A Timely Fashion Exhibit At The Met Reimagines Clothing As A Clock Keeping Time With The Latest Creations Of Prada And Chanel

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

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According To The Met’s New Exhibit, The Clock Is Ticking For The Fashion Industry

For a fashion exhibit whose theme is time, it’s ironic that the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s “About Time: Fashion and Duration” is, as a result of the pandemic, opening almost six months later than anticipated. Yet, during a year that feels both frozen in time and flying by faster than any before it, the show, which looks at the relationship between fashion and time through designer ensembles, feels perfectly punctual. “Fashion is indelibly connected to time. It not only reflects and represents the spirit of the times, but it also changes and develops with the times, serving as an especially sensitive and accurate timepiece,” said Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, in the press release. “The exhibition uses the concept of duration to analyze the temporal twists and turns of fashion history.”

Made up of two main rooms, that are designed as oversized clock faces, “About Time” explores this theme through two timelines: chronological — tracing 150 years of fashion, from 1870 to the present, in honor of the Met’s 150th anniversary — and cyclical — exploring the past and present by linking trends and styles in a more abstract way. Within each “minute” of the clock setup, two garments are featured side-by-side. 

Featuring mostly black pieces — to “make the comparisons between the pairings immediately,” according to Bolton — the brands selected range from heritage (Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Givenchy) to avant-garde (Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela) and unabashedly modern (Libertine, Off-White, Hood by Air, Rick Owens). The theme of time is further expanded using concepts from philosopher Henri Bergson and writing from Virginia Woolf. (The exhibit opens with a quote from Woolf’s Orlando, and quotations in the exhibit are read aloud by Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore, who all starred in the 2002 movie The Hours, based on the Michael Cunningham novel that was inspired by Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.)


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The first room sees 60 looks in a barely lit, round room with a black backdrop, with a swinging, ticking pendulum at its center. Pairings, arranged in chronological order, focus on the evolution of fashion and the influence of the past on modern designers. An 1895 double-breasted wool-twill coat is juxtaposed against a 2020 JW Anderson coat with an oversized leg-of-mutton sleeve that could be confused for its older counterpart; a 1902 Morin Blossier riding jacket, embroidered with gold silk-and-metal thread floral motif, is presented next to a waistcoat of jacquard woven silk that Nicolas Ghesquière, who looked to the Met’s fashion archives in the past for inspiration, created for Louis Vuitton in 2018; and a 1938 Elsa Schiaparelli evening jacket featuring mirror-like, Versailles-inspired designs on the front is shown next to Yves Saint Laurent’s 1978 “broken mirrors” jacket (latter is pictured below).

a group of people in a dark room

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The second room — a winding, mirrored space that sends all senses into overdrive after the darker section —

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