this morning. ‘I’m going to go off script here. It’s incredibly difficult to take things which are ultimately worn by people and bring it to life. I think you [Bolton] have the most incredible eye and compassion in something that a lot of people don’t.’

Gallery view of The Met’s Sleeping Beauties Reawakening Fashion, featuring a two-level display of yellow dresses

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ gallery view: ‘Reseda Luteola’

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

Gallery view of The Met’s Sleeping Beauties Reawakening Fashion, featuring a Loewe jacket with grass growing from it and blown-up flowers in vitrines

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ gallery view: ‘The Garden’

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

‘Sleeping beauties’, meanwhile, is the term given to the historic garments which are viewed lying down, now too delicate to dress a mannequin. And at times, the conversation moves to new realms: thanks to a custom version of ChatGPT, visitors can pose questions to 1930s New York socialite Natalie Potter on her dramatic wedding dress from the era. 

A highlight, quite literally, is Undercover’s illuminated strapless cocktail dress filled with roses, and an AI-generated fairy-cum-beetle that jumps out of a picture book. 

Gallery view of The Met’s Sleeping Beauties Reawakening Fashion, featuring an Undercover brand sculptural dress in white room

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’ gallery view: ‘Interstitial Hall’

(Image credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York)

New donations to the museum are featured including designs from Joseph Altuzarra, Thom Browne, Phillip Lim, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Daniel Roseberry and Ronald van der Kamp. Featuring approximately 220 pieces dating from the 17th century to present day, the show is the ’largest and most ambitious exhibition in terms of range and scope that we’ve achieved to date,’ confirmed Bolton. 

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