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The Story Behind The Met’s Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion Exhibition According To The Curators

Fashion is a living, dynamic art: one that is aroused by AI, X-rays, 3D printing, animation, olfactory artists, all the senses, and approximately 150 years of design at Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion.

This year’s Met Gala – the calendar moment of the year designed to raise funds for the host art gallery – drenched the red carpet-clad steps of The Met in a whirlwind of feathers, florals, sand, and lace with ‘The Garden of Time’ dress code. These themes of transience, fragility, and importantly the natural world, all lie at the heart of the accompanying exhibition.

From afar, the exhibition showcases one of the most illustrious fashion archives on the globe. However, some of the most impressive parts of this exhibition are not purely in the craftsmanship of the  garments themselves, but rather in the craftsmanship of the exhibition too.  The Costume Institute is changing the way we experience fashion, by letting us not just see, but feel, smell, and hear some of fashion history’s most creative and canonical designs with Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion. Here is everything you need to know about the exhibition, according to the curators. 


The Curator’s Concept

 

Gallery View, Reseda Luteola and The Garden Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, Reseda Luteola and The Garden
Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This year’s exhibition marks many firsts for the gallery. Formed of over 220 garments, it’s the first time the content has been taken exclusively from The Costume Institute’s permanent collection, with 80 new pieces including from Joseph Altuzarra, Pierpaolo Piccioli, Olivia Cheng, and Daniel Roseberry arriving in time for the display.

With these ever-growing archives comes the question of what an archived piece of clothing becomes when it is no longer worn, in the name of art. The Costume Institute’s esteemed curator Andrew Bolton explains “the exhibition is a reminder that museum garments – despite being destined for an external slumber – do not “forget” their sensorial histories. Instead, these histories are embedded within the very fibres of their being, and simply require reactivation through the mind and body, heart and soul of those willing to dream and imagine.”

 

Ensemble, Francesco Risso (Italian, born 1982) for Marni (Italian, founded 1994), spring/summer 2024; Courtesy Marni. Photography © Nick Knight, 2024. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ensemble, Francesco Risso (Italian, born 1982) for Marni (Italian, founded 1994), spring/summer 2024;Courtesy Marni. Photography © Nick Knight, 2024. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The way the light tulle of a 19th century gown was carefully selected for the rustling sound it makes when gracing a ballroom floor, or how layered fabrics hold the soft scent of their wearers perfume, is often overwritten by the thick glass cabinets that separates an antiquated dress from its modern, gallery-goer admirers. That’s until now. 

Gallery View, BlurredBlossoms Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, BlurredBlossoms Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition marks a shift in The Costume Institute’s overall approach to exhibiting fashion. Bolton explains how Sleeping Beauties is “the first project of a new initiative to expand the study of costume beyond the artistic and cultural towards the sensorial and emotional, and to extend the principally visual readings of fashion within museums to multi-sensory interpretations.” This summer, The Costume Institute is “offering a landscape of cross-sensory interplays that encourage personal and intimate connections with the garments on display”, as Andrew Bolton outlines. 

In other words, the garments are reawakened and metaphorically ‘reworn’ with every visitor that moves through the marbled gallery halls.


Moving Through The Senses

Stepping into The Costume Institute is akin to meandering through The Garden of Time from JG Ballard’s elegiac tale, as the sounds, scents, and scenes of the garden at once blossom and wither around you.

Arranged as this garden, Sleeping Beauties is structured by the natural elements water; earth; air, with each encouraging new sensory ways of engaging with the garments.

Gallery View, Dior's Garden Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, Dior’s Garden Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first signs of this blossoming emerges through Dior’s Garden where 3D-printed replicas of the flowers the French fashion Maison’s impressionist-inspired dress is fashioned from line the walls for visitors to touch, to feel the form and work that goes into each petal, first embroidered by Maison Lemarié.

Gallery View, The Red Rose, Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Deeper into the tangle of thorns, past Van Gogh’s flowers and Garthwaite’s Garden is the iconic red rose taking vivid form through Dolce and Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jeanne Lanvin’s designs. Here, plastic tubing climbs the exhibition walls taking on the twisted shape of thorns where the exact scents of the garments on display have been replicated and reproduced for visitors to smell. Olfactory artist Sissel Tolaas extracted ten molecules of scent found in almonds, honey, fruits, and rosy fragrances from the dresses, and then delicately reproduced them so the shadow of perfumes worn, as well as food eaten, cocktails drunk, and cigarettes smoked during the dresses’ life span can be observed.

The gallery space is no longer just a showcase of the garden, but becomes the garden in time, where you can’t just passively admire the garments, but start to interact with them too.


Stand Out Pieces From The Archives

With over 220 items to choose from, everyone from the mere fashion admirer to the fashion connoisseur will find something to marvel at. Here are some of the highlights.

Gallery View, Introduction Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View, Introduction Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition title, Sleeping Beauties, takes its name from the dresses so old they can no longer be worn or are hung due to the fragility of their composition. This includes a 1887 ballgown by French brand House of Worth, made from silk chiffon and silk satin.

Undercover, spring/summer 2024 Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dress, Jun Takahashi (Japanese, born 1969) for Undercover (Japanese, founded 1990), spring/summer 2024; Courtesy Undercover. Photography © Nick Knight, 2024. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This spring/summer 2024 dress by Japanese brand Undercover is made from silk satin, rayon, pleated organza and nylon tulle flowers enclosed in reinforced 3D-printed clear resin to represent a terrarium.

Gallery View, Van Gogh's Flowers Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Van Gogh’s Flowers by Maison Margiela decorate a dress and jacket with over 250 meters of ribbon, 200,000 beads, 250,000 paillets – taking over 600 hours to make – to represent the painter’s 1889 Irises painting.

Gallery View BallGown, CharlesJames ,ca.1955 Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gallery View BallGown, CharlesJames ,ca.1955 Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Charles James’ 1955 “Butterfly” ballgown appears in double in the exhibition. Both made by the American designer, one has spent its life on loan to models and galleries and therefore suffers discolouration and tearing, while the other hung for decades in the designer’s closet and looks as though it was only designed a few seasons ago.  


Lead image credit: Reseda Luteola Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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