Each spring, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibitions seem increasingly ambitious in scale and concept. While recent shows, such as the 2019 “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” have charted new territory in visualizing abstract subject matter, others, including the 2015 “China: Through the Looking Glass” and the 2018 “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” have transported visitors around the museum, and, in theory, the world.
Opening on May 7, The Met’s latest cross-departmental exhibition is “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” a collaboration between the Costume Institute and the American Wing. “Anthology” serves as a complement to “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” which is running concurrently, and is the final exhibition in a trilogy of shows staged in The Met’s renowned period rooms—first, in 2004, “Dangerous Liaisons” in the Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts; and in 2006, “AngloMania” in the Annie Laurie Aitken Galleries of English Decorative Arts. Marking the Costume Institute’s 75th anniversary, “Anthology” brings approximately 100 garments to 13 of the American Wing’s 20 period rooms, of which it has more than any other department.
“When the American Wing opened in 1924, it was [entirely composed of] period rooms. In an era of great immigration, the idea was to show people American life,” Amelia Peck, the Marica F. Vilcek curator of American decorative arts and supervising curator of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center, told AD PRO via Zoom. Peck admits, however, that as educational and awe-inspiring as the period rooms remain today, they are not without complications. As sharing inclusive, diverse histories has become vital for truthful storytelling, the importance of shining a light on untold narratives that unite the American Wing and the Costume Institute was a conviction shared across departments. “We need to tell more stories than the white-man-who-lived-in-this-house,” says Peck. The result: “Anthology,” a fascinating series of interconnected vignettes featuring 18th-century to contemporary dress in interiors spanning circa 1805 to 1915. To further enrich and activate the rooms, The Met tapped nine directors, including Radha Blank, Janicza Bravo, Autumn de Wilde, Julie Dash, Tom Ford, Regina King, Martin Scorsese, and Chloé Zhao, who conceived the spaces as “freeze frames.”
“The context of the period rooms is much richer than when we’re starting with a blank gallery. The interaction between the fashions and the rooms really enhances the presentation of both,” Costume Institute associate curator Jessica Regan told AD PRO over Zoom. In its earliest displays, historic dress was paired with interiors or decorative arts from the same era—a combination which can feel static and stuffy to today’s museumgoer. Instead, Peck, Regan, and Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge of the Costume Institute, sought to make links that transcended chronology.