Since its founding in 1946, The Costume Institute has been dedicated to establishing one of the most comprehensive costume collections in the world. Today, it represents a timeline of Western high fashion that is especially rich in examples from the 18th century to the present. In recent years, the department's mission has shifted from building an encyclopedic collection to acquiring masterworks that serve as superb expressions of their respective eras and together demonstrate the evolution of fashionable dress over time.
This exhibition presents 50 fashion masterworks acquired over the past 10 years that reflect the breadth and quality of The Costume Institute's collection. Spanning three centuries of sartorial history, these pieces illustrate how the criteria for identifying a fashion masterwork depend on the period of the object's creation.
In evaluating a prospective acquisition, curators consider not only the object's individual artistic merit but also its resonance with the existing collection. In these galleries, select masterworks are shown alongside earlier acquisitions. The juxtapositions illustrate how the new pieces complement existing holdings and illuminate the ways in which fashion is inspired by and responds to its past.
The Costume Institute's collection of 18th-century dress is especially strong in examples from France and Great Britain, reflecting the roles these nations played as centers of textile production and as style leaders in Europe and America. Fashions of the 1700s trace the social history of an era shaped by political and industrial revolution as well as expanding global trade. An 18th-century masterwork gives expression to this broad history, embodies a specific moment in fashion, and reveals the artistry of the period's textile designers, weavers, embroiderers, and tailors.
Fine textiles and surface embellishments were the most important elements of high-style apparel for both men and women. Changes in cut and silhouette occurred gradually, and women's clothing in particular did not require complicated cutting and sewing techniques. Therefore, the quality of an 18th-century garment's textile is a key criterion in establishing its status as a masterwork.
The rich fabrics of the period, woven on hand-operated drawlooms, represent a significant investment of time, materials, and skilled labor. Since these fine textiles were highly valued, garments were often reworked as styles of dress changed. As a result, surviving exhibition-worthy examples of dress from this period are rare. The new acquisitions on view here have strengthened the department's existing 18th-century collection, allowing a fuller representation of this historical moment.
The pace of fashion accelerated during the 19th century. Technological developments shaped garment production and sped the communication and transportation that disseminated the latest styles. The era is notable for frequent changes in silhouette, as a range of understructures—corsets, crinolines, and bustles—created fashionable forms that diverged dramatically from the natural figure. Thus a 19th-century masterwork tends to have a distinctive silhouette that epitomizes its period. Dressmaking and tailoring techniques became increasingly sophisticated, and the works shown here reveal a new refinement of cut, construction, and finishing.
Fashions of this era reflect the tension between the embrace of new technologies and nostalgia for a preindustrial past, as seen in the revival of historical styles and the continued importance of fine handwork. Inventions such as the Jacquard loom attachment and the sewing machine enabled the faster, cheaper manufacture of a great variety of textiles and increased the production of ready-made garments. Developing in parallel with this growing mechanization, however, was the haute couture, a category of dress distinguished from ready-made apparel and the work of less exclusive dressmakers by elevated creative and technical standards, and intricate details executed by hand. Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895), who established the haute couture model, repositioned the role of the couturier as that of an artist with a unique aesthetic vision. By labeling his work, Worth underlined the importance of the designer as creator and arbiter of style.
The Costume Institute has focused its collecting of 20th-century garments on designers who changed the direction of fashion history by offering new possibilities for apparel. A masterwork in this category is an iconic piece that best represents an individual designer's body of work and contributions to the field.
In the first half of the 20th century, cultural shifts related to World War I led to simpler, less restrictive fashions for women. Leading haute couture designers also drove developments in dress and played a principal role in originating new styles. Paul Poiret (1879–1944) and Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975), each represented here, advanced innovative approaches to dressmaking based on draping rather than tailoring techniques and a natural, uncorseted body.
Fashion was closely linked with modern art movements, notably Surrealism. Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) and Charles James (1906–1978) interpreted Surrealist principles with wit and ingenuity in superbly crafted designs such as the ones shown here. Many designers continued to look to the past for inspiration, reinterpreting historical forms in a modern design vocabulary. Jeanne Lanvin (1867–1946), known for her graceful, romantic fashions, revived the mid-18th-century silhouette and used its expansive form as a canvas for finely worked embroidery in striking, graphic patterns.
New acquisitions from the latter half of the 20th century include signature works by pioneering designers and pieces that reflect key developments in dress during the period. The haute couture fashion system established in the late 19th century continued to play an important role, though its dominance diminished with the increasing influence of youth and counterculture styles and the rise of luxury ready-to-wear clothing. Attuned to these cultural shifts, Yves Saint Laurent (1936–2008) upheld couture traditions but revolutionized fashion with his inventive, elegant reinterpretations of street styles and menswear garments and his sophisticated but youthful ready-to-wear designs.
The pieces on view here illustrate the ways in which historical modes of dress shaped the diverse creations of significant designers. During the 1950s and 1960s, master couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) created dresses with abstract, modern silhouettes that reveal the influence of both the sculptural, voluminous costumes represented in 17th-century Spanish paintings and the simple lines of ecclesiastical dress.
Vivienne Westwood (born 1941), whose punk designs of the 1970s represent an early and important example of deconstructionist fashion, turned increasingly to historical sources notably fashions from the 17th to the 19th century for inspiration as her work evolved from the 1980s onward.
In the contemporary sphere, The Costume Institute focuses on acquiring works of great artistic merit that move fashion forward and represent new ways of thinking about dress. Designers such as Hussein Chalayan (born 1970) and Alexander McQueen (1969–2010) have expanded our understanding of fashion by challenging the boundaries of wearability and using clothing as a medium for the expression of ideas about contemporary culture and identity.
Martin Margiela (born 1957) has similarly advanced the field through his deconstructivist approach to design. His work not only reveals normally hidden construction details that speak to the process of a garment's creation but also examines the broader fashion system. Through his Artisanal line, he has questioned some of the foundational principles of traditional haute couture by creating pieces that are customized and skillfully crafted but incorporate found or recycled materials instead of luxury ones.
Clothing's essential relationship to the body, on the other hand, has been reconceived by designers such as Yohji Yamamoto (born 1943) and Issey Miyake (born 1938) through their inventive experimentation with materials and silhouettes.
In January 2016, Harold Koda retired after 15 years as curator in charge of The Costume Institute. Through innovative and compelling exhibitions, he elevated our collective understanding of fashion as an art form. Koda's presentations were shaped by his belief in the power of dialogue between past and present the idea that the artistry of the past can be enlivened by that of the present day and that the significance of contemporary work is clarified when it is anchored in a broader historical narrative. This influential approach was complemented by Koda's passionate dedication to building the collection. Through exemplary connoisseurship, he strengthened the department's holdings with landmark acquisitions, including the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, which found a new home at The Met in 2009.
In recognition of Koda's lasting contributions to the study of fashion, Andrew Bolton, curator in charge, and Met Trustee Anna Wintour approached more than 30 designers with requests for selected works from their archives to be donated to The Costume Institute. Each of the pieces was admired by Koda and has a particular resonance with the existing collection. Presented in this gallery is a selection of the donations, shown in conversation with earlier acquisitions.
Viktor & Rolf (Dutch, founded 1993). Ball gown, spring/summer 2010. Synthetic, silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2011 (2011.8)