While the dust settles from the pomp and circumstance of the Met Gala, and the accompanying discussions of who wore what, we take a closer look at the actual fashion exhibit that was the nominal cause for the celebration, which opens tomorrow.
The “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the first installment in a two-part series that aims to reframe the image of American fashion as the underachieving cousin of its posh European relatives. Andrew Bolton — the English head curator of the Costume Institute at the Met — is surely aware of that, and so the exhibit invites us to think about American fashion in other terms.
This makes sense — instead of constantly comparing American fashion to that of Europe — why not highlight its own merits that may exist in other realms? To err on the safe side, the Met decided to circumvent the ideas of technical excellence, complexity, beauty, fantasy, theater — where, let’s face it, we still have some catching up to do — and go for the purely subjective, which is the emotive. But even if we assume that all emotions are valid, as our current culture dictates, that does not automatically make all fashion great.
In any case, to underpin the exhibit around emotiveness, the Met curators decided to pick a slew of nouns, each corresponding to an outfit, and thus create a vocabulary surrounding American fashion. The introductory exhibition plaque claims that these nouns are “stitched together through their emotive resonance, resulting in a richly textured quilt of American fashion that is as diverse, multifaceted, and heterogenous as the nation itself.” Perhaps. But the problem is that there are about 100 outfits in the exhibit, which means a hundred nouns, which in turn means that by the time you are done with the exhibit, you are at a loss for any thread of meaning, and words.
What is uniquely American about, say, “Humor” — are other nations or their fashions devoid of it? Last I checked, the Italian Franco Moschino or the French Jean-Paul Gaultier had enough to spare. And what is to be said about a noun like “Artfulness,” hardly something that American fashion can lay claim to over the Japanese Rei Kawakubo, for instance, or the English Alexander McQueen.
The unfortunate reality for an exhibit curator is that once you lock yourself into a theme and a method, you are forced to make connections that can become too tenuous even for the most generous audience. Take, for example, a Tommy Hilfiger mock ’50s college heavy-knit sweater with a giant “H” emblazoned on it. The notecard that goes with it — noun, “Association” — claims that the sweater somehow “democratizes a moniker that has historically been restricted to the elite.” But how? By selling it at Macy’s? Last I checked, anyone could go into a Harvard merch store in Boston and buy a sweater, or order one online with just a few clicks. And if you think that Hilfiger had any hand in democratizing anything, you have not been paying attention to American politics for the past few decades. The elites are alive and doing better than ever and their spots at Harvard are guaranteed via donations and legacy admissions.
If there is a story to be told about Hilfiger, it’s one of aspiration — of Black inner city youth appropriating Hilfiger in the ’90s because it aspired to the narrative of the rich, white New England lifestyle the brand pushed, and then, in a circle, of white youth imitating the Black because hip-hop made Hilfiger cool. Anyone who grew up in ’90s New York, as I did, witnessed this firsthand.
By the time I was done with trying to process a hundred nouns, all attempts at creating a meaningful narrative in his poor head crashed and burned. What I was looking at in the end was a collection of words and a collection of outfits, and the outfits were definitely more American.
While this “lexicon” did not satisfy a man’s search for meaning, it definitely satisfied the current demands for inclusivity. The political-cultural minefield museums have to navigate today is vast, and its terrain daunting. The result of this can be seen in the front room of this exhibition — a rather inane idea that America is made of different types of people that are somehow “stitched together” like a patchwork quilt. But this rings hollow after the events of the past years; it’s hardly an argument that America has been unraveling like an H&M sweater after its third wash. If there is a noun that no longer describes the US, it’s “Solidarity,” and certainly not in the form of a Tommy Hilfiger knit with the Stars-and-Stripes on it.
Here is another great question that the exhibit could have engaged with — who gets to be called an American fashion designer? It was raised implicitly in the aforementioned quilt room, but the answers sometimes were puzzling. For example, there was an excellent reworked Burberry coat by Miguel Adrover, a talented Spaniard who showed in New York for about five years before returning home. But what about the Austrian Helmut Lang, who arguably did his best work in New York, and has remained here after he stopped designing and started making tantrum art? Surely, an outfit of his would have enriched the exhibit that featured work of lesser designers.
There is no shortage of stories in the American fashion vernacular. We may lack the finesse, elegance, and craftsmanship skills of Europe and Japan because we don’t have centuries of aesthetic appreciation as a nation. In its nascent stage, America had other, more pragmatic concerns; and anyway, it was founded by Puritans for whom esthetics were not only unnecessary but outright dangerous.
Instead, we have energy, chutzpah, youth culture, pop culture, and a sense of possibility and daring that often comes from the street, unencumbered by tradition and spurred on by the cultural and business climate propitious to newness and risk-taking. That is the American story, and that is the American fashion story. I would have much preferred to see that, rather than the tiring set of kumbayas about our togetherness or a meandering collection of nouns. One can only hope that part ll of the exhibit, titled “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” takes a different route.