One of the first signs that the coronavirus would present radical challenges for the fashion world was the cancelation last spring of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, the annual exhibition and accompanying party that has become the industry’s biggest night. Its red carpet merges designer prowess with entertainment industry star power. And the exhibitions themselves can set off trends that reverberate through the industry for years. The 2019 Camp exhibition, for example, helped usher in an exuberant, free-for-all era of celebrity dressing that quickly trickled down into street style; 2012’s Savage Beauty exhibition, focused on the late Alexander McQueen, became one of the most-attended in the Met’s history and made one of fashion’s most challenging designers into a household name.
After taking a year off, the gala and exhibition will return, the museum announced Monday morning. The Met will host a two-part exhibition focused on American fashion: the first, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, will open on September 21 of this year; the second, In America: An Anthology of Fashion, will open on May 2, 2022. Both exhibitions will close on September 5, 2022. Most thrilling of all: the Met Gala will happen this year, on September 13, and will return to its signature “first Monday in May” spot in 2022. (All this, of course, is pending government guidelines. Could America cancel America? The mind reels.)
It’s a fitting moment to celebrate the history of American style and fashion. Critics and many high-fashion devotees have often viewed our humble sartorial output as playing second fiddle to its European counterparts. But this country’s style narrative has always been one of consummate striving against the odds. That was true in the beginning, when Eleanor Lambert harnessed together American designers to create their own fashion week when World War II made taking in Paris fashion an impossibility. It was true during the “Battle of Versailles” in 1973, when fresh, modern designs from Americans Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein toppled stuffy Parisian couture. More recently, a new generation of Black designers like Kerby Jean-Raymond, Shayne Oliver, Virgil Abloh, and Christopher John Rogers have redefined glamour, beauty, and success in fashion globally—at the helm of their own brands, as well as marquee European houses (Abloh, at Vuitton) and major sneaker concerns (Jean-Raymond, at Reebok).
In between are legendary figures like Ralph Lauren, who insisted that workwear and menswear staples like polos and khakis amounted to a grand American identity; and Willi Smith, fashion’s first true democrat. (Perhaps we’ll even get a little score-settling on the history of quilted clothing!)
Celebrating American fashion was a more complicated story under the Trump administration, which made the very notion of national identity repulsive abroad and tragic at home. (Raf Simons, in his too-short tenure at Calvin Klein, was the only designer to really go there, and his longtime creative partner, Sterling Ruby, is expected to have a big role in the show.) With Biden in the White House, the left-leaning fashion industry seems to be breathing a patriotic sigh of relief: modeling agency IMG was quick to sign two of the Biden inauguration’s stars, Ella Emhoff and Amanda Gorman. But as the exhibition’s press release suggests, its curators will still run head-on at the complex and at times painful ideas inherent to American fashion: “This two-part exhibition will consider how fashion reflects evolving notions of identity in America and will explore a multitude of perspectives through presentations that speak to some of the complexities of history with powerful immediacy,” said Max Hollein, the museum’s director.
Andrew Bolton, the erudite chief curator of the Costume Institute, added somewhat quixotically that the pandemic “has meant an increased emphasis on sentiment over practicality” for American fashion, and that the first part of the exhibition will reflect this shift, plumbing the “deeper associations with issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion.” The second part “will further investigate the evolving language of American fashion through a series of collaborations with American film directors who will visualize the unfinished stories inherent in the Met’s period rooms.” Janicza Bravo directing Zendaya wearing Bode while chilling in the Shaker Retiring Room? A Jeanne Dielman-inspired short starring Margot Robbie sobbing in Claire McCardell and Tom Ford in the Frank Lloyd Wright Room, directed by Tourmaline? This reporter can dream!
Another must-watch detail of any Met Gala: the sponsor. This year, that role goes to Instagram, creator of the technology perhaps most responsible for the look and feel of the last decade in fashion. Come to think of it, its influence will warrant its own exhibition at some point in the future. Hang on to those Fashion Nova purchases—they might be museum objects soon.