To look fashionable in 1870, the year that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded, a woman had to wear enough fabric to make two ordinary dresses. An enormous bustle exaggerated the rear, providing ample fodder for envy as well as satire. Twenty years later, it was all about sleeves, which grew so voluminous that they were dubbed legs-o’-mutton, beguiling modish women and rousing editorial cartoonists all over again. The frivolity of fashion is both a source of pleasure and a cause for ridicule. And the play of embellishment, which shows that the wearer is at the top of her game, ensures that the most stylish garments are soon laughably dated.
Fashion is entrained to the clock. About Time, a major new Costume Institute exhibit and catalogue marking the Met’s 150th anniversary, asks whether attire might be a clock in its own right. Can the rise and fall of hemlines serve as a kind of pendulum? Is a timeline of styles from 1870 to the present a viable substitute for Gregorian years?
If precision is not the goal, and legibility isn’t a concern, then the catwalk can substitute for Big Ben. Trends are cyclical, and an overall progression can be discerned with sufficient expertise. Nearly a century ago, the philosopher Walter Benjamin recognized fashion as “the modern measure of time”, and more than half a century before that, the poet Charles Baudelaire described a set of historical fashion plates as a sort of calendar, with transitions “as elaborately articulated as they are in the animal kingdom”.
The possibility of reading time in a phenomenon prone to frequent change is not especially new nor very surprising. Far more interesting than the matter of whether fashion can be a clock is a related question: What does the clock of fashion indicate about time? And expanding upon this line of inquiry: Is the time told by fashion more accurate in is own way than the time told by a pendulum-calibrated gear train or the pulsations of a cesium atom?
Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton seeks to address these questions through temporal juxtaposition. Setting up a standard timeline with sixty garments shown in chronological order, he interweaves sixty more that resemble those on the timeline aesthetically, but pre- or post-date them chronologically. In the case of the bustle from 1870, he juxtaposes an Elsa Schiaparelli evening dress from 1939. The leg-o’-mutton style, which extended through much of the 1890s, is shown to recur in a Viktor & Rolf dress from 2001 and a Comme des Garçons ensemble from 2004.
As Bolton acknowledges, the curatorial practice of relating