The Costume Institute houses a collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories spanning five continents and as many centuries. Among the preeminent institutions of its kind in the world, 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 full-fledged 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 costume exhibitions, including The World of Balenciaga (1973), Hollywood Design (1974), The Glory of Russian Costume (1976), and Vanity Fair (1977), galvanizing audiences and setting the standard for costume exhibitions both nationally and internationally.
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, Wordrobe, and Cubism and Fashion. Martin’s tenure culminated in Rock Style, the last exhibition before his death in 1999.
The Costume Institute’s Harold Koda (Curator in Charge) and Andrew Bolton (Curator) create one or more special exhibitions each year. Recent thematic exhibitions have included Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years – Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum (2001), guest curated by Hamish Bowles; Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed (2002), the debut exhibition of Harold Koda as Curator in Charge; Goddess (2003); Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century (2004); AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion (2006); Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008); The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion (2009); American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity (2010); Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations (2012), and Punk: Chaos to Couture (2013).
Recent monographic exhibitions have included Yves Saint Laurent (1983), Madame Grès (1994), Christian Dior (1996), Gianni Versace (1997), Chanel (2005), Poiret: King of Fashion (2007), and Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011). The McQueen exhibition attracted 661,509 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 their renowned costume collection, amassed during more than a century of collecting, 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 19th to mid-20th century. The combined collections now constitute the single largest and most comprehensive costume collection in the world, offering an unrivaled timeline of Western fashion history.
The fashion industry provides strong support for the work of The Costume Institute including its exhibitions, acquisitions, and capital improvements. The annual Gala Benefit, its primary fundraising event, celebrates the opening of the spring exhibition each May. Under the leadership of Trustee Anna Wintour (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 a stellar list of attendees from fashion, film, society, sports, art, business, and music. Eleanor Lambert, fashion publicity doyenne, helped conceive the first benefit in 1948 as a midnight supper and dubbed it “The Party of the Year.” Co-chairs in past years have included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1977–1978) and Patricia Taylor Buckley (1979-1995).
The Costume Institute, which was last refurbished in 1992, is currently undergoing renovation. When finished in May 2014 after an overall two-year renovation, reconfiguration and updating, the facility will include the 4,200-square-foot Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery which will feature a flexible design that lends itself to frequent transformation, a zonal sound system, innovative projection technology, and wireless connectivity. The renovation also includes the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery, which will orient visitors to The Costume Institute’s exhibitions and holdings; a state-of-the-art costume conservation center; an expanded study/storage facility that will house the combined holdings of the Met and the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection; and The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library, one of the world’s foremost fashion libraries. The Library houses more than 30,000 non-circulating rare books and periodicals, extensive files of clippings, as well as fashion prints, drawings, photographs, sketchbooks, and design archives.
The Costume Institute offers tours of special exhibitions as well as a Fashion in Art tour, which discusses costume history within the context of the Museum’s collections of armor, textiles, paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts. Costume: The Art of Dress, a recorded Audio Guide narrated by actress Sarah Jessica Parker, also highlights historical costume throughout the Museum’s galleries.
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.
Please check the museum calendar at www.metmuseum.org for The Costume Institute’s schedule of special exhibitions.
December 6, 2013