Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Costume in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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  • The Costume Institute houses a collection of more than 35,000 costumes and accessories spanning five continents and just as many centuries, arguably the greatest such collection in the world. The matrix of The Costume Institute was established with The Museum of Costume Art, an independent entity formed in 1937. Led by Neighborhood Playhouse founder Irene Lewisohn, The Museum of Costume Art benefited from gifts from Irene Lewisohn and her sister Alice Lewisohn Crowley and from theatrical designers Aline Bernstein and Lee Simonson, among others.


    No other museum in the world supports such an ambitious suite of exhibitions on fashion.

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    In 1946, The Museum of Costume Art merged with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and funds were raised within the fashion industry to support it. The Costume Institute became a department in 1959. Diana Vreeland, who served as Special Consultant from 1972 until her death in 1989, created a spectacular suite of costume exhibitions—including The World of Balenciaga (1973), Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design (1974), The Glory of Russian Costume (1976), and Vanity Fair (1977)—that galvanized audiences and set the international standard for the opulent exhibition of costume, chiefly based on loan items.


    The Costume Institute continued to present exhibitions that achieved the defining stature of the earlier Vreeland shows in developing analytical ideas about fashion from the Institute's collections. These have included: Infra-Apparel (1993), which examined the role of undergarments and clothing's propensity to disclose its underlying structure; Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress (1994); and Haute Couture (1995). In addition, there have been monographic exhibitions such as Madame Grès (1994), Christian Dior (1996), and Gianni Versace (1997).


    Today, The Costume Institute's 5,000 square feet of galleries (refurbished in 1992) display two exhibitions a year, based on the Institute's peerless collection. Since Harold Koda arrived to lead the Institute into the new century as Curator-in-Charge, exhibitions have continued to break new ground and include: Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century (2004); Goddess (2003); Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed (2002); and Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years (2001), guest-curated by Hamish Bowles, European editor-at-large of Vogue. Additionally, Andrew Bolton, Associate Curator (formerly of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), has contributed his fresh voice with exhibitions such as Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set (2002) and Bravehearts: Men in Skirts (2003).


    The vast holdings of The Costume Institute run the gamut from the father of couture, Charles Frederick Worth, to the mother of chic, Coco Chanel; from '60s pop iconography and paper dresses (1995.178.3) to '70s punk innovator Vivienne Westwood; and from modern visionaries such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Rudi Gernreich to postmodern designers like Rei Kawakubo and twenty-first-century maverick Alexander McQueen (2003.462). No other museum in the world supports such an ambitious suite of exhibitions on fashion. Significantly, possessing the greatest collection of costume in the world is taken as a responsibility of exhibition, interpretation, and research by the staff of The Costume Institute.


    As it would be impossible to imagine art in the twenty-first century in New York without The Metropolitan Museum of Art's presence as keystone and touchstone to ideas and sensibility, modern American and international fashion has come to be based upon The Costume Institute's exhibitions and research capacity as the preeminent institution of its kind in the world.


    The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art