History of the Department
The Costume Institute began as the Museum of Costume Art, an independent entity formed in 1937 and led by Neighborhood Playhouse founder Irene Lewisohn. In 1946, with the financial support of the fashion industry, the Museum of Costume Art merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art as The Costume Institute, and in 1959 became a curatorial department. The legendary fashion arbiter Diana Vreeland, who served as special consultant from 1972 until her death in 1989, created a memorable suite of exhibitions, including The World of Balenciaga (1973), The Glory of Russian Costume (1976), and Vanity Fair (1977), galvanizing audiences and setting the standard for costume exhibitions globally.
In 1989, Richard Martin took the helm, with the support of Harold Koda (now Curator in Charge), and began a rotating cycle of thematic exhibitions including Infra-Apparel, Waist Not, The Four Seasons, and Cubism and Fashion. Martin's tenure culminated in Rock Style, the last exhibition before his death in 1999.
Today, The Costume Institute's Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton (Curator) create one or more special exhibitions each year. Recent thematic exhibitions have included Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years (2001), Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008), and PUNK: Chaos to Couture (2013). Recent monographic exhibitions have included Chanel (2005), Poiret: King of Fashion (2007), and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011). The McQueen exhibition attracted more than 660,000 visitors, placing it among the Museum's top ten most visited exhibitions and making it the most visited Costume Institute special exhibition ever.
In January 2009, the Brooklyn Museum transferred its renowned costume collection to The Costume Institute, where it is known as the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It includes the definitive collection of Charles James material, as well as the world's foremost holdings of American fashion from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The combined collections now constitute the largest and most comprehensive costume collection in the world, offering an unrivaled timeline of Western fashion history.
The fashion industry funds the work of The Costume Institute, including its exhibitions, acquisitions, and capital improvements. Each May, the annual Gala Benefit, its primary fund-raising event, celebrates the opening of the spring exhibition. Under the leadership of Trustee Anna Wintour (Artistic Director of Condé Nast and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue), who has been co-chair since 1995 (excluding 1996 and 1998), the gala has become one of the most visible and successful charity events, drawing attendees from the fashion, film, society, business, and music industries. The brainchild of publicity doyenne Eleanor Lambert, the benefit was introduced in 1948 as a midnight supper and dubbed "The Party of the Year." Co-chairs in past years included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1977–1978) and Patricia Taylor Buckley (1979–1995).
In 2002, the Museum established the Friends of The Costume Institute, a group that supports the department's exhibition, acquisition, conservation, and publication programs. In promoting a more profound historical and theoretical understanding of costume, these programs advance fashion as an art form and encourage the study of fashion as a serious academic discipline.
The addition of The Costume Institute's records to the Collection Database was made possible in part by The John and Annamaria Phillips Foundation and Jane Hays Butler, Paul D. Schurgot Foundation.